Richard Sullivan is an artist and former professional baseball player with the Atlanta Braves. Born and raised in Louisville, KY, he studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where he received a BFA in Illustration. He had the opportunity to play baseball at SCAD and to continue his interest in art and illustration. In 2008, Richard was drafted by the Braves in the 11th round as a junior and played 6 years of minor league baseball. He returned to SCAD in 2014 to finish his degree and focus exclusively on his artwork.
His work has been accepted into the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Yogi Berra Museum and exhibited by the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Kentucky Derby Museum. Over a dozen Major League Baseball players, including Tom Glavine have started collecting his work. Coca Cola recently commissioned him to create a special 75th Anniversary painting for USO.
As a pitcher, that sense of demand and expectation was something that made him feel alive. Doing these sports paintings is a way for him to bridge a gap between his career in illustration and that feeling that pitching provided.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Richard Sullivan: I got here last June, so about a year and a half. This studio has been amazing. It’s the first time I've had my own space; and having something to call your own is completely transformative. The building has completely evolved since I arrived here. The building was pretty run down and had gone through a lot over the course of it’s life. It’s been really wonderful to see everyone in the building pour time and energy into it. I feel that if the building had been inhabited for the past twenty years people would just come and go and not consider the space or the people in it. Everyone seems excited to be a part of its transformation.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
RS: When I moved in I knew right off that I would need this large table here in the middle of the room. I use it for cutting large paper and other things. I also had my flat file and a few other [fixtures], but really, it’s just about that organic process of figuring out what you need when you end up needing it. By the time I wrapped up my project for the Braves (I had been painting non stop for four months) I just needed a break and ended up painting the studio and putting in new lights and refurbishing the floor. That felt good— it feels good to put time and energy into your space, to see it evolve from where it was before.
F-D: Do you wanna talk about your project with the Braves?
RS: Well, that project was kind of the reason why I moved into this studio and moved back to Louisville. I knew that I was going to need a lot more space. I painted eighteen paintings for their new stadium. It was a long process of proposals and meetings, eventually coming to a conclusion, and then the actual start of the project. It was a huge thing that evolved slowly and then started very quickly. Once the organization decided to hire me, I had four months to complete eighteen paintings. I was working twelve hour days non stop from the end of December until April. I was also still living in Boston at the time. I knew that Louisville was kind of coming up, and I knew Stephanie (Dolfinger School building manager and assistant to Gill Holland, film producer and philanthropist in Louisville) so I reached out and found out about this space and moved right in. Then I just got to work.
F-D: So how do you feel about living in Louisville now that the project is complete?
RS: It’s interesting, I’m considering my options right now. I’ll at least stick around for a few years. Louisville is growing and from the outside that was something that attracted me back: being able to be a part of something that’s in it’s infancy is rare and, of course, interesting. But it’s a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight. And there isn’t a ton of people pouring money into art down here. If I did’t always have projects going on regionally and nationally, I wouldn’t be making any money.
F-D: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, building etc) influenced your work in any way?
RS: Yea, I think coming to Portland every day is exciting and impactful— it’s on the edge of town, it’s a little bit like the wild west out here. I’ve also slowly started doing some drawings around town. I’m thinking of doing a series of drawings of buildings around Portland. The people in the Dolfinger have been pretty impactful as well. They’ve really had an impact on my life in the last year. Having people around that care is really wonderful.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?
RS: I try and get up around eight. I usually work out in the morning. It’s a big part of my artistic practice because it’s a routine, if I don’t complete it, I just feel off and I lose focus. I’ll get here around nine or ten. I try to paint for about an hour and a half and then take a break, paint another hour and a half and then take another break, and so on. After five hours of painting with watercolor I start to get kind of lazy and so I try to back off around that point.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
RS: I’d say at the beginning I was focused on portraiture and doing really illustrative stuff. There was a point where I was like, you know, this thing [baseball] is the only thing that I’ve known my whole life. I need to paint it. Once I started realizing that I could make a living at that, I started taking it more seriously.
