Art That Sings Fred Tieken and Tieken Gallery
Writer Shannon Severson
Photo credit A.O. Tucker
The art of Fred Tieken is wild, freewheeling, frequently cheeky and often accented with a dose of pop culture commentary. It feels like a visual embodiment of jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, which makes perfect sense when you learn a bit more about the artist. Music is where it all started for Fred, who, along with his wife, Gail, continues to make an impact on the art world with the Tieken Gallery, which just so happens to be in their backyard.
The Tiekens have always been art collectors and major supporters of art in Phoenix and Los Angeles. They now have a gallery in Paradise Valley and a Tieken Studio in Venice, California. The original idea was to construct a guest house in the backyard of their Arizona home, but the concept soon transformed, and Tieken Gallery was born.
“We were ready to meet with architect Andy Byrnes, and I thought we’d probably use a gallery a whole lot more often than a guest house,” says Gail. “It’s really great if collectors want to come and do a little tour. It might be Fred’s work or the work of other artists that is displayed.”
The glass, metal and concrete gallery is light and airy, with movable walls. The northern glass facade opens onto the pool deck, where the Tiekens host openings in the cooler months. The yard is filled with intriguing sculptures, some by Fred and others by a variety of artists, including a bronze by the late Native American sculptor, Allan Houser. The gallery officially opened in November 2015 and featured what is now known as “The Arizona 45,” which showcased 44 artists from all over Arizona (as well as one of Fred’s works.)
“Our shows primarily feature other artists, and we try to focus on international shows and things you couldn’t ordinarily see in this area,” says Gail. “What really sets this gallery apart is our ability to utilize the outdoors for our openings.”
Fred’s journey as an artist didn’t begin with a paintbrush, though he’s always loved to draw. It began with music. Born in Illinois during the Great Depression, his love of music was stoked by visits to his grandparents’ farm, where the family would play and sing, and by summers spent at his grandma Lillie’s apartment, which was next door to a honky-tonk tavern. On weekends, the music would waft up through the windows, and he notes that his grandma never minded the noise. By age 12, Fred was performing on clarinet with local musicians. After he discovered the saxophone in high school, it wasn’t long before he had formed his own combo, Freddie Tieken’s Four Stars.
The rest became music history as he continued playing with and forming his own successful bands, including Freddie Tieken and the Rockers, which traveled the Midwest, listening to and performing with some of the jazz greats of the time. They released their single, “Sittin’ Here Cryin’,” and it climbed to No. 24 on the Billboard R&B chart. The band began appearing on television, and traveled the country as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars road show.
In the ensuing decades, music was the center of Fred’s life. He was always thinking of new ways to reach more fans and evolve his sound. His love of entertaining was the driving force behind all his hard work. From jazz to bebop, from R&B to rock, Fred and a slew of talented musicians and friends had great success recording, performing and experiencing the many adventures that come along with the life of a musician. Even today, Fred loves listening to music as inspiration while he paints.
“I like to listen to bebop and Miles Davis,” says Fred, “and I love Charlie Parker. [Jean-Michel] Basquiat used to listen to him when he painted. I listen to him a lot. It’s that really cool bebop, up-tempo late at night when you’re painting. Boy, it just sinks right in.”
Music is ultimately what brought him and Gail together, and they’ve now been married for more than 40 years. They first met when she was working at a music store, and their paths crossed several times over the years before they married. An accomplished saxophonist and music lover, Gail went on to become a booking agent, and she and Fred became successful partners in multiple industries, eventually moving from Quincy, Illinois to Chicago. The two operated recording studios, record labels, talent management and an advertising, graphic design and photography agency. Fred’s artistic talents were put to work designing album covers, and they loved discovering and promoting bands of all musical styles.
“The whole thing was really intertwined,” says Fred. “We did a lot of rock album covers and posters. Then, we started promoting bands. We worked with a lot of bands on their way up.”
