Richard Sullivan, former Atlanta Braves player, highlights his sports-centric watercolor paintings
Nikki Boliaux, Courier Journal
“This is good,” Bench responded.
The Hall of Fame catcher knows how to evaluate a pitcher. Except he wasn’t talking about Sullivan’s pitching mechanics.
He was instead referring to his 36-by-55-inch watercolor painting unrolled on a table in front of him. The illustration of Bench during his playing days with the Cincinnati Reds popped off the page.
As both of them stood in the visitor’s locker room at Slugger Field in August, Bench took another glance and corrected his previous statement.
“This is great,” he said.
When Sullivan was a kid, he remembers picking up and throwing anything he could get his hands on — a left-handed pitcher, that later included baseballs.
His talent carried the Louisville native on scholarship from Ballard High School to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, where he could double as a promising pitcher and budding artist.
“Whenever I wasn’t playing baseball, I was always drawing or painting,” said Sullivan, 31, adding that he took art classes in both middle and high school. “Baseball was my first love, art was something I always did on the side.”
His college coach, Doug Wollenburg, remembered how Sullivan was “unique” because of his passion for both.
“He was pretty specific in regard to what he wanted to do,” said Wollenburg, who is now the athletic director at Savannah College of Art and Design.
After his junior season, Sullivan was drafted in the 11th round of the 2008 MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves. By the next season, he had jumped three levels to Double-A Mississippi.
But his career stalled there, and after five seasons with the Braves and one season with the Southern Illinois Miners of the Independent Frontier League, he decided at age 26 to retire from the sport.
“At a certain point, you reach your full potential. I feel like if I was more consistent, I would have gotten farther,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t want to be 35 in the minor leagues trying to make it. And I had something else to develop. I hadn’t given art a shot yet. I was excited to try something new.”
Sullivan returned to school and finished his Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration in 2014.
“I got the same feelings of nervousness, anxiousness, excitement as when I was on the mound,” he said. “It was really exciting to me that I could replace that somehow.”
Wollenburg offered a flattering endorsement of Sullivan upon his return: The coach commissioned Sullivan to draw a charcoal portrait of his family to give to his wife as a Mother’s Day gift.
Wollenburg said he thinks Sullivan could have made the major leagues if he stuck with baseball. But after he started focusing on art, it brought out the same qualities he showed on the field.
“He has a great work ethic — and you can see it when it comes to the art he does now,” he said. “You can see the passion and love he has for art in his work.”
‘Series of fortunate events’
Sullivan referred to what happened next as a “series of fortunate events.”
He started focusing his art on what he knew — baseball. He painted portraits and illustrations in school, before settling on action shots and watercolor after graduation.
He used his former teammates with the Braves as subjects, including current Major League Baseball stars Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. He also painted some of the team’s legends, including one of his favorite players, fellow left-handed pitcher Tom Glavine.
When he finished a piece, he’d upload pictures of the art on social media. Glavine’s wife saw one of his paintings and bought a copy.
“All of these small but very encouraging things started to happen where I was like, ‘I need to keep going with this,’” Sullivan said. “I just kept pushing.”
He and his friend Kate Moore launched an artist agency, Sullivan Moore, in 2014 while still in school. Sullivan’s work really began getting attention in 2015.
When Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 2015, the Washington Post used a painting Sullivan did of Harper as the cover of its sports section. The Nationals bought the original painting and auctioned it off at their Dream Gala in 2016.
In 2017, his former coach with the Braves, Jonathan Schuerholz, connected him to his father, John, who was then the president of the Braves. The franchise commissioned Sullivan to do 18 watercolor paintings and 20 prints to line the corridors of the team’s new stadium, SunTrust Park.
Locally his art has been featured in the Louisville Slugger Museum, Kentucky Derby Museum and St. James Court Art Show. He was recently picked as one of the Community Foundation of Louisville’s Hadley Creatives, a six-month development program for local artists.
While he didn’t reach the Hall of Fame, one of his pieces did — a painting of a 1964 game between the Braves and St. Louis Cardinals is in Cooperstown’s permanent collection.
“It’s kind of funny how painting is reaching so many people I never knew I was gonna reach,” he said.
For Sullivan, watercolor is a simple process.
“It’s just water brushes and paint. And you really can let the watercolor do the work,” he said.
He starts with the face, then moves on to the neck, shirt, and rest of the body. He connects everything last.
“My goal is to capture the intensity, the emotion of that moment,” he said.
The biggest issue, he said, is that the paint dries fast, so you “can’t go back and edit it.” That pressure reminds him of being on a pitcher’s mound.
“The act of painting is very similar to the act of throwing a baseball. You don’t really have a whole lot of control,” he said.
Sullivan said his style was inspired by “watercolor master” Charles Reid. He has attended Reid’s workshops and bought all his books.
Sullivan’s paintings are not only recognizable by the subjects — he’s expanded outside of baseball to basketball, boxing, horse racing and other sports — but by the motion he creates.
Each athlete is in action, and is juxtaposed on a background that pulls the colors from the ones used for the subject. The players look like they’re popping off the page thanks to drops of paint alongside the lines, which Sullivan creates with splashing.
He said he creates personality in each painting by drawing on his own experience as an athlete.
“The feeling I had playing and pitching, I try to put myself in that person’s shoes,” he said, referring to the subjects in his paintings.
Wollenburg, his college coach, has been with Savannah College of Art and Design since 2002. He said art is just another way for the school’s athletes to express themselves.
“It allows them to explore and be creative,” he said. “Even though it’s a different type of expression in sports, it does tie together.”
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A return to Louisville
The walls of Sullivan’s art studio in the Portland neighborhood are covered in paintings. A bookshelf to the front of the room is filled with Reid’s books and DVDs. Alongside them are his baseball books, such as “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching.”
Sullivan moved back to Louisville from Boston in the summer of 2016, specifically for the well-lit studio on the top floor of a building in the Portland neighborhood, a growing arts district. It’s in the former home of the Montgomery Street School.
On top of the bookshelf is his baseball glove — a black mitt.
He said he plays in a city softball league.
“It’s just kind of for fun. I don’t take it that seriously anymore,” he said. “I don’t want it to be competitive.”
He spends most of his time in the studio by himself listening to music, including the Rolling Stones, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire, and working. In his free time, he goes to concerts and plays video games. He watches baseball — his favorite team is the Braves. He likes to travel.
“It’s a totally different life,” he said.
He sells his art for between $5,000 and $10,000, and prints for cheaper. He said he was recently approved for a license with MLB and the players’ association to sell prints and postcards of current and retired players.
In July, he was in the early stages of the Bench painting and another one of Braves hall of famer Chipper Jones. The pieces were auctioned off for a militarily charity when both Rose and Jones were in town for the Bluegrass World Series, a tournament at Slugger Field that included a team made of former MLB stars.
Sullivan was invited to play in the tournament, but opted to just sit with the team in the dugout. He said he had played in a college alumni game two months prior and his arm “was killing me.”
His career goal now is to develop his own style with oil painting. He admits painting has its challenges.
“I’m just kind of weaving my way through,” he said.