Fred Tieken‘s history as a professional musician, record label owner, music producer and design firm owner gives him plenty of stories to tell, but these days, he’s using paint and canvases to spread deep messages through his colorful, illustrative works. The 79-year-old Paradise Valley resident has only been painting since 2010 after retiring from the design world, but he’s already been a part of more than 40 art shows and has a second home and art studio in Venice, California.
Tieken and his wife and manager, Gail, are currently building a home gallery for his and guest exhibitions, as well as special events such as concerts and poetry readings, which they hope to have open by fall. You can check out his work now at Willo North Gallery in Phoenix through Saturday, March 28, in his solo show For the Birds, and he’ll be present for a reception there this Friday, March 20 from 6-9 p.m. He’s also gearing up for a solo show May 19 through June 9 at Agora Gallery in New York.
Learn more about the artist, who has played in more than 3,500 musical performances as a vocalist and saxophonist, as well as owned IT Records, ATA Studios and Phoenix design firm Tieken Design & Creative Services, better here. You can also watch a video of Tieken naming his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
My wife Gail and I got tired of scraping ice off the windshield in Chicago, where we had lived for 10 years. We had visited Phoenix and came back one more time and bought a place. We were among the first people to live downtown in a new development, Renaissance Park. We liked it a lot but kept expanding.
When we first moved here, I brought my business here and worked out of my condo for awhile before going to the New Times building in Phoenix after outgrowing it. After we outgrew that, we moved on to Central Avenue in Phoenix two different times and kept growing and needing more room. The graphic design business was really good to us, and we had some Fortune 500 companies we did a lot of work for.
I was born in Meyer, Illinois.
What inspires your painting?
I just get it from inside. It just comes to me. You take an idea, run with it, and about halfway through, you change it. That’s the way I paint. I do a lot of over-paint if I don’t like the way it turned out.
Why did you decide to turn to painting full time?
After selling our design firm, I got into cars for awhile and really enjoyed going to car shows, but it was sort of getting a little boring for me. Gail gave me her kidney after I was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in 2010, which is what inspired me to start painting. My first painting was Pass the Mayo, of the operating room and the kidney transplant. It was pretty close to the real thing, and everybody said they really liked it. I had illustration skills I wanted to bring back, and even though my art experience had been in commercial art, it was still art.
I took the excitement from the operation being really major, and the painting really calmed both of us. I said, “Look what I did here, Gail,” and we got a laugh out of that. My new kidney made me start to want to paint, and once I got into it, like I’ve done everything my whole life, I just went 100 percent.
The kidney failure changed our lives completely, having a year to live because I couldn’t get a kidney. I would have had to wait six years to get one on the donor list, and Gail ended up being the perfect match for me. It was such a blessing.
What do you attribute to your passion for music and for art?
It’s kind of strange, because there wasn’t much music in my life growing up. My mom and dad bought me a clarinet when I was about 7 years old, and I just started playing it immediately and thought it was pretty cool. A lot of artists are introverts, and when someone praises them, it makes them want to do better.
The music business helped me in my art, because I got to see a lot of things you don’t normally get to see, both good and bad, especially in the ʾ60s and ʾ70s, with the free-spirited festivals. We were in all that. We drove everywhere in a Greyhound bus, the cops stopped us and searched our bus, all the fun stuff. I got to see a way of life for a lot of people who were creative in their own way.
All the musicians I got to play with, I must have had a good eye for talent, because most of them went on to bigger and better things, like Steve Gaines, who went on to play with Lynryrd Skynyrd; John Sauter, who played with Ted Nugent; and all these heavy metal bands and rock bands.
I started promoting bands, and the funniest thing was that I booked Rush, and I still have the contract, which was for $650, for their first tour. They’ve kept going and now are multimillionaires. We booked a lot of groups on their way up and a lot of groups on their way down, and some were in the middle. That was fun – exhausting, but fun at the same time.
I liked working on the other end, in recording studios producing music, working with bands and managing bands, almost as much as I loved playing. Even though it was a tremendous amount of work with not much glory, you could really build them to a certain level, which they probably couldn’t do on their own.
After having played in bands for decades, what is your relationship with music like now?
I have a lot of audio equipment I crank up. We occasionally go to shows, but I’m strictly an outsider now. We go see shows at Mesa Arts Center to hear jazz. We’ll hang out in bars and listen to groups. We did see the last tour of The Rolling Stones, and Mick Jagger threw water on Gail — she kind of liked that.
Who’s your favorite musician?
I love the new modern stuff a lot. I try to stay current. It just comes natural to me. I listen to a lot of jazz now, which I did in the beginning, in theʾ50s, like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Bebop, to me, was like heavy metal of the ʾ50s. I love that kind of stuff.
I don’t know that I have any favorites right now. I like sounds. Some band might sound really good, and I listen to their other stuff and say, “That’s the same band who just did that song?” I’m more into different songs I hear.
I like The Black Keys a lot and the sound they’ve created. I like Jack White a lot, because he’s so free in the way he plays. Probably my all-time favorite band would be Cream.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to start their own record label?
I think in any business, persistence is key. Don’t listen to what anyone else has to say. Follow your own intuition. I always did that, and I try to continue to do that.
What’s the key to tapping into your intuition?
I never really had a problem with that. I don’t sleep much. I’m always thinking, and since my memory is getting a little worse, I carry a scratch pad with me to write ideas down. It’s just something that is out there and that comes to me. I wish I could figure out how it comes, but it usually does.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a successful musician?
Just work hard, and play as many gigs as you can in front of as many people as you can. Don’t give up. You have to keep your enthusiasm. If you’re playing in front of two people, and I have done that before, give the same show as if it was 5,000 people out there. Don’t ever let up, because out of those two people, one of them might be from Rolling Stone magazine. You just never know.
