Fred Oldfield spoke to Mark and Erin Wheeler before they knew they were listening.
They had never owned an original oil painting, and had never thought of themselves as art collectors. Then, on a visit to The Western Washington Fair four years ago, they strolled through the Fred Oldfield Western Heritage & Art Center at the Red Gate and saw “The Last Weary Mile.”
The image of the man walking his horse toward a cabin in the snow struck them in a way no painting ever had. They were newly wed. They had met in a country bar and were drawn to country music and, in that instant, Western art. He's a truck driver. She works in a bank. They are not rich, and yet the painting kept calling them to drive to Tacoma from their farmhouse in Everett.
A year later, they asked Oldfield if they could buy it.
“He wouldn't sell it, because it was his wife's favorite,” Mark Wheeler said.
Oldfield's wife, Alice, had died in 2001, and he would not part with the painting. But he would make prints of it. When the Wheelers came back the next time, they took home the last of the 40, gave it pride of place and saved toward someday buying an original.
Every time they visited the center, they learned a little more about Oldfield, and saw his past speak up in his paintings.
He's done just about every job the hard West offers. He's run traplines, picked potatoes, wrangled all manner of livestock, ridden roundups and led trail rides.
Born into a dirt-poor family in 1918, he grew up moving on often with them in a covered wagon. Just home from serving in the Army in Alaska in World War II, he took his blind cousin to a bar for a drink in Toppenish, where the police arrested them both for laughing too much. He had it coming. Oldfield is a man of endurance, optimism, a hearty sense of humor and an extra measure of kindness.
This year, at the Washington State Fair, the Wheelers learned one new thing about Fred Oldfield: He's still a man of modest means, because he gives so much of his work to support charities' good works. He's auctioned paintings and sold prints to support kidney disease research, Emergency Food Network, the Fair's scholarships. He figures he's given about half a million dollars that way. People who've counted put the figure at close to $1 million.
It was a scholarship that brought the Wheelers back. Erin's daughter, who loved school, especially Washington State University, died after a car crash early this year. They wanted to make a gift to honor her memory. At the fair this year, Oldfield put a painting up for silent auction to benefit the scholarship fund.
This, the Wheelers decided, would have pleased Stephanie.
“Not only could we have a painting, but we could be a part of something bigger,” Mark said of their decision to bid high enough to send a student to college for a year.
This weekend, Fred Oldfield will be up to his generous tricks again.
He is the star, the warm heart at the center of the annual Celebration of Western & Wildlife Art Show & Sale he and his daughter Joella stage at the Puyallup fairgrounds.
The show opens Friday, with free parking and free admission all weekend. Friday and Saturday evening will feature a reception, live music, a silent auction, a one-hour quick draw and auctioneer Steve Mitzner charming the restraints off of credit cards in a live auction.
That's the money part. Artists need money.
The element that sets this show apart is the warmth.
Artists delight in answering questions, talking about their work and hearing about what the people they've met at previous shows have been up to. Artists tell about the causes they've been supporting, including teaching kids about art at the Oldfield Center.
This is a show of hugs, remembered names, kidding, and lots of laughter. It's a show tailor-made for people who, like the Wheelers, listen to the chord art strikes in their hearts.