Kevin Sullivan’s creative niche was so strong that even some jarring experiences with racism couldn’t crush it.
So after dropping out of Bethel University in southern Indiana, where he experienced some of that prejudice, the Robbins native got to work on his zest for fashion, learning the ropes to start his own business.
Today Sullivan has a growing company selling customized shoes, T-shirts, purses and canvas paintings.
His shoes caught the attention of fellow students early on when he was at Richards High School and decided to stay home from school one day to work on a design. He said his mother agreed he could play hooky because he was otherwise a diligent student.
Sullivan brought in some drawings of his shoes and classmates told him how great they were. So several days later, he brought in a pair that he had painted.
“Everyone went ballistic,” Sullivan said about his classmates’ responses. “They were just mind boggled.”
When he brought in seven pairs, “I couldn’t even hold them,” he said, because classmates were grabbing the shoes.
“That’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” said Sullivan, now 21 and living in Blue Island.
But Sullivan hit some roadblocks after graduating from Richards, taking business classes and website development. He felt racially profiled even when he first moved into his dorm and was stopped by police when driving nearby for no apparent reason.
“I was suffering very bad anxiety and had to leave as soon as possible,” said Sullivan about his decision to get out in 2018.
But Sullivan didn’t sit back. Through contacts with relatives, he contacted Delvin McCray of Project Runway, who taught him how to make clothes from scratch.
Today Sullivan is feeling confident enough about his abilities. He says he hopes to become an interior wall painter but eventually a fashion designer.
“I’m pretty much a very open artist,” said Sullivan. “Whenever somebody wants anything, if it’s in my nature, I try to create it.”
He’s already learned to give his clothing line “more of a couture feeling.”
Several teachers and coaches played a big part in Sullivan’s drive to succeed creatively, he said. There was art teacher Michelle Richardella, English teacher Nicole Petrauskas and coach Derek Johnson, who allowed him to stash his art supplies in his office during gym.
Petrauskas, the English teacher, knew Sullivan back when he was a sophomore, already showing signs of his ability but she “had no idea where it was going to go.”
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“He has the ability to focus and never be deterred by anything or anyone,” said Petrauskas. “He definitely has an old soul … he has the maturity of someone who is much older.”
Petrauskas ordered two pairs of custom shoes, one with the school bulldog logo and another featuring the Cubs.
“We’re in White Sox country down here but I don’t care,” said Petrauskas. “They’re perfect.”
Though Petrauskas said she was heartbroken and angry to hear about the racism that Sullivan has experienced, she said “I believe things happen for a reason.”
“Perhaps if he had remained (at the university) he wouldn’t have found his true passion,” Petrauskas said.
Janice Neumann is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.