Don’t burn any bridges. Don’t rip off anybody, pay your commissions to your agent, and it’ll all come back to you.
What was your career like up until you became a musician?
The day after I graduated, I became an apprentice draftsman. That’s where I learned my perspective, of being able to visualize depth. I don’t use it a lot now but feel like I might go back to it. I played on the side, and the more I got to play, and the less sleep I got, and the more I didn’t end up showing up on time to work, I ended up getting fired.
That was the best thing that ever happened, and I went full time and played. I just found out Richard Pryor used to come on during my sets in Peoria [Illinois] at a place called Harold’s Club. I remember the guy but didn’t know it was Richard Pryor.
Little things like that happened all our lives in the music business. You’re backstage with all these big-name musicians, and it’s almost like they’re not there. One time when I was playing, George Burns walked in the dressing room. He had his smoking jacket and garters on, and when he walked in, it was almost like a hologram, like he wasn’t really there. You never get used to that, when a superstar comes in.
How do you hope your art impacts people?
I hope some of it makes a statement, and the rest is fun to look at. Even the fun stuff, I usually try to have a serious message, like my character Uno, the genetically modified bird. I just had an installation in MonOrchid on that. Maybe some people will walk away with the feeling that, “Yeah, I’m going to fight someone owning all of our seeds who grow what we eat and modify them and get them registered and copyrighted.” One company owns all your food, and that’s not a good thing.
What are your plans for your future works?
I think I’m going to go abstract for awhile. It’s kind of back to my drafting type of art, more of a solid line. It comes easy to me, so I think I’ll be trying some stuff like that.
When do you plan to open your gallery?
Once we get the landscaping in. We want to have lots of paths surrounded by sculptures, and we want a total experience when we open it that people can roam in the studio and the gallery with their cocktails and just feel like they’re in a whole art world. It will be at least a few months out.
I’ve been to a lot of poetry slams, and it seems like people really enjoy that. I think art is poetry, too, so I think the two come together very naturally. Gail works with some nonprofit charitable organizations, and we want to make the gallery available to them for fundraisers.
Anybody can say, “Let’s do a show.” There’s no profit in it for us. We might have musicians come in and play.
What’s your impression of the Phoenix art scene?
I think it’s great. It’s underrated, from my experience. It’s growing more quickly than people give it credit for. The only thing that is going to stand in the way of it is sales. If people would start a collection, even if it’s a $100 painting, if you like it, buy it, and put it in your home.
The way to support it is to purchase. If we can figure out how to get people in the buying mode, the art is there. There are really great artists in this area.
What do you attribute to your quick success in painting?
I have a really hardworking manager, named Gail Teiken, and I have a lot of enthusiasm, probably too much. I want things to happen quickly. The harder you work, the luckier you get – my dad always told me that.
Why would you encourage people to start an art collection?
You can hand it down to your kids, and your kids can hand it down. The value of an original piece of art is something I think people would like to have. This is an original art piece by a person that is hanging in your home. Don’t go to the store and buy a frame and keep the art that’s in the frame.
I’ll get up in the middle of the night and look at my art and just groove on it. I don’t know why more people can’t look at it like that. Don’t just get it to match your sofa.
What are your goals?
I’m living them. Every day, I wake up and think, “Should I bum about this, or should I be happy because of all I’m accomplishing?” I’ve taught myself to be positive about the things in my life.
Do you think art school is overrated?
I don’t think it’s overrated for most people. For example, [Jean-Michel] Basquiat was happy he never went to art school, and he should have been. His paintings are selling for $50 million now. Probably most people should get the fundamentals and just hope they get a teacher who lets them open up. Art should be your experience, not the experience of a teacher trying to make you do it that way.
But, it’s good to know anatomy and how to draw. I don’t like to do portraits. I can draw, but I just don’t want to. I want to draw outside the lines, like a little kid.
Why is color important to you in your works?
I never met a color I didn’t like. I buy the very best paints I can, the Golden brand, because they have a lot of pigment in them, and I like my paintings to jump. I notice Andy Warhol’s paintings, as old as they are, all of them are still bright and beautiful. I like one color, black and white, because it can be very powerful, but I like a lot of color. I couldn’t use it a lot in design. I just enjoy experimenting with color, as well as images.
What are your favorite painting tools?
I use a big brush, because you can control little ones, and a big brush makes you paint like a child because you can’t control it that much. A lot of my paintings have that big, thick line in the outlines. It would work without those, but I like to make things jump out, so I use a lot of outlining to make the colors pop more. I try to get the best paint I can, but every now and then, I’ll spot some house paint I like, too.
What business tips do you have for aspiring professional artists?
I think you need a big ego. People are going to tell you, “You shouldn’t do that,” and you’re going to get hungry a lot, but if you stick with it, and you hone your skills, you will eventually succeed. A lot of people fall to the wayside, and it’s understandable, because you have to eat.
At the same time, I had three jobs at one time and never slept. I’d play 360 miles away in Chicago, then come back to work at an agency. The club closed at 2 in the morning, and I’d drive back and walk in to my graphic design job, and go back and play at night. It can be done.
What’s the secret to a long, successful, happy and prosperous life?
Hard work. Gail and I worked seven days a week for way too many years, building our design firm. It’s about working and doing what you love. If you do what you love, you’re going to be a happier person. You won’t feel happy and successful if you’re working at a job you hate, no matter how much money you make.
Learn about other Valley artists:
Learn more about multimedia artist Tara Logsdon here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about painter John Schieffer here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about mixed media artist Christine Cassano here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about painter Hugo Medina here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Steam Crow artist Daniel Davis here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Sebastien Millon here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about sculpture artist Alexi DeVilliers here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about painter Nicole Royse here on Phoenix People.