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Pawhuska Chamber unveils Cameron Free painting

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Pawhuska celebrated the centennial of Oklahoma statehood with enthusiasm in 2007. There was food, including Indian tacos; there was also a variety of types of live music. And yes, there was a parade of scores of what a schedule of events described as "1,700-pound trained Longhorns."

The date was May 5, 2007, and the 1,700-pound super cattle were scheduled to grace Kihekah Avenue with their best bovine moves at 5 p.m. By that time, celebrants would have gorged themselves on pancakes and tacos and more, and set admiring eyes on antique automobiles, floats, at least one beauty queen and thousands of each other.

This past Thursday, the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce held a much more modest, but nonetheless refreshing, outdoor gathering on the Chamber grounds to celebrate the unveiling of a new oil painting by Osage County artist Cameron Free. Mr. Free's creation features the Longhorns on Kihekah Avenue, set against a background of the city's historic architecture.

Jeff Bute, president of the Chamber's board, announced that bids would immediately be taken for 99 prints of the oil painting (prints numbered 2-100). The prints were 24-by-36 inches in size, slightly smaller than the original, which Free and Bute said was 32-by-40.

The sale of the prints served as a fundraiser for the Chamber, which has been unable to hold other fundraiser events in 2020 because of concerns about the transmission of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Bute paid tribute to the community leaders who organized Pawhuska's celebration of the Oklahoma Centennial.

"There was a great group of leaders that put on what I consider to be a landmark event for our community," Bute said. Print No. 1 of Free's painting has been reserved, with the idea being to offer it to the public at the Chamber's next gala event, early in 2021, Bute said.

Free, 35, who comes from a noted local artistic family, said the painting was a first for him in that he had not previously painted a cityscape image with people in it.

"I normally do horses and cowboys. This was a new deal for me," he said. Free said he had worked in the foundry established by his late grandfather, John D. Free, and had been involved with sculpture projects, but he said painting is currently his primary interest.

"That's all I want to do right now," Cameron Free said.

Bute said the original plan had been to hold an unveiling for the painting during Cattlemen's Week, in June. Free met all deadlines regarding the painting, but it wasn't possible to hold the unveiling as early as the Chamber had hoped.

Bute credited rancher Ron Reed, one of the organizers of the centennial celebration, with bringing the idea for the painting to the Chamber. Bute also voiced excitement about having the painting done by Free.

"He's clearly going to be a rising talent in the art world," Bute said. "Proof's in the pudding there."

Bute also commented to the assembled guests that the Chamber hopes to be able to arrange for the original of the painting to be displayed at the Oklahoma Capitol. Two members of the local state legislative delegation -- Sen. Bill Coleman and Rep. Jud Strom -- were on-hand for the unveiling.

Bute pointed out that the painting intentionally changes the route of the parade of Longhorn steers along Kihekah Avenue. In the actual centennial parade, the steers walked from north to south. In the painting, they're walking from south to north, which allowed Free an opportunity to better highlight downtown Pawhuska architecture -- for instance, the Triangle Building.

The steers were just one element of a multifaceted Centennial event on May 5, 2007. A Pawhuska Journal-Capital news story from that time cited "unofficial estimates" that "somewhere in the area of 5,000 people parked along Kihekah and Main streets to witness one of the town's biggest parades in several years."

Mike McCartney, Chamber director at the time, was quoted saying, "Our best guess for the number of people on Kihekah for the parade is right around three to four thousand. Then we had at least 1,000 more on Main Street. It was just awesome."

A schedule of events from May 5, 2007 shows that centennial celebration events began at 7 a.m., with free pancakes at the Community Center, prepared by Boy Scout Troop 33.

The centennial celebration was planned in detail, with $45,000 in donations solicited from businesses, nonprofit organizations and Pawhuska city government. The budget included, among many other items, $6,000 for the Longhorns and $1,969 for insurance in case it rained. It did not rain, and the excitement went on throughout the day and well into the evening.

Free's painting will now serve as a memorial to that day of expressions of Oklahoma pride, and to the transit along Kihekah Avenue of a herd of Longhorns.

Reed said there were 100 Longhorns in all, and added that he checked that number with other persons involved in organizing the Centennial event, and they confirmed it. Reed said had checked and found that no other Oklahoma city appeared to have done quite what Pawhuska did to stage a community activity like the parade of Longhorns in honor of the completion of the state's first century.

CORRECTION: The print edition version of this story, published in the Oct. 14 newspaper, incorrectly stated the date of the unveiling of the painting. The unveiling took place Thursday, Oct. 8, and not Friday, Oct. 9.