Fred Tieken

Marilyn HawkesApril 2016
Share This

Artist Fred Tieken’s work springs from social commentary and the farcical aspects of modern culture – that, and his progression from Illinois farm boy to touring rock ‘n’ roll saxophonist, singer and bandleader during the 1950s. Tieken, 80, also draws from his years as a recording studio owner and creative director of a top Chicago design firm. About five years ago, Tieken’s health declined and he was faced with dialysis three to four times a week. Luckily, his wife Gail turned out to be a perfect kidney donor match. Just before the surgery, Tieken “got the bug” to start painting. The self-taught artist paints canvases that explode with colorful images, witty text and biting cultural observations. At last count, he’s produced about 260 paintings and shown at myriad galleries nationwide. In late 2015, he and Gail opened the Tieken Gallery on the property of their Paradise Valley home.

What is your artistic process?

I wake up in the middle of the night to sketch. Other times I’ll have a title or a keyword [or phrase] like “A backbiter and an ass kisser walked into a bar.” I come up with the name and then paint it. A lot of painters paint several paintings at the same time, but I just allow for one painting and play with it until it’s done. And then I’ll start another one.

What kind of paint do you use?

I paint with acrylic. I like a lot of texture and make sure that I use good quality paint because it will lay down a lot better. Sometimes I’ll sneak a little oil in and sometimes even a little house paint, whatever’s handy. I like to experiment a lot. I paint on cardboard sometimes and usually end up mounting it to a canvas. I like my paintings thick and texturized. You can get that really easy with oil, but I like acrylic paint because I don’t have much patience. I can’t wait for it to dry.

How long does it usually take you to finish a painting?

That varies a lot. If I get that groove, I can get one out in a day or two. But sometimes the smallest size will take a week and then I’ll go back and look at it and it’s not working, so I’ll white it all out and start again. When I was a graphic designer I had to stay so clean, everything had a lot of white space, the message clear and quick, and I’m revolting against all that. I think outside the lines. 

What’s your favorite story from the road as a rock musician?

In the early days we used our cars and pulled trailers. We were heading down the road, going to Iowa for some gig, and there were probably a dozen cars from our hometown following us. It was snowing and I’m sure it was 10 below zero at least. We looked out the side window and there was our trailer going alongside of us. It went down into a big ditch. The whole gang of people coming behind us drove right on past. All the equipment worked, except my saxophone got all bent up. We were playing at a high school so I made an announcement to see if anybody had a key to the music room. Someone had a beginner’s sax and somehow we honked our way through that show.

For more than 50 years, PHOENIX magazine's experienced writers, editors, and designers have captured all sides of the Valley with award-winning and insightful writing, and groundbreaking report and design. Our expository features, narratives, profiles, and investigative features keep our 385,000 readers in touch with the Valley's latest trends, events, personalities and places.