I tend to paint images pulled from baseball when I need to refocus. It just makes me feel good to get to work with baseball in some way, but I have branched out. I’m working a lot more with movement, emotion, and activity, more so than portraiture. There’s a lot more that’s going on in your head when you playing than is commonly believed. It’s very psychological, being an athlete. When you get to a certain stage in your career— there is just so much pressure there. You have to learn to control that and gauge the stress, and learn to relax. So, that’s why I work with athletes— I try to place myself in their shoes and then project that onto the image, in attempt to explain that feeling. But who knows, in ten years I’m sure I will have moved on to something else— my subjects aren’t permanent.
F-D: So, I guess, my question in response to your last statement is to ask how you're feeling about these studies that your doing of Portland architecture?
RS: I love them. They’re relaxing. Drawing is much more intuitive. It allows me to connect within the community in a way that I don’t get the opportunity with my studio based work. It allows me to reach a different audience. One concern of mine is that my work be grouped in with memorabilia, because that’s always a possibility when you work within this subject matter; I’ve always wanted my work to be known and appreciated because it was quality work, not because it’s about a popular subject.
F-D: Do you think that’s something that is happening for you?
RS: I don’t know. I just. . I have no way to control that.
F-D: I mean, from an exterior perspective, it does seem that you get a lot of media attention because you're a former athlete turned artist; but I do see how that would obviously be conflicting if you are attempting to discuss the psychological and physical effects of being an athlete.
RS: Yea, it’s a fine line, because that is my story; and it’s something that I want to push. To get back to your initial question— yes, I’d love to do more drawing and architectural work, it’s a lot less pressure and I’d love to make more connections with a more localized audience, especially in Portland.
F-D: What media do you work with?
RS: Watercolor, pen and ink, pencil, paper. . .
F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?
RS: I used to work in a pretty high detail and small scale way. I’ve definitely moved away from that. I’ve loosened up a lot and I’ve started work a lot bigger. I started working on this 22x30 [inch] paper and I’ve gotten some huge rolls of paper. I’ve just tried to, over the last three or four years, work on a much larger scale. I’m just trying to take my style and gradually build on it. I wanna see how far I can push watercolor; there is a certain tipping point where watercolor just won’t go. There’s only so much you can do to the paper and with large scale stuff it takes a lot of pigment and application to fill in the space. This is why a lot of watercolor painters choose to work in a smaller scale.
Like I also mentioned earlier, I have moved away from worrying about total accuracy in portraiture and moved more towards capturing that emotion and movement that I find interesting. I will say though, that I do try to maintain that accuracy in the facial features, especially the eyes. Then I’ll gradually get looser as I move away from that.
When you do something everyday, and I noticed this with baseball too, you’re going to evolve and notice very subtle things that are changing about your activity. It’s just grown, I guess.
F-D: Do you work with narratives, plot, or any generally progressing ideas?
RS: Well, that project with the Braves was pretty narrative based. It was the first time I really had to research and understand these characters that I was painting. I also had to create my own story and narrative in order to understand those people a little better. I think with each piece, there is a story. Other than that, I don’t really think I’m working towards some progressing goal. Perhaps subconsciously I am. I have to work through all of these paintings to get to that next step, and I don’t really know what that next step is until I get there.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?
RS: Yea, for sure. It’s still revolves around my wanting to play baseball. To be really honest, I would rather be playing baseball [laughs], but when I started really getting into my studio work, I did have some of those same rushes as I did when I was playing. So it does have substantive qualities for me. It’s good.
F-D: It’s so weird to have art as a fallback career.
RS: It is weird. My life is so weird. But having baseball as a main career goal is. . . complicated.
F-D: I mean, even if you're successful in athletics, your career has an end date.
