Richard Sullivan is not only a former professional baseball player, but also an in-demand artist and designer. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he studied at the Savannah College Of Art & Design (SCAD) where he received a BFA in Illustration.
In 2008, Sullivan was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 11th round as a junior and went on to play six years of minor league baseball. He returned to SCAD in 2014 to finish his degree and focus exclusively on his artwork.
Woodford Reserve, the Presenting Sponsor of the Kentucky Derby -- also known as “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” -- every year makes headlines with its annual commemorative Derby bottle. 2020's edition features the work of Sullivan, and the stunning watercolor image is of thoroughbreds as they thunder toward the finish line, with the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs in the background. One-liter bottles featuring Sullivan's artwork are currently on sale across the United States and the globe.
While visiting Louisville last September during the Louder Than Life festival I actually met Richard Sullivan through our mutual friend, film producer and all-around entrepreneur Gill Holland. I had the pleasure of visiting Sullivan's studio within the emerging Portland neighborhood of Louisville and get a sneak peak of said Woodford Reserve bottle.
Sullivan answered questions for me on behalf of Sportskeeda about his successful career in the art world and more.
Looking back, do you have a highlight from your baseball career?
Richard Sullivan: I would say throwing a complete game shutout in high A was a really fun and exhilarating day! In 2011 I pitched and got the win against the Twins in an exhibition game at Turner Field. This was right before the season started, so not a regular season game, but it was amazing to be able to pitch at Turner field.
Not all MLB fans really follow the minor leagues, so there is a lot of ignorance about life in the minors. What do you wish more people knew about life as a minor league baseball player?
Richard Sullivan: That’s very true. I think the biggest misconception is that minor leaguers aren’t “pros” or affiliated with MLB clubs. Everyone in the minor leagues is connected to a big-league team, and trying to climb the ladder to the big leagues. The minor leagues is a grueling process of consistency, mental toughness and endurance. For the moments you are on the field though, it's worth it.
Each minor league city has so much passion for the team. There is a deep appreciation and connection to the game of baseball. To be in the minors for long, you really have to love baseball and make that your life. It’s such a demanding lifestyle, but I have met some of the kindest, most sincere people along my journey.
Are you still in touch with a lot of people from your baseball days?
Richard Sullivan: I am in touch with a few guys, but I wish I was connected to more. You make such close friendships along the way, but when you part for the season, most of my friends lived all over the country or world so it’s hard to keep in touch over time.
What exactly was your transition from professional athlete to artist?
Richard Sullivan: This was one of the hardest times in my life. It took me several years to figure out that baseball was over and I needed to move on. Having spent all of my life focused on one thing was a huge blessing and I know I am so fortunate to have gotten to play baseball for so long. It was also extremely difficult when it was over because my identity as a person was tied to baseball in so many ways, that I felt a huge loss when it was over. I couldn’t imagine a life without it.
I had to finish my senior year of undergrad, and that’s what I focused on. I have always been a very goal driven person so having another passion / talent to focus on was life-saving. I had a lot of negative feelings about baseball for many years after and being able to connect to the sport in a different way was very therapeutic. I started painting my friends that were still playing and I was just trying to get better as an artist. For several years, I would paint every day, no matter what. There were a lot of small wins that led me on at the beginning.
Was your past as a baseball player immediately helpful to your art career? Or did you find a lot of people not to immediately take you seriously because "oh he's an athlete, why would he be a good artist?"
Richard Sullivan: I think my past has been a huge benefit to me as an artist. I applied the training and ethos of being a baseball player into my art practice. There are many similarities to both and I think having that determination and mental toughness is important as an artist.
I struggle with the whole athlete being an artist because they are such different parallels, seemingly. I do meet artists that kind of dismiss my work and I meet people that love sports but don’t have a lot of knowledge about art. It’s my goal to bridge these gaps and talk about how being creative and being athletic are similar and how they can be brought together.
Beyond the art you've done for the Atlanta Braves, you are working with Topps. What can you tell me about that?
Richard Sullivan: Yes! Last year I collaborated with Topps to create the Momentum Rising set. The series includes 20 paintings of rising MLB stars. It was such an honor to work for Topps and hopefully I will be able to create more work for them in the future. The set was only sold for one week last year, but you can find them on eBay if anyone is interested.
Are there any sports or teams you follow these days?
Richard Sullivan: I still keep up with the Braves quite a bit. I enjoy all sports, but I don't have time to watch a lot these days.
What is it that keeps you based in Louisville? I ask that because it's a proper city but not exactly where a lot of professional artists are based. Or am I wrong about that?
Richard Sullivan: I think Louisville has grown so much in the last decade and it keeps evolving. It’s an affordable city to live and work and I feel very fortunate to have a great studio space in the Portland neighborhood. Louisville has developed a small but vibrant art scene which is really cool. My family is still here, which is nice. And I have developed some amazing friendships since moving back 5 years ago. I think eventually I would like to be in a bigger city, but this is a great place to live, work and grow as an artist.
Finally, Richard, what's the best way people can follow you as an artist?
Richard Sullivan: People can visit my website, which is www.richardsullivanillustration.com, and you can find me on Instagram @rsulli200 -- thank you so much!