A little piece of this time lives on in their backyard gallery: a door, tucked away and signed by all the artists who have visited, just like the one the Tiekens remember at Chess Recording Studios. It was covered in signatures by famed recording artists, including the Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry.
By the early 1980s, Fred and Gail shifted from the music business to offering design and graphic services to corporate clients. During a particularly harsh Chicago winter in 1986, a trip to Phoenix convinced them that it was time to leave Chicago for warmer climes. Fred and Gail established their successful agency in Phoenix and experienced award-winning successes until they decided to sell their business and retire in 2001.
In 2010, Fred received a life-changing diagnosis from his doctors. His chronic kidney disease had compromised him to such an extent that dialysis was the next step. In his mid-70s, Fred wasn’t a candidate for the transplant list unless he could find his own donor. Miraculously, tests revealed that Gail was a match. The surgeons were incredulous, but after repeated tests for confirmation, her kidney was successfully transplanted into Fred in January 2011. The emotions surrounding the process prompted Fred to begin painting.
“The reason I started taking painting seriously is because I wanted to paint how I thought it would be,” says Fred. “I thought about it all the time anyway, so I thought, ‘What the hell? I might as well paint it.’”
His first painting, “Pass The Mayo,” uses multiple mediums to express the seriousness and humor of the situation.
He hasn’t stopped painting since. His home studio is filled with completed paintings, works in progress and a great sound system. He paints whenever inspiration strikes, often late into the evening.
“Sometimes I’ll go to bed and the next morning, there will be a painting I haven’t seen before,” says Gail.
Fred primarily paints with acrylic on canvas, but also on materials such as metal, cardboard and recycled paper. His work is bursting with color and much of it is three-dimensional, with tongue-in-cheek humor, idioms and word play. It’s been said that he brings the intensity of street art inside. Some pieces have movable parts or invite the user to interact for full effect, with buttons to be pushed or levers to move. It’s a window into Fred’s mind as his inner voice takes flight across the canvas. He sketches ideas on small scraps of paper, and they await the spark of inspiration that will bring them to life. Just as in music, his ideas for paintings transpose as they progress.
“The pieces usually end up differently than my original thought,” says Fred. “Half the time, I start with words, and the painting goes from there. Other times, the pieces begin with the images and the words are what I feel as I paint.”
Many of Fred’s canvases have layers of paintings beneath. When he doesn’t like how a painting is going, he paints something new over the top.
“I just call it texture,” says Fred.
He draws inspiration from neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso and African masks. Quite a few of his paintings have a distinctly modern-tribal feel.
“Picasso was a big fan of African art, as was Basquiat,” says Fred. “They’re two of my favorite artists. There’s no-holds-barred with masks; you can do anything you want. I can paint realistically, but I figure I’ll just take a picture if I want something realistic.”
Fred’s work has been featured in dozens of exhibitions and received multiple awards. He’s recently been honored to work with the Artlink Phoenix organization, both as an artist and as a juror. His “Uno” series, depicting the life and times of a genetically-modified bird with one leg and no wings, was featured at Los Angeles’ Latitude 33 gallery this past summer. “Uno in Love” was chosen as a 2016 TAG California Open Exhibition pick. It’s at once an approachable story and a commentary on the dangers of GMOs. Always successful partners, Gail manages Fred’s art career and the gallery, and their connection to the artistic community has afforded them many opportunities to collaborate with other artists and showcase Fred’s work.
The future is bright and busy for this dynamic, creative duo. At least a dozen of Fred’s pieces will be on display in downtown Phoenix’s new boutique Found:Re Hotel. They anticipate shows in Phoenix, Miami and Los Angeles over the next year, and the Tieken Gallery here in Paradise Valley will host at least three shows this winter.
What the Tiekens truly value are the connections that art has afforded them. Though they’re no longer in the music business, they’re orchestrating a different kind of symphony — pulling people together, creating art and, in a very personal way, they are still discovering, promoting and enjoying the ride.