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Famed Western artist and Puyallup icon Fred Oldfield is dead at age 98

“Solitude” by Tacoma’s Western artist Fred Oldfield.
“Solitude” by Tacoma’s Western artist Fred Oldfield. Courtesy

Fred Oldfield, Western painter, cowboy and Puyallup icon, has died just three weeks before his 99th birthday.

The landscape and mural artist who founded the Western art center bearing his name at the Washington State Fair Events Center died Friday in hospice care.

Oldfield’s daughter Joella, director of the Fred Oldfield Western Heritage and Art Center in Puyallup, said the artist’s 99th birthday fundraiser would go ahead as planned March 17 and a memorial would follow in late spring.

“Nothing was more important to him than a place for the kids to learn about art and the Old West,” said Joella Oldfield on Facebook. “There are no words, just no words, to express the loss of the most amazing daddy, grandfather, husband, friend, artist and Gramps to hundreds of children.’

“I am filled with gratitude for the blessing of so many years, days, hours and moments filled with extraordinary memories. … he touched so many lives.”

“Fred Oldfield was a Tacoma institution and an artist to the core,” said Faith Brower, Haub curator of Western American art at Tacoma Art Museum. The museum in 2015 exhibited one of Oldfield’s works in the Haub wing.

“He taught thousands of people to love and appreciate art, both through his own paintings and his classes and demonstrations at the Fred Oldfield Center,” Brower said. “Tacoma’s art community has lost a unique and wonderful character.”

Born March 18, 1918, in Toppenish on the Yakima Indian Reservation, Oldfield grew up in a cowhand family, traveling the West in a horse-drawn wagon. At 17 he discovered his artistic talent when he painted a thistle on a bunkhouse wall, complete with faux frame and nail, and began a side career selling paintings of horses, cowboys and Western landscapes, often done on discarded wood or linoleum.

After serving in the Army in World War II, Oldfield attended art school and began painting full time at age 40. In addition to traditional canvas paintings, Oldfield also painted murals, many of them in Toppenish, including one more than 100 feet long portraying Haller’s Defeat, a local battle won by Native Americans. Oldfield kept riding for most of his life.

In 2002, Oldfield founded the Western Heritage and Art Center near the Red Gate at the fairgrounds, teaching year-round art classes and painting in Western gear and cowboy hat. Many of his light-filled works were also displayed there. For more than 20 years the artist spent several months ahead of the state fair painting works that would be auctioned off, typically around $4,000-$5,000, to fund college scholarships for local students.

“I love it during the fair,” he told The News Tribune for a 2015 story. “It’s my vacation.”

Over his life, Oldfield has been the subject of six books, at least one cowboy song and the public television series “Painting the West with Fred Oldfield” (2007).

Oldfield is survived by three children, six grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren, although he touched many more lives by his teaching and love of art.

“Fred Oldfield holds a special place in my heart as he has always encouraged me to continue painting,” Northwest artist Kris Ellen Jenott posted on Facebook. “His words of encouragement meant an awful lot to me. He truly is a wonderful individual with a big heart and a God given gift of tremendous artistic talent.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

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