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Fred Cleveland is a member of the Bitter Water and Kayonnie clans. He was born in a hogan on the Navajo Reservation near Ganado, Arizona where his family raised sheep. He was first exposed to art when he watched his mother weave rugs and his father, who created images in the curative process of sand painting. He left the reservation for a time when his mother taught weaving at Arizona State College in Flagstaff. She could not afford a babysitter and as he sat close by her in the classroom, students would pass him pencils and paper to work with and keep him busy. This was his introduction to a means of expression that he has used ever since. At Toyei Boarding School in Arizona he painted a mural, and during his army experience in Germany did murals as part of his KP duty.
Cleveland remained a basically self-taught artist until he and three other Native American artists, Ted Draper, Jimmy Abeita, and Sammy Sandoval, went away to study for a year and a half at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. He has continued to paint Native American subjects of his tribe as well as other tribes whom he has visited.