Art was his profession, music his passion
By Marcy Stamper
The exuberantly creative life of musician, artist and all-around free spirit Brad Pinkerton was celebrated by more than 100 of his friends last week.
“Brad made me feel welcome. He was appreciative, caring, playful, open-hearted and very funny,” his friend Oori Silberstein told the gathering on Friday night (Jan. 6) at the Rocking Horse Bakery in Winthrop.
Several of Brad’s friends emphasized the complexity of his persona. “He was also a paradox — he was creative and rabidly curious but, at the same time, difficult and a curmudgeon,” said Silberstein.
Brad first came to Winthrop in 1995 when he was commissioned to paint a mural. Over the next few months, he met a lot of people and sold a lot of artwork and decided to stay. He lived in the valley for most of the next two decades, spending a few years on the Washington coast. He died in Idaho on Dec. 22 at age 64.
Although Brad made a living through his art — in large part, by painting signs and murals with a Western theme throughout Winthrop — his deepest passion was for music.
“Brad gave music — he lived music. That was his passion,” said Phil Woras, who often played music with Brad.
Steve and Teresa Mitchell, who own the Rocking Horse Bakery that now occupies the space where Brad once had his sign shop, hosted the celebration. Brad used to stop by on Sunday mornings to play his mandolin for bakery customers, said Steve. “The sound would just emanate from the walls,” he said.
As a fitting tribute to the man who started the North Cascades Old Time Fiddlers Contest in the late 1990s, many of the musicians who played with Brad were on hand, including John Almquist, Paul Gitchos, Peter Neitlich, Steve Hirsch, Leah Kominak and Lynette Westendorf.
Once a cowboy
Others contributed photos for a slide show of Brad and his handiwork. Brad’s ornamented letters and logos live on in signs throughout the Methow Valley (and beyond), including on Winthrop Ace Hardware, the Shafer Historical Museum and the storefront of Winthrop Mountain Sports. He also carved wooden signs, such as the long-in-the-tooth walrus that adorns the Family Health Centers dental clinic in Twisp.
Brad grew up on a ranch in western Colorado, worked as a cowboy from age 17 to 33, and absorbed the arts of sign painting and old-timey music from veteran practitioners.
“I’m the last one on the planet to do lettering by hand,” he once said of the technique he learned decades ago from “an old Wobbly sign painter.”
“There’s no reason to hand-paint a sign any more,” he admitted in an interview some 10 years ago. “You can point a cursor at a grid and make lettering to cover a semi-trailer truck, but fortunately people still want hand-painted signs.”
“I loved to watch him draw or write — his hand was so steady, so clean, in anything he wrote, even a grocery list,” said Westendorf.
Still, Brad’s most enduring enthusiasm was for music. He played guitar, mandolin and mandola (a larger mandolin), ukulele, stand-up bass and tenor banjo. He could also yodel.
“My biggest joy in life is playing music with my friends,” he once said. He regularly made the rounds of all the fiddle contests in the Northwest.
True to his iconoclastic nature, when Brad started the fiddle contest in Winthrop, he eliminated the rules that were common at other contests. His contest also welcomed musicians on just about any instrument, including those not traditionally heard in old-time music, such as the tuba.
“We started to show you could have a fun fiddle contest without all the pissy, uptight rules,” he said.
The fiddle contest was prized for another Pinkerton tradition — a giant insect contest, where kids were encouraged to bring in bugs in a wide range of categories, including the biggest and the creepiest.
“I wanted to help kids get over their squeamishness over handling bugs. There aren’t many who will bite you,” Brad said.
“Brad was a example of what it meant to be a full human being,” said Silberstein.