He who laughs, lasts: Fred Tieken on art, music, and community

Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, January 2020 Issue.

When Fred Tieken

faced end-stage renal disease, a kind of advanced kidney failure, he started

painting. That might not be the usual reaction to such a dire prognosis, but

Tieken never cared much for conventions. Whether as a musician, record producer

and graphic designer in the past, or now as a painter, gallery owner and

philanthropist, Tieken continues coloring outside the lines. Through it all has

been his wife, Gail Tieken, who is also a partner, manager and literal

lifesaver. In 2011, she gave him one of her kidneys. His first painting — which

hangs in their Paradise Valley gallery but is not for sale — commemorates their

twin surgeries and love story.

An exterior shot of Tieken Gallery in Paradise Valley.

Nearly a decade on, Tieken has produced

over 250 paintings exhibited in over 60 one-man shows and juried exhibitions.

Galleries from Germany to Miami to LA have shown his works, as well as venues

across the Valley such as the Icehouse and monOrchid. He still draws inspiration

from real-life events — as he did in that first painting — using humor to cope

with challenges personal and public. The painting “My Fluffy Cat Exploded!” is

a recent example. In it, a flaming black cat leaps diagonally across a

multi-colored background. The incorporation of text is another hallmark of his

playful style. In addition to the work’s title, a sub-feline addendum reads:

“but I’m happy ‘cause he’s OK!” Tieken, a big supporter of animal welfare, said

this was to assure viewers that no cats were harmed in the work’s creation.

A painting by Fred Tieken inspired by a Girls Rock! Phoenix performance. Photo courtesy of Fred Tieken.

A band of young ladies performing at the

2019 Girls Rock Camp Showcase at The Pressroom in June were the painting’s

muses. The Tiekens sponsored the main stage for that event, which was the

culmination of the nonprofit Girls Rock! Phoenix’s most recent weeklong summer

camp. Tieken plans to offer the painting for sale, with the proceeds

benefitting the volunteer-run organization. “I think the concept of that

whole Girls Rock is very unique in a way that it exposes children to

music, and they have so much fun,” Tieken said. “When I heard that song,

it just inspired me to put her words on canvas.”

Other causes the Tiekens support through a

private foundation include the Arizona Humane Society, the Arizona Animal

Welfare League & SPCA, and Rescue Train, an LA-based animal rescue

organization. More than just donors, the couple adopted an abused Chihuahua mix

from the latter group. When they first got Chia, the dog had no hair and

couldn’t walk. Today, Chia is hirsute and healthy as he barks beneath a

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting hanging in the couple’s home. Nearby are a work

by Pablo Picasso and one by Keith Haring. Art is everywhere in Tieken’s home,

studio and in the separate building behind that holds Tieken Gallery.   

Fred Tieken’s first painting.

Opened in late 2015, the gallery is between

shows for the next few months. It currently serves as overflow art storage, a

frequent necessity for the ever collecting and creating couple. Tieken often

integrates elements of collage into his paintings. He sometimes attaches

photographs of items he finds at rummage sales to canvases, or even affixes the

ephemera itself. Inside the gallery, huge paintings hang above smaller ones —

carefully propped against the wall below — which have returned from a recent

exhibition. A rust-colored sawhorse crowned with a hemp-horned cattle skull

stands beside a table topped with spindly robots. The droids are sculptures by

Sabine Meyer Zu Reckendorf, who studied design in Muenster, Germany and worked

as a special effects engineer in Hollywood. She participated in a recent joint

exhibition with Tieken at his Paradise Valley gallery. That show ran from April

28 through May 19. Reckendorf recycles industrial and consumer items into

playful mechanical sculptures. Tieken shared 16 works from his Brainstorm

Series, which he made while recuperating from a stroke.


unable to paint, Tieken photographed patterns such as the many generations of

paint splatter on his easel. He used a computer program to rework the images

into digital collages. For another project not yet completed, he has printed

off scores of faces culled from previous works. His paintings are episodic,

sometimes possessing a comic book-like aesthetic including panels and text

bubbles. This new piece will tie together the many characters dreamed up to

populate his artistic universe. The most prominent of these is Uno, a cute but

somewhat dystopian bird. Uno has appeared in many of Tieken’s paintings, on

stickers, as a human-sized statue in the gallery and may one day even have his

own book. “He’s a GMO [genetically-modified organism] bird. He has one

leg, no wings, but he can skateboard,” Tieken explained. “Now, he’s got

a girlfriend. They’re thinking of having kids, or birds.”

Gail and Fred Tieken in front of one of Fred’s paintings in his home studio.

However many adventures may lay before Uno,

they’re unlikely to match the numerous exploits of his creator. Long before he

picked up a brush, he played saxophone as a professional musician and worked as

a draftsman. First as The Freddie Tieken Combo and then as Freddie Tieken &

The Rockers, he toured throughout the Midwest with musicians like Pat Boone and

The Big Bopper. Then Tieken made music that marched to a different beat, as now

he makes art that reflects his enduring sense of child-like wonderment.

At 84,

Tieken is ready for whatever life throws at him because his flank is always

supported — inside and out — by Gail, his wife and manager for nearly half a

century. “We were always different. I mean, I don’t paint like everybody

else. Our music wasn’t like everybody else, but we always seem to

bring in people that liked it,” Tieken said. “So, a lot of hard

work and a lot of luck. You can be pretty out there and accepted, if

you work hard at it.”

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