Recently we interviewed the painter and printmaker Austin Stiegemeier, who is teaching fine art at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Stiegemeier grew up in the small town of Rathdrum in northern Idaho. He began studying art while still in elementary school, and eventually pursued his art education at two universities in Washington State, completing his MFA at Washington State University. Since then, Stiegemeier has taught at several U.S. colleges, including Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. Our conversation concentrated on his pursuit of representational art, including narrative art and portraiture.
We spoke in particular about his two series, The Global Community, which is derived from contemporary news media sources, and Levitate/Gravitate, wherein Stiegemeier explores the nuances of levitating and falling human figures, with his friends as subjects. In his portraits Stiegemeier is not interested in glamorizing his subjects, instead, he meets them where they are at, and often with a wry sense of humor. Stiegemeier discusses how he came to watercolor, a medium he wields with considerable dexterity, yet he also works in oil with bravado, as seen in his portrait of his friend Raptor in Run It Up the Flag Pole and See Who Salutes (oil on panel, 2018). We began the interview talking about Stiegemeier’s affinity with and attitude toward watercolor painting.
DONALD LINDEMAN: You work primarily in watercolor now, you make preparatory drawings, and you’re a printmaker. How did you become involved with watercolor painting?
AUSTIN STIEGEMEIER: Actually, when I was an undergraduate, I was doing a lot of oil painting, and then I found printmaking to be fantastic, I got really into stone lithography. At a certain point I really wanted to come back to painting. I was working out of my living room though at the time, and oil painting wasn’t really an option.
Paper is such a wonderful surface to work on. I think that’s something that I really appreciate about watercolor as well. It was a natural progression in terms of I couldn’t oil paint in my living room. I decided to work on these watercolors. I think I returned to it while I was in grad school. Then what keeps me with it now is just the potential of the medium. The ways that you can handle the paint are like no other kind of paint that I’ve worked with. I think it’s really technical in certain aspects. Once you understand that, you can command the technique of it to make these textures and to render in ways that I can’t see happening with other paint in the same way. Also, there’s a wonderful kind of looseness to it that you can embrace and let it do what it does. I think that’s what’s kept me with it.
LINDEMAN: In your Global Community Series you have these great big areas with washes of color that are combining, distinguishing themselves as fields of color that are interacting. That sounds to me like what you’re talking about when you talk about the use of the medium and the way it works.
STIEGEMEIER: The Global Community Series I think is… it’s a little bit smaller scale. It’s not usually with the series here [in the studio] that we’re looking at: Levitate/Gravitate, is based off of portraiture. I work with people that I know as my models. The Global Community is more of appropriation from news media and from found imagery. In that way, the figures in them are not caricatures but they’re characters. The main focus is really on the narrative of social conflict in these different ways. Because of that, a lot of these… there’s usually multiple figures in a frame. They’re in some type of environment, and landscape environment. Watercolor is so diverse in terms of being able to like the ways you can handle it. That’s something that I really push more in that series as they’re very connected to the landscape. There’s such a rich dialogue to be had as a contemporary painter. Something that I was hit by when I was studying is, you want to do portraiture. Why? Why not be an abstract painter, or, then being taught Modernism in your art history class and going, what the hell? Why have I been even trying to learn to draw things? Whether it’s squares on the canvas and things like that, I think there’s a dialogue in my work that’s about that. Representation is really my entry point. I think if you look through my work, you see references to abstraction, and some of the movements that have happened.
LINDEMAN: Global Community is like history painting.
LINDEMAN: Some of it is cinematic, I think. In other words, there’s this one where this rather fulsome gal who looks like she’s wearing a bikini. She’s walking to the left.
STIEGEMEIER: Is it the blond? The pregnant women?
LINDEMAN: That’s right.
STIEGEMEIER: I think that’s the thing. I looked at a lot of Eric Fischl actually as an undergrad. I love that about his paintings. The narratives. The richness of the narratives, and how they take place within these suburban environments.
LINDEMAN: He’s out there to say the least.
STIEGEMEIER: Yeah. They’re totally weird. The nudity. The way that the nudity is, are you looking at a nudist colony?
LINDEMAN: There was one critic who complained about him and said: “Since when is this how people live there?” With regard to the suburbs, that kind of thing.
STIEGEMEIER: That’s exactly the point of his work. It’s like turning that idea on its head. That’s the spot that is the magic. He’s not just depicting white American suburbia. He is, but he’s also hinting at this darker underbelly.
We then proceeded to talk about Stiegemeier’s Levitate/Gravitate Series:
LINDEMAN: These are all people you’ve known here. You used the word on Instagram: “supernatation.” I had to look that up. In the OED, it’s: “floating on water or liquid.” Some other words associated with it, or synonyms, were considered: floating, dizziness, vertigo, and giddiness. Where does floating come from for you?
STIEGEMEIER: Okay, so the original painting that really kicked off this series was a painting of my friend Travis floating in a plastic raft down the river, and this is something that we did in Spokane [Travis in Explorer 200, watercolor, 2015]. And it happens, I’m sure, in a lot of neat cities that have a river or places where there is a river. You get your raft, and you get some beers and put them in your mesh bag and have a good afternoon floating down the river and have a few beers, right? Well, when I was out on that float, I looked over, and at some point, Travis was kind of laying with his arm hanging in the water. The way that he was hanging, it reminded me of the painting, the Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David.
LINDEMAN: That’s a great painting.
