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

Artist Fred Tieken in Tieken Gallery.

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.

Temporarily 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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