Game ChangerWITH HIS SPEED AND STRENGTH, BARON BATCH’S CAREER PATH WAS OBVIOUS. HE WOULD BECOME A PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER. ONE PROBLEM: HE WAS HAPPIER WHEN HE WAS PAINTING.
Pittsburgh is a city of hills—stand atop the right one and in the distance you can see the lights of Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, shining like a beacon in this football-crazed city.
Eight miles away, in his art studio, Baron Batch does not see the lights, both by geography and by choice. Batch, 27, a chimerical battering ram/cheetah who could run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, was once considered to be the running back of the future for the Steelers. But now he’s reinvented himself, literally and figuratively, as The Artist.
After his senior year at Texas Tech University, Batch was drafted by the Steelers in 2011, and his stated goal was to become “The Man in Pittsburgh.” But when Batch tore his ACL during the last practice of training camp, necessitating a yearlong rehab stint, he found himself being pulled toward a passion that had long been ignored.
“The moment I started painting, it just clicked,” he recalls. “The minute I got back into it, my focus from football just went to something else. I don’t do things just to do things. I don’t put my energy into things I don’t see a reason for. So I was just kind of torn between something I was really good at that I liked and something I wasn’t very good at that I loved.”
How do you excel at Plan B when you realize the Plan A of your life isn’t a true fit? For Batch, the answer was obvious. He was The Artist, and in order to succeed, he had to overhaul his life and dedicate himself to his passion. No regrets, no second guessing. “I made up my mind I was done playing,” Batch says. “I told my agent, ‘I think I’m done.’ A lot of guys say that, but no one believes you. Art is what I want to do. No one believed me.”
After hanging up his cleats and turning down several teams interested in bringing him back, Batch holed up in his house for six months and worked on his art. Inspired by Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, Banksy, Andy Warhol and Dr. Seuss, he emerged bearing his own style: Pop X.
“It’s a mixture of pop art and expressionism,” Batch says, while doing pull-ups from an exposed beam in his studio. “I love expressionism because there’s no rules to it. I love pop art because there are [rules]. As an artist, that’s me. I am this person of extreme structure because of my sports background, but at the same time of extreme noncompliance to the rules, unless they are mine.”
Batch found his expressive style and a home, opening his Studio A.M. in Homestead, a former steel town just outside the Pittsburgh city limits that had fallen on hard times after the local mill closed. He believes in the creative energy and resilience of the town, and now his home/studio/restaurant/ gallery/gathering place is part of the area’s renewal.
“Home, for me, is where I’m free to express myself and the way I express myself is accepted,” he says. “Right now, Pittsburgh is home for me because of that.”
Batch has left his mark, creating original art for the Pittsburgh Marathon, working with schools and food banks and doing art installations at a variety of locations, including the city’s yoga festival and the airport, where he held an all-day painting and musical event titled “Don’t Forget to Write.” He painted a 12-by-8-foot canvas alongside local musicians while incorporating public suggestions into his work.
“I’m not surprised by it—I’m more humbled by it, that this city has embraced me and lifted me into this position where I’m able to represent it as the voice of art,” he says.
On a humid July night in downtown Pittsburgh, a black SUV pulls up just a block away from PNC Park, home of the Pirates. Batch still has the swagger and insouciance ingrained from being an athlete for most of his life, and he slides out of the car, carrying a large board over his head.
On the front is a colorful painting of an elephant seated in a yoga pose, with an all-seeing eye above it. Below the elephant, the words “Be Free” are spray painted in large letters. After Batch surreptitiously leans the painting on a pole beneath a parking sign, a couple of curious onlookers briefly glance at it. Then a young woman comes sprinting in to swoop it up with the joyous glee of a successful treasure seeker.
It’s the aftermath of one of the “art drops” that Batch routinely does around the city, where he posts pictures of giveaway paintings on Instagram and Twitter, leaving clues to their location.
In marketing himself, Batch doesn’t shy away from his football-playing past, but he doesn’t readily embrace it either. He introduces himself to people as “The Artist” instead of his real name—“I’d be fraudulent if I didn’t”—and has shed most of the trappings of his former life. There’s a letter from the NFL Players Union sitting on his desk, and Texas Tech wants him to come back and speak to students. But football seems to be a distant memory.
Batch returned from his torn ACL and played for the Steelers in 2012. The next year he was released and opted not to sign with any other team. The city’s great hope retired after scoring just one touchdown in the NFL. But remember: No regrets. No second guessing. Full dedication to Plan B. “I don’t miss football because I kept doing what I wanted to do,” he says. “Never do I think, ‘What if?’ ”
The motto for Batch’s Studio A.M is “Up Late, Up Early,” and his restless energy ensures that nearly every night is filled with the clack of spray paint in a can, brushes gliding over canvas and creative thoughts running through his mind. You need to have that kind of drive to make it to the NFL—and to succeed as a creative force.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes about fellow athletes, and it doesn’t take long to see that Baron broke the mold,” says retired Steelers legend Troy Polamalu, who commissioned Batch to create art for his house. “Baron found something he was just as passionate about. He’s known not just as a football player, but as a true artist. That’s even better.”