Growing up as a boy, Fred Fellows always knew he wanted to be a cowboy and always knew he wanted to be an artist.
For several decades now, 77-year-old Fellows, a former Bigfork resident, has been making it as both.
In February, Fellows traveled to Cartersville, Ga., where he was presented a lifetime achievement award in Western art by the Booth Museum of Western Art.
Fellows joined Western artists Howard Terpning, Ken Riley and G. Harvey, the only other artists who have been presented the award.
“I’m proud to be in their footsteps,” Fellows said about the award and the other artists it has been given to. “It was really a humbling experience.”
His statue, “An Honest Day’s Work,” stands outside the 120,000-square-foot museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and the country’s largest permanent exhibit space for Western art.
Many of his paintings are on display inside the museum and in other museums around the country.
BORN IN Ponca City, Okla., in 1934, Fellows loved the West from a young age and had an early knack for drawing. He said he grew up with stories about how his grandpa headed to Nevada in search of gold in 1905 and how his grandma’s brother rode with Buffalo Bill in the 101 Ranch Wild West Show.
When Fellows was nine, he and his parents joined the tail end of an Oklahoma exodus that followed the dust bowl trail to California. Growing up there, he learned to handle horses and rope cattle and apprenticed with a saddle maker.
After graduating from high school, Fellows refined his drawing at the Art Center School in Los Angeles and started working in the aircraft industry, first as a commercial artist and later as art director for Northrop Aircraft. Fellows said he enjoyed the work but longed to be “cowboy free” and try painting on his own.
He spent some time trying to find that dream in the arts community in Taos, N.M., but eventually ran out of money. He returned to Los Angeles to save up some more and in 1964 moved to Woods Bay near Bigfork, where he would spend 40 years of his life and realize his dream of becoming a full-time artist.
IT WASN’T an easy dream to accomplish. Back in those days there weren’t plentiful art galleries in Bigfork or the rest of the Flathead Valley. With a wife and five children to support, Fellows traded his early paintings to pay for groceries and doctor bills and acquire guns and other things that he could sell.
“I’d go to the Kalispell and Missoula gun shows with my paintings and trade them for guns, and then I’d sell the guns,” Fellows said.
Montana’s long, snowy winters helped keep Fellows painting in his studio. But he and his first wife also worked on their cowboy way of life, going to ride in rodeos and doing as much roping as they could.
By the late 1960s, Fellows’ paintings were selling regionally and in larger markets as he built a name for himself. In 1969, he was asked to join the Cowboy Artists of America. Today he’s one of the group’s longest-running members.
In the years since, his drawings and paintings of the West have been put on display in museums around the country and have appeared in many magazines, including Western Horseman Magazine, Western Art Collector, Southwest Art, Art of the Rockies and Newsweek.
His monuments can be found across the country, from the Ruger Corporation in Prescott, Ariz., to McNeese State University in St. Charles, La., and the University of Texas in Midland, Texas.
His largest, nearly 30 feet long and 20 feet tall, is the Paniolo Monument in Waimea, Hawaii. It shows Ikua Purdy roping a bull. The famous Hawaiian cowboy won the steer roping world championship in Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1908.
FELLOWS’ FIRST wife died in 1989. He later married Deborah Copenhaver Fellows, also an accomplished artist and something of a cowgirl. The couple moved to Sonoita, Ariz., a small town just north of Mexico, in 2000.
“We just got tired of digging our horse trailer out of the snow to go to a friend’s arena down in Polson, and standing around by the barrel stove staying warm,” Fellows said.
His son still lives in Bigfork and a daughter lives in Whitefish. Fellows still makes it back to the Flathead Valley, where most of his friends are. He’ll be headed back up sometime this month with another two projects ready for Kalispell Art Casting.
At 77 years old, Fellows is still working away at his art. And the cowboy life is going pretty good, too.
He and his wife have their own arena, roping cattle, and two head horses and two heel horses. And after trading some artwork for a well-known stallion and buying a mare at auction in New Mexico, they now have 13 quarter horses, which they breed and break.
Their new spread is surrounded by Arizona’s historic Empire Ranch, which sprawls for tens of thousands of acres in a part of the Southwest where you still can’t see a single light at night except for the moon and stars.
And when Fellows isn’t in his studio painting and honing that craft, he’s still out trying to enjoy the cowboy life.
“I roped 21 head of steers the other day and only missed one. That one was my fault. I got too close. But I think I can still go head to head,” he said.
Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at email@example.com.
Booth Museum of Western Art Executive Director Seth Hopkins presents the Booth Lifetime Achievement Award to artist Fred Fellows.