RS: Right, and that’s why art is so wonderful. I can work as long as I want. Hopefully I’ll keep working for as long as I can; some days are harder than others. But, yea, baseball always has an end date. That’s why so many people stay in the athletic world arena after they play— they don’t know what else to do. Most of the time, that's all they've known.
F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
RS: Obviously sports. I love city scapes. I like the organic takeover with the industrial. Music is also an influence.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
RS: Well, it creates opportunities because it provides you a place to meet new people. This space is really wonderful too, I feel good working in here. Even if I have a huge deadline and I’m stressed out, if I’m in here and working I’ll feel good about it. It provides a wonderful sense of focus. On the flip side of that, when I leave I really get to leave. The work stays here.
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
RS: Mmmm. . . I don’t know. Yea, I don’t really have an answer for that. Watercolor is making a bit of a comeback, I guess. In advertising there is a bit of that effort to make images appear hand made and so I’m seeing a lot of watercolor used in that. In the fine art world, I don’t know. I look at a lot of large scale muralists. John Singer Sargent is another one that I look at a lot. All of the Impressionists, Andrew Wyeth; his dry brush work has always been a big influence on me.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
RS: Well, for me, it might not be a motto from being an artist, it might be pulled from baseball. There's a lot of life stuff that you learn from baseball: how to accept failure, how to communicate, how to work with people. . . You can try you’re hardest and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. In the end of my career, you know, it was like, I tried. I tried with everything I could, and it just didn’t work out. Having a career in the arts is the same way. As far as my art career is concerned, that applied work ethic that I learned from baseball really came in handy. That would probably be my biggest thing. Just work hard.
F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
RS: I tell them I’m a watercolor artist. But in the midwest or the south, you know, you do get the whole, “Oh, that’s cool. . . but really what do you do?” sort of thing in return. . . Then usually, as the conversation develops, I end up having to explain that I was a baseball player. To be completely honest there are some days that I don’t really wanna meet new people purely because I don’t want to have the conversation.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
RS: It’s been a big, life changing, past three or four years. I’ve taken the usual financial risks. I’ve taken some big personal risks. I left a relationship to move down here to be an artist full time because I didn’t feel like I could do both and. . . that was a really hard choice to have to make. I didn’t know if this was going to work out. Four years ago I was working toward a style for a thing that didn’t have certainty of working out. That was a challenge, I suppose.
The project with the Braves was a big risk, or it felt like a risk. When I won the proposal and they told me that they were going to use my work— the project was still two years out. They hadn’t paid me yet. I had to wait two years with ten thousand dollars in credit card debt before I knew that the project would wrap up and I’d get paid. It was hard. Baseball was the same way. I had a signing bonus, but other than that you have a salary of, like, eight hundred dollars a month for five years until you get paid again. Having said that, I think that I always feel more alive when I take risks. In this weird place of uncertainty, of not knowing whether things are going to work out, is where I thrive.
F-D: Words of wisdom?
RS: You can always get another job. If you haven’t given as much of yourself to something as you can; then how will you know if you’re going to be successful or not. Other than that— take small steps. I was very, very, very lucky in the connections that I had previous to my career as an artist. I know that not everyone has something like that. But you have to take every opportunity you get. If something makes you happy, you have to at least try at it. You owe yourself that.
F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
RS: I just wrapped up working with a major hotel brand in Atlanta to create artwork for their meeting rooms. The hotel is opening up in December so I won’t be able to share any work until then. I have been incredibly fortunate this year to work with so many exciting companies. The Atlanta Falcons commissioned me to paint their owner, Arthur Blank for the owners suite of their new Mercedes Benz stadium. Right now I am trying to reach out to other stadiums opening up. I have also been able to donate my work to charities this year, which is really exciting. I just want to keep the positive momentum going!
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
RS: If your readers are in Louisville this first weekend in November, I'll be a participating artist in Louisville Visual Arts' Open Studio Weekend. Other then that I will be gearing up for a few Derby events for next year! Hopefully it will be a productive winter!