Portrait of the Artist

For two UT professors who moonlight as visual artists, their craft is both an escape from and a reflection on their day jobs.


Michael Adams is a man of many hats. UT English professor; director of the prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship for writers; former Michener Center associate director and advisor; author of novels, short stories, and essays; legal writing expert; dog lover; and universally acknowledged sweetest, gentlest man you’ll ever meet.

He is also interested in light. Extremely interested.

Whether he’s painting a pool player or a cumulus cloud, “I want to paint the light,” Adams says, “not the subject matter.”

adamsIn his basement studio, Adams points to one of the specimens in his honky-tonk series, “Neon Cowboy,” as an example. “I got interested in how his face could be the source of light rather than just reflecting light,” he says. “When I’m out at these things, I’m not looking at people, I’m looking at color.” The portrait is just a byproduct.

Adams’ studio is large and crowded with paintings. “I come in here, turn on Pandora, and dance and paint and play the piano,” he says. The piano is adorned with heavy elk antlers, relics of his childhood among Texan fishermen and hunters. “I can’t remember a single painting on a wall in my childhood,” he says. “My family was astonished that I wrote books, made art, and became a professor.”

Sometimes, Adams says, his academic work and his painting feed each other. He’s at work on a series of paintings based on poetry, including five paintings inspired by the Wallace Stevens line “Death is the mother of beauty.” One painting features a leopard as the element of death as well as the source of beauty.

Many of his paintings have been years in the making. Adams, who’s had little formal training, studied the old masters’ techniques to slowly build up layers of oils, which take two or three years to dry.

Even after all that patient waiting, he frequently paints over his old paintings to create a fresh piece. “I’m an amateur,” he insists. “I have a library of mistakes that created beauty.”

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Keith Livers’ office is lined with four towering bookshelves: three fully stocked with the Russian and Slavic literature and literary criticism he’s made a career of, and the fourth reserved solely for his cameras, film, and other photography gear. “When people walk in here and see that stuff, they probably think, ‘Oh, must be a quirk,’” he laughs.

This quirk goes deep for Livers, who has been exploring photography since 2006 and takes his camera with him whenever he packs a suitcase. “Austin has more than enough photographers,” he says. “Plus, it doesn’t really have what I’m looking for.”

And what, exactly, is he looking for?

In response, Livers shows me photos he’s taken of Spokane, Washington, his hometown and summer retreat. “I wanted to evoke a certain mood of childhood, so I began taking photographs of the alleyways that run behind all the houses in Spokane. Trying to capture the dirt and potholes, that dreamy, poetic sense of what it was like to grow up there.”

So there’s the pursuit of the lyrical and personal: “That small town, changeless, snowglobe-like feel” in shots of alleyways and trains. And then there’s the second part: depicting the economic disparities of Spokane.


“It’s a very class-divided city, one zip code versus another,” he says. When Livers goes in search of images that capture this class divide, his subjects can be resistant to getting their picture taken—sometimes because they’re involved in criminal activities. “I often think, ‘Is someone going to shoot me?’”

Such danger bears a striking contrast to Livers’ academic life, where he teaches courses on Dostoyevsky and writes about conspiracy in contemporary Russian literature. When he’s taking photos in Spokane, he says, he sometimes walks through neighborhoods frequented by meth dealers and hands out his business card as a way of breaking the ice. “It must be strange to see ‘Associate Professor of Slavic Studies’ printed on the card,” he says.

Even so, Livers sees commonalities between his studies and his photos. “My work on conspiracy in contemporary Russia explores the role of globalization, which in turn is related to economic disparity,” he says.

But more often, taking photos just feels like a welcome break from his academic work, Livers says. “Writing is plodding, sequential. An image is simultaneous. There’s a meditative, soothing quality to photography.”

Credit, from top: Michael Adams; Anna Donlan; Keith Livers (2).


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