Art professor uses skills to connect with international refugees

Austin Stiegemeier spent time with refugees in Cyprus this summer as part of his continuing efforts to paint a global community.

Art professor uses skills to connect with international refugees
Austin Stiegemeier displays work from his summer sketchbook.

Austin Stiegemeier’s catalog of recent work makes it evident the painter has never been content just sitting in his studio developing paintings from static imagery. His narrative artwork often depicts scenes of human interaction: with each other, with the environment, sometimes tranquil, sometimes violent, sometimes both in the same frame. It isn’t simply a stylistic choice. The artist considers it a philosophical point that his works originate from real-life experience.

“I think it’s extremely important as an artist to go out into the real world because this is where all the raw material is,” he said in a wide-ranging discussion with The Gettysburg Voice in August. “I’ve got a great studio here in Gettysburg, but it has no windows in it.”

Stiegemeier, who earned his Master of Fine Arts from Washington State University and now teaches as an assistant professor of art at Gettysburg College, had just returned from a summer exploration to the island of Cyprus, seeking to better understand, in a visceral way, the refugee crisis that has engulfed southern Europe since 2015.

“I wanted to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis. Seeing those images in the media of refugees stranded on these islands where it's also, like, tourists,” he said. As a visual artist “something about that idea, the imagery of that” caught his attention.

Stiegemeier first visited Greece in 2019 as part of a trip along the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. On the island of Samos he met people working with a refugee school program and he “started to realize the tip of the iceberg” about the situation. The experience germinated questions he wanted to explore further.

“What do the children do when they’re stuck in camps? How do they continue to have an education? What does our society do globally when you have these whole generations of people who have been misplaced?”

So the artist decided to return to the region this summer, admittedly withot much of a plan. “I ended up basically deciding two weeks before I went to Cyprus that I was going there, which means that I was really flying by the seat of my pants.”

Colleen Seidel/TheGettysburgVoice
Stiegemeier sorts through paintings in his studio at Gettysburg College.

His first move was to contact a refugee camp in the region run by the Ministry of the Interior for the Republic of Cyprus. He inquired about possible projects with its residents, but, he said, he got caught up in red tape that would have extended the wait before he could get started. Instead, through more informal contacts, he discovered ways to make connections with refugees elsewhere.

One opportunity presented itself in the form of a community center called The Learning Refuge. Run by a woman named Mary, the location offers communal space for Syrian refugees who live outside of the camp. Stiegemeier helped with mosaic crafting workshops and mural painting for young children.

Through his work at The Learning Refuge he learned more about the fluid situation of many refugees. The families who visited The Learning Refuge had been granted “some status of protection” but “it’s not the same as being a citizen,” he said. “You’re in this community of people who don’t know you.”

He gives credit and respect to Mary, who was readily eager for his help, for the work she accomplished outside the formal channels of assistance. “She had this wonderful attitude that was just getting people involved and volunteering without all the bureaucratic red tape. She’s a person that’s just doing it.”

Stiegemeier also volunteered at a hotel for unaccompanied minors run by the Cypriot state. The hotel houses boys and girls from ages 12 to 18 from various countries who have applied for asylum but remain in limbo about their legal status. He connected with the boys at the hotel so much he wound up spending nine to 10 hours a day there.

“I just was drawn to the environment of the hotel because there were so many kids there, and it was so active. I felt, like, super energized about it.”

Stiegemeier hung out with the boys and led drawing workshops every day, but once the cohort realized he could draw portraits of them, their attention shifted. Even those who didn’t seem interested in the drawing workshops were interested in watching him render portraits of their friends.

“When I would be drawing they would be circled up around me, right over my shoulder and asking me about ‘What are you doing?’ I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or because they really were hungry for something to do and some interaction,” he said.

The portraits became more than just a way to pass the time. They led to something deeper. “I’d do the portrait and give it to them. And then that segued into me making more lasting, more mentorship relationships,” which he said were “definitely meaningful” for him. He still remains in touch with some of the boys through social media.

A sketch portrait of a young man named Mohan who Stiegemeier met in Cyprus.

It’s easy to portray Stiegemeier’s volunteer work as a means of alleviating the trauma many refugees experience, or ascribe the idea of him giving some kind of normalcy to their lives, but he pushes back on the often Western generalization of the refugee as always fleeing war or severe poverty.

“The biggest thing that I learned, and I still have a lot more to learn about it, but it’s really hard to generalize people. The thing that’s important to recognize is that everybody has their individual experience.”

“I met people who were highly educated or who were from a family that had high social stature and that was disrupted by whatever reason. It's not people’s fault if their country goes to war and they have to leave to find safety, or the plethora of a number of other reasons why somebody might need to try to secure a better future for their children.”

Stiegemeier talked at length about the history and the politics of Cyprus and the region, some of which he learned doing research before the trip, some of which he learned simply talking with people he met while traveling. It’s a sign he’s invested in his material in a deeper way, motivated by a social conscience that comes across in his choice of artistic subjects.

“At its most basic form I’m trying to make paintings that speak to our moment. And that are about people,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, we’re all a part of the same global community,” and then added with a laugh, “to make it really corny.”

The painter doesn’t consider his work in the region to be finished. He’s in the process of applying for a Fulbright scholarship to return to Cyprus for a longer period of time with plans to do more sustainable community art projects. And in his constant pursuit to make paintings that are, in his words, more "raw and honest," he remains inspired by all of the people he met during his time in Cyprus.

“To see people that are going through this insane hardship but are talented and are smart and are persevering and making it through. That’s the resilience,” he said, “the most inspiring thing.”

To view Stiegemeier’s work, visit his website or his Instagram profile @stiggyart. To learn more about the refugee crisis in Greece, visit