By Ryan Phillips

Vivid memories line the walls of one Capital Park art gallery, where famed sports artist Rick Rush has set up shop. From Dale Earnhardt’s iconic black Chevrolet at Daytona, to the 1980 Miracle on Ice, Rush has captured the immortal moments of American sporting culture for the last four decades.

Since the days of Bear Bryant leaning against goal posts, casually smoking Chesterfield cigarettes as his unbeatable teams took the field, Rush has also been involved with putting to canvas the classic images associated with the Crimson Tide and other sports.

“Coach Bryant was very helpful when we started and when we began doing Alabama pieces, I did one of Alabama playing Woody Hayes and Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and it just grew from there,” Rick Rush said, holding a framed letter of introduction signed by the legendary coach.

Each display in the gallery holds a moment in history that transcends the competitive nature of sports and looks deeper into what those moments meant to not only the people who played them, but those who watched in awe.

“We do the image so someone can look at that piece and say that’s what it was like to be at or watch the BCS national championship when Alabama beat Notre Dame—or whatever event it may be,” Rick Rush said.

Another acclaimed sports artist, Daniel Moore, referred to the artist as ”The Grandfather of Sports Art in Alabama,” according to Don Rush, his brother, who serves as the artist’s agent and business partner.

Dressed in a signature yellow Hawaiian print shirt, Rick Rush told of memorable moments in his career as a sports artist. With his vivid storytelling ability that both extends past the canvas and is not truly done justice by printed words, the Mobile-born artist talked of the Kentucky Derby.

“The event I am working on at the moment is my favorite, but we have been so fortunate to have great moments,” he said. “We’ve been to the Oval Office with President Reagan for the Olympics, Wimbledon and the Kentucky Derby to name some. The day before the Derby, they would work the horses out and we would get to the barns early when the sun was just coming up over the horizon. They have those huge gorgeous animals out there and they are just taking a slow jog in that early morning mist and heavy air—There would be steam rising off of them and it was just gorgeous.”

Like the venerable Nick Saban, whose likeness graces several works around the gallery, process is a crucial component in transferring the sporting action to the canvas.

“I love to get that insight into the event,” he said. “It gives me a flavor for what it is about. I have been doing it long enough, that as I watch something, I can do a freeze frame snapshot of a player in motion and I can transfer that position to a drawing and all the other ingredient parts of a piece. I always want to get the subject in the strongest position they can be in during that action and try to capture what is going on. I paint on tempered Masonite then I’ll draw it on there and start painting. I paint in oil but I do sketches in watercolor and acrylic.”

Although their careers have been blessed with fame and international recognition, the Rush brothers have weathered their share of adversity, including a legal battle against one of the biggest names in sports over the right to free speech through art.

“Our 15 minutes of fame came in 1998, when we were sued by Tiger Woods,” Don Rush said.  “We received international recognition because it was unprecedented to be sued like that. It took us five and a half years but we won, against the most powerful sports figure at that time. The First Amendment in America is one of the strongest freedoms we have. You can’t tell a writer that their pen is free to go and then tell the painter to put their paintbrush up. His speech is that canvas and everything in that is protected.”

After the landmark case was decided in favor of Rush, the groundwork was laid for the two brothers to get back to work on bringing art to a growing commercial sports market, according to Don Rush.

“[Tiger Woods] had all of these big people behind him, like the Screen Actors Guild and we were fortunate to have a great team representing us,” he said. “It was a major win for the First Amendment. For the grand opening of this new gallery, this was a rebirth for us. Not just in a great location, but on University Boulevard in a place that is so special to us.”

From the beginning, Rick Rush said, he and his brother set out with the intention of making a positive influence on the art world and through their legal suit, it seems they have accomplished just that.

“When we started out 37 years ago, we had a praying session and prayed that we would make an impact in the arts community,” he said. “We never thought we would do it through a law suit. It’s been studied all over and cited as precedent and really helped free speech in this country. We noticed people outside of America understood how important that topic is, because if we don’t have freedom of speech, it will be government rule. Now, that is the landmark case for artistic freedom of speech in America.”

Rick Rush, who is the pioneer of what he calls “Sports Impressionism”, knew from an early age that he possessed artistic talents. Pulling influence from a certain French school of thought, he has worked to create his own rich blend of a famous style while incorporating the images ingrained in the psyche of sporting culture.

“I knew in about the seventh or eighth grade that I wanted to be a professional artist,” he said. “I remember thinking about what a great thing it would be to use any artistic ability I have to capture and live that lifestyle of being an artist. French Impressionists were a big influence, Claude Monet and Renoir, I like Degas too and Leroy Neiman, who was the first big sports artist in America. I had the opportunity to meet him on the sidelines of a Super Bowl. I told him how much his color influenced me, because the sporting life we live is so colorful.”

Before they broke into the art world, the Rush brothers were both established in their own careers. With encouragement from colleagues, they followed their hearts into another industry.

“I had a vacation one summer from the job I had and rather than take a trip, I worked on the painting style,” he said. “I had been thinking about and I did a test on what I now call ‘Sporting Impressionism.’ I remember I told Don, who was a General Contractor, that this is going to work. Later that year, I told the guys I worked with at Southern Living Magazine that I was going to leave and be an artist and they said that’s great, if it doesn’t work out you can always come back. They gave me a lot of encouraging—some writers in particular, and many of them said ‘I wish I had done something like that when I was younger’, so I left out and started painting and Don came in and ran the business aspects.”

According to Rick Rush, the new downtown location is ideal for their business model and will be another contribution to the growing Tuscaloosa art scene.

“We always wanted to have a downtown, University Boulevard location, and god opened up this opportunity,” he said. “Don was out looking around, found it and talked to everyone to design it. We are so excited to be apart of downtown Tuscaloosa in this historic district. It is a dream come true.”

For those interested in visiting the gallery, it is located at 2701 University Blvd in downtown Tuscaloosa. To view artwork from Rick Rush online, visit rickrushart.com.

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