Pitching a Dream

SelfPortrait-Final_webIf you go to this year’s St. James Court Art Show on the first full weekend of October, you’ll more than likely see the poster that advertises the event. It depicts the famous fountain at the center of St James Court. The painting is a watercolor, a collection of droplets of colored water, pushed expertly around the canvas. The image is loose and light and captures the charm of the fountain in the heart of Old Louisville. If you squint, you may even think Edward Hopper had taken time a hundred years ago to paint the same fountain. But instead, the painting is the work of Louisville artists Richard Sullivan, who is only recently coming to terms with calling himself an “artist.” The reason? Sullivan has spent the majority of the past seven years of his life playing professional baseball.

For nearly his entire life, Richard Sullivan and baseball were inextricably linked. He played it growing up – from the moment he could hold a ball and bat to his time at Ballard High School, culminating in being drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2008 as a junior out of college. But today, the left-handed pitcher does not play baseball. His right hand does not have a mit, and his left does not contain a ball. Rather, his new tools of the trade are paints and brushes.

“I was baseball 110 percent until, all of a sudden, I said to myself, ‘Okay, this is not fun anymore, this is not what I want to do,’” explains Sullivan, who retired last year at the age of 28, having spent six years traveling the country with the Atlanta Braves’ minor league affiliates. “I did not want to be 35 years old and still be in the minor leagues. For many players, baseball is all they have, but I knew I needed to go and explore something else. If I did not have art, I would probably be coaching somewhere, but I think I was very lucky that I had art.”

Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune

Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune

For Sullivan, art was an unlikely presence in the first place, with neither of his parents artistically inclined. And yet, when he was not on the mound pitching in high school, he found himself drawing and sketching everything that was in front of him. So the solution was to marry the two passions at the only place that could offer it – Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the only art college with a full athletic program at the time and a place that offered Sullivan the chance to play baseball and pursue art, even though baseball ultimately won out.

“I think I knew very quickly that all I wanted to do was play baseball,” recalls Sullivan. “I had this other thing [art] but I didn’t want to study business or anything else. I’m glad that baseball kind of took over. I was so focused on baseball because it was my love and my passion.”

StJamesPoster-Final2But art would be something that Sullivan would return to the moment his baseball career ended. More than good enough to ply his trade in the minor leagues but self-aware enough to know he was not good enough for The Show, it was a sobering moment for Sullivan – as it is for any athlete – when he realized his “best” did not correlate with reality or ambitions. Despite mourning the loss of baseball, Sullivan may still look back fondly on a career that includes some real highlights and personal milestones.

“I got to play against the [Minnesota] Twins at Turner Field in 2010,” beams Sullivan. “And I actually got the win. I had always wanted to pitch at Turner Field, and so I am glad I got that chance. That was the biggest high I ever got to experience. When I was in the bullpen, I thought to myself, ‘I’m probably going to go in.’ And when they shouted ‘Sully, get out,’ I was s—-ing my pants in the bullpen warming up. But once you get out it’s just a regular game.”

And it’s these pressures that Sullivan is certain inform him in his new life, especially as so much of the art he has produced in the last year has focused on baseball.

image“I think one reason why my paintings have been so well received is that you can get action and details when you are drawing from life,” he explains. “You can see that a particular moment of a game might be the most tense, and I would know that because I have that connection. I know what the players are feeling, and I want to create that connection.”

In the past year, Sullivan’s art has been featured in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and at Slugger Field, and he’ll soon have an exhibition in Los Angeles. Such a momentous year can no doubt be credited to the drive he put into his newfound career, which is so inspired by his former.

“I think baseball teaches you everything about life,” explains Sullivan. “I think it taught me about working hard. Obviously, you need some degree of talent, but if you work hard at something, you can pursue it. All I wanted to do with baseball was reach my full potential and see where it went. And now that’s what I want to do with art – reach my full potential and keep learning.”

He continues: “My goal is honestly to be going to games and drawing and painting from life and being part of the atmosphere. I have been doing football animage 2d basketball too, but I started with baseball so I could grow and build that connection. Pitching and watercolors are similar. In pitching, you can’t really control the ball after you throw it, and with a watercolor, you can’t control it either – you just have to let it go. There is some excitement because of that. Every time I start to paint, I am afraid because I know I need to focus here.”

And while his work has started to gain traction, Sullivan has also started an artist’s agency, Sullivan Moore, with his girlfriend. The goal is to foster talent and help other artists get their work noticed. So far, so good with 20 artists signed and with work featured in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Boston Globe. It’s what keeps Sullivan going further in his journey – away from baseball but also, arguably, as close as he’s ever been. He’s just playing a different position now. VT