Three Artists Who Help Bring Color and Creativity to the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports

It takes a lot of people to make Derby happen, from the artisans that have created the Derby trophy since 1975, the servers and catering staff who keep racegoers fed and buttered, to the workers who groom and care for the horses. There are so many hands involved, and the artists add to the color and mood of the spectacle.

This year’s Derby artist trio, artists Andy Perez (Louisville), Ralph Fugate (Eastern Kentucky) and Richard Sullivan (Louisville) talk creating artwork for the Kentucky Derby Festival, Churchill Downs and the major beverage sponsor, Woodford Reserve. Each year the track, the festival and the drink sponsor reach out to the creative community to get artwork that speaks to the spirit of the races. Fugate created art for both the Derby Race and Oaks.  

They gave LEO the rundown of their process and how they came to be involved in the most famous two minutes in sports.

LEO: Tell me about your process of creating art for the Kentucky Derby?
Ralph Fugate: The process for creating the Derby art started out with small thumbnail sketches. I was just trying to get an interesting composition that would look good and be unique. Then, I did a couple different small color studies. Finally, I had a couple original ideas. 

Richard Sullivan: I collaborated with the Woodford Reserve design team on ideas for the bottle design. We went through several rounds of sketches, I wanted the 2020 Kentucky Derby bottle and the 2021 bottle to flow together and be thought of as a pair. The original painting is 4 feet by 8 feet long and took about a month to create! 

Andy Perez: For the Kentucky Derby Festival poster, I started with a loose sketch including the basic shapes and composition. Then I transferred that sketch onto a painted masonite board and began gluing painted pieces of paper into the board, following my sketch as a guide. In addition to the painted paper, I also incorporated past festival posters into the art. This was a great way to honor the traditions of previous years and helped create something truly unique for this year.

 How were you chosen to create the work?
RF: I had a friend who introduced me to a couple people at Churchill, and they really liked my work. We started communicating. I would send them different pieces once I had them done. So when it came to deciding on the Derby, they chose me. It’s just such an incredible honor. 

RS: I got a call from Woodford in the summer of 2019 asking if I would be interested in creating the 2020 Derby bottle. I was thrilled and of course, said yes. It’s certainly a highlight of my career, and I was very honored to have been asked. 

AP: I’ve had my eye on the commission of the Derby Festival poster for as long as I can remember. I began contacting the Festival a couple of years ago to let them know I was interested in the opportunity. Eventually, they reached out to me to ask if I could make the poster for 2021. Of course, I said YES! 

Artist Richard Sullivan with his Woodford Reserve artwork.

Tell me about the materials you use in your artwork.
RF: I mainly use acrylics to get my composition and placement, then I’ll lay oil paint on top for details. But I like acrylics, oils, pencil, fluid acrylics. I like it all.

RS: Yes, I was commissioned to paint a 6 foot by 8 foot painting, and really out of necessity switched to oils. Painting in watercolor at that scale is extremely nerve-racking, and oils felt like the better choice. I think watercolors are the extreme sports version of painting whereas oils are the refined, sophisticated sport. There is a different flow and mindset I have going into painting with oils. With watercolors, you have to plan several steps ahead at all times and know when to keep going and when to stop. It’s very nerve-racking sometimes. I enjoy it because it reminds me of pitching in that way. Total focus. Oil painting is more relaxed so far. 

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AP: I typically mix painting and collage to create my work. I usually create textures on pieces of paper with acrylic paint and cut them up to make the pieces for the collage. I am always finding new ways to work with the materials.

What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
RF: I do a lot of private commissions and also larger mural works for public/private schools. Also, I’d like to tap into the NBA and other professional sports, and do action shots, so I’m beginning to make connections in that area as well! 

RS: I have a show at Louisville Stoneware that runs through June 1, and I have several commissions to finish up. I have room for a few commissions this year. After Derby is over, I want to regroup, take a deep breath and start painting large-scale paintings in oil.

AP: One project that I am really excited about is with Actors Theatre of Louisville. I am making some collaged characters that will exist in a virtual reality play experience. The production is based on a meeting and press conference in 1967 when Muhammad Ali met with a group of prominent Black leaders and athletes to gather support for his decision to consciously object to his service in the war. Idris Goodwin is the author of the play.

The offical Kentucky Oaks artwork by painter Ralph Fugate.

Did you use COVID to create or did you find it more challenging? What about now that it looks like we might find a little bit of normalcy?
RF: COVID and its adverse effects was actually part of the inspiration for my Derby poster. The idea was “Raining Roses.” I wanted the roses to represent a cleanse, a new start with all the vibrant colors on the piece to represent a bright, fresh, new beginning. So in that sense, COVID inspired me. 

RS: This year has definitely been challenging, but also really an awakening year and a year that I have had to grow and break through a lot of old patterns. I bought a building in the Portland neighborhood at the end of 2020 and have been renovating for the last six months. I took time off from the studio which felt nice. It’s nice to come back into painting with a fresh mind and some perspective.

AP: I found it difficult to create during the bulk of the pandemic. In the very beginning, I was ready to really get a lot of artwork done, but as time went on, I found it hard to make that happen. I did complete some projects, but not nearly as many as I could have with all the time that was available. Now that things are getting back to almost normal, I’m feeling great and being much more productive. I like to have the stress of multiple things going on to help push me forward. 

Churchill Downs track artist Ralph Fugate’s Kentucky Derby design.

What do you think the coming year will bring for arts and artists?
RF: Hopefully, as things begin to open up, artists will see more and more opportunities in professional sports and in different businesses who may want a new makeover or wall decor for their particular offices or establishments.

RS: I think artists are more important now than ever! We have to keep following our intuition and trusting ourselves even though there is so much fear and uncertainty around us. I feel excited about the next few years, and hopefully, artists will help bring everyone together and allow Louisville to heal and grow as a community.

AP: I’m not sure what to expect in the coming year. Hopefully, galleries can have in-person shows again. I am excited for the live theater to come back. Hopefully, everyone will get vaccinated, and we can get this thing behind us!

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