STIEGEMEIER: Yeah, and I’ve always loved that painting. I think it was shown to me really early on in a survey class, but there was a moment that clicked for me that was like, I want to find a way to make portraiture relevant in a contemporary sense. When I saw that, it was really exciting to me because the pose and everything, the way that it came across, it just looked like a way that I could speak to the now, to my personal experience and this specific person and the plastic, all the plastic, the raft being made of plastic, and the plastic sunglasses and all this stuff. It has a contemporary —
LINDEMAN: So, this is different from your Global Community Series because this is a real person.
STIEGEMEIER: They’ve kind of been ongoing at the same time, but yeah, it’s very different. The scale and the format are different. I originally started out with them being painted from life, from live modeling sessions, so that was the first one. We went out on the float. It reminded me of the Death of Marat. I said I have to make a painting of this. I asked Travis to come in. Slowly, I think I started out with seven or eight paintings, and they were all done from live modeling sessions. Then, the thing that started developing was that okay, it’s a figure on a blank, white background, an isolating figure. They’re painted on a vertical surface because of the easel, which watercolorists don’t usually paint up on an easel like an oil painter would.
LINDEMAN: Does that account for some of the drips that are constantly showing up?
STIEGEMEIER: Yes, that’s where the drips were showing up. And then, that got me starting to think about the gravity, and then I started wanting to intentionally play with that idea of the human figure floating and make this tension between —
LINDEMAN: This guy looks like he wants to fly [Departure, Watercolor and mixed media, 2019]
LINDEMAN: Did you ever dream of flying yourself?
STIEGEMEIER: Oh, yeah. Yeah, those were awesome dreams. I remember the first that I ever had when I was a kid. I was like a bird. I was literally like a bird, and I remember jumping off the top of some kind of power pole and swooping through these ditches. It was one of the most euphoric dreams that I’ve had. Then, in my adult life, I haven’t had one in a while, but at a certain point, my dreams changed to where lucid dreaming, where I would know that I was dreaming. You’re in a dream and you know that you’re dreaming and then you say, “Okay I’m going to try to do something that I can’t get away with in real life. Flying has been one of those things, but it’s not ever been quite as gratifying as that first flying dream because at some point I lose my confidence or something. When I know I’m dreaming, I’m like okay I’m going to try and fly and I jump and I fly for a while and then I have this moment where it’s like, “Oh crap.” Then I fall and I can’t maintain the flying.
LINDEMAN: Well, we were not meant to fly naturally. For example, is this a self-portrait over here?
STIEGEMEIER: Yes, the blue background?
LINDEMAN: Yeah. He seems to be falling [Gravitate, Watercolor, 2018]
STIEGEMEIER: Yeah. That’s what I write about in my artist statement with this series too, is that the series is looking at the human experience through this metaphor of flotation, and that the paintings sort of… They ride that line between images that seem to be uplifting, but also that there’s this tension, and in some cases like that one, where the figure even seems to be falling violently. As the series has progressed, I’ve started to work from photography. At first, it was because, again, I had been painting in my living room and I didn’t have space for a live model. But then over time I’ve realized too that like there are all these little visual cues for gravity. Not just the way that the figure is… I used to have somebody lay across a table and then drape their arms down, but then I started having a model jump on a trampoline and take the photo right at the moment before they start coming back down, and then you see the gravity in the hair, in the shirt, in the clothing, and all these other small visual cues. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to key in upon. If you take a photo in a situation like that where somebody is actually weightless for the moment, that gives you a lot more to work with, but also you can skew a viewer’s sense of gravity. That one, I laid on a table and then I took the photo and then I flipped it upside down. It kind of distorts our sense of gravity if you flip it upside down and somebody appears to be falling upwards or something like that. That’s how this one was done as well. In Departure, I had my model actually harness in a rock climbing harness and then hang belly up and then flip the photo, which gives it the appearance that the figure is floating upwards.
LINDEMAN: It seems to me that your subjects have a lot of attitude. They’re very American, but they’re certainly not the John Singer Sargent people looking for extra appearance beauty in their paintings and that kind of thing. Do you think of them as sort of like typical Americans in a certain way?
STIEGEMEIER: I think I’m interested in some of the aesthetics of Americana, but I’m also interested in challenging political paradigms. So maybe that comes through in the work. Honestly, most of my subjects are Americans because I’m working with people who are right around me. But I don’t know… that’s not like 100 percent, not all of my models that I work with are American. Probably the majority of them are. But I think that in a certain aspect like… I am proud of that. And I think there’s a rich history in America of painters like paving the way, aesthetically, and in terms of content in ways that are really unique and exciting. I think that’s a really rich place to draw from. And so maybe that’s what you’re seeing in my work. Considering the painters that I’ve been inspired by… like you mentioned Diebenkorn and Thiebaud and the Bay Area Painters, and those movements that have happened that are uniquely American that are tied to a richer history but that embrace, consumerism and things like that. I find those personally kind of exciting. And so, I look for ways to speak to that in my work. I want my work to speak to the now, too. I want there to be some gravity and some realism to it, but I like addressing contemporary issues on multiple levels in itself. And it’s like, well, this is what artists do. If you’re going to be a person who has contributions to the field you don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. You know what you’re capable of and hopefully if you’re really pushing the envelope, that means you’re pushing into territory where you don’t necessarily know what it means, or if you’re going to be able to pull it off. And I think that’s the exciting spot to try to get into.
LINDEMAN: Right. Well, cool, let’s call it the end of the interview for now.
STIEGEMEIER: Well, thank you very much for the interview, Donald.
LINDEMAN: Thank you.