February 4, 2016
“Last week I met 50 Cent. I’ve met Will Smith, Alec Baldwin …”
Baron Batch pauses as the noise in the classroom swells. The Texas Tech University students he is addressing are grinning and whispering to each other. The man in front of them just drops these names like it’s no big deal.
Batch looks out at the students. He is a few years older than them and appears at ease in the classroom with his dreadlocks, paint jeans and untied boots. On the white board behind him is his signature elephant, drawn with dry erase marker in about a minute while he was talking. That also impresses the class.
Batch is not impressed. The thing is, he tells the students, those celebrities are famous because people bought into their personas.
“All they are is a brand,” he says. “You made those people.”
Batch, who graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in communications studies in 2010, returned to campus in October to speak to a few classes about marketing and answer questions about his experience at Texas Tech, his art and football. Though Batch says he has always been an artist at heart, when he was at Texas Tech he was a running back with a buzz cut and 2,500 career yards.
In the half-decade since he left Lubbock, Batch was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, moved across the country, tore his ACL before playing a down of professional football, played for a couple of seasons in the Steel City before “retiring” and beginning his real life as an artist and entrepreneur. He’s known throughout Pittsburgh for art, salsa, a food truck and Sunday brunch at his gallery.
“I only knew him as an artist, and it wasn’t until he came to the Lubbock Arts Festival that I found out he played for Texas Tech and he played for the NFL,” said Heidi Simmons, co-owner of the Tornado Gallery in downtown Lubbock. “I always tell him, ‘To me you’re an artist that used to play football, not a football player that now does art.’”
The Artist, as he brands himself in all social media accounts, grew up in Midland with lots of siblings and little money. He’s written about his home life growing up, describing the embarrassment he felt comparing his house to his friends’ houses and the day his mother, who’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, was no longer able to take care of them. As teenagers they took care of each other. She died when Baron, the middle child, was 16. He turned to football and his best friend’s family to help him cope with the loss and accompanying grief and anger.
It’s a compelling origin story, one Batch doesn’t like to talk about. It’s all out there, he says. He’s no longer the child who slept on the floor next to a space heater or the teenager filled with anger. His life now is his art, his relationships, the ideas in his head he can put on paper or canvas or a wall.
His past is an indelible part of him, though. When asked about his influences, Batch’s answer comes easily: his mother. With little income, an absentee husband and increasingly poor health, she had every right to complain, he said, yet he never heard her do so.
One additional moment from his childhood defines him. When Batch was in elementary school, a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. An artist, he responded. Pick something more realistic, he was told. A professional football player, he said.
He remembers the teacher shaking her head and telling him he needed a more achievable dream. He also remembers, even 20 years later, thinking, “I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“Without a doubt that’s the boldest decision I’ve made, because from that it allowed me to be bold in the things I chose to do and the things I didn’t want to do,” he said. “I understood at a young age that people have ability to do that. That’s brought me here.”
Up until the last few years, he walked the road he was on. Batch was good at football, so he played football. He came to Texas Tech to excel at football and earn a degree; he excelled and earned a degree. He was invited to visit and subsequently drafted by Pittsburgh, so he went to Pittsburgh. After his injury, he recovered and returned to football.
In 2013 the Steelers cut Batch. For the first time, he found himself forging his own road. With enough money from his football career to alleviate financial concerns, he bought an art studio and started painting full-time, and The Artist was born.
In just a couple of years Batch’s persona has changed. He paints as much as he can, sometimes spending a few minutes, other times spending days on a piece of art. His studio is already too small for what he’s trying to do, so he found a new place to create art and has his downtown Pittsburgh space as a gallery and events center. He doesn’t own a TV and didn’t waste time trying to convince the city of Pittsburgh to love him as an artist like they loved him as a Steeler.
“It wasn’t convincing,” he says. “I was doing. I was being. I was showing. I don’t really have time to convince because what I was doing was too real.”
If it exists now and it didn’t five minutes ago, it might be art.
If it was a normal pair of jeans now covered in paint, some accidental and some not, it might be art.
If it expresses something about the creator, it might be art.
If people are willing to drop what they’re doing and run through downtown Pittsburgh in high heels, it might be art.
To discover the value of his art, Batch started a social experiment. Instead of putting a financial value on his work, he gave it away, but with a catch – he tweets a picture of his art, complete with his signature elephant and the word “FREE,” and whoever gets there first gets to keep it.
“I thought that if I put art in the street without my name on it, just my work as is, telling people to look at it and see that it’s free, would they take it? Is it good enough for someone to stop their time, their day and to pick up what I left?” he said. “And they did, and they liked it, and I gave them more, and they liked it, and I gave them more. It’s to the point now where it’s crazy to see what that’s become.”
Simmons has never questioned the value of Batch’s art. She sees different types of art and different types of artists in her gallery regularly and appreciates that Batch’s art isn’t easy or risk-free. He doesn’t do art for the sale. He does the art he wants.
“Some of the artists don’t change because they find what sells and keep doing it,” she said. “He’s willing to take that chance and do what he’s passionate about at the time.”
With the art drops increasing his name recognition and more and more people experiencing Batch’s art in his gallery or throughout the city of Pittsburgh, the commissions have come. One project he’s working on will go on the wall of a loft in downtown Pittsburgh, which is slowly becoming a hip place to live. A lawyer who’s made it big wants an original Baron Batch.
It’s not just the piece of art Batch is selling, of course. It’s a piece of him. He sells his persona as The Artist as much he sells his actual art, and this particular client wants a particular persona.
“I’m selling him on the fact that I can get him all the ‘lay-deez,’” he said with a laugh.
Though he is best known for his paintings, canvas isn’t Batch’s only canvas. The installation for the lawyer involves a number of different media. He grew up drawing and he’s picked up photography. He’s also a writer. When Batch was in college he wanted to do a writing internship, so he wrote about his life experiences for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The stories were sometimes painful, said Rodney Lackey, an athletics academic adviser, yet he always enjoyed reading them and so did others. Batch had a gift.
“The way he told it, he was able to put humor into the stories as well,” Lackey said. “He had really good points, but he always found a way to put humor in it.”
When Lackey learned Batch was coming to Lubbock, he was thrilled. He always loves to see this former player.
But they had to have a little talk first.
“He usually gives me a heads up when he comes into town,” Lackey said. “I was giving him a hard time that I had to read it through TechAnnounce. He said he was going to get in touch, but I beat him to it.”
He and Batch go way back to Lackey’s first few days at Texas Tech. Lackey was introduced to the football team en masse. The next day Batch walked into Lackey’s office to introduce himself. What started as a friendly greeting turned into a friendship that has continued through Batch’s cross-country move and career change.
“He’s just a real genuine kind of individual,” said Lackey, who attended a class to hear Batch speak and sat next to him at the Oct. 31 Texas Tech vs. Oklahoma State football game. “There was no sense of arrogance about him. He’s just a really down-to-earth person.”
Batch has built his brand on relationships. His creative agency and gallery, Studio AM, and the ensuing projects have been successful in large part because of the team with which he’s surrounded himself. He has business partners, a publicist, a chef and a crew of people who are willing to vouch for him.
That last one is perhaps the most important, he tells one of the classes. That is what he credits the NFL for giving him after he left. He had several well-known friends who could tell potential clients his work was good.
“It’s kind of bizarre that they’d follow this 27-year-old around on this crazy adventure, right?” he says with a laugh. “They’ve done it. They’ve done big things, they’ve seen big things, they’ve been part of big things, so it’s like knowing they see something in me worth giving their time to and knowing me doing my job makes even these great professionals better makes me feel even better.”
He also sees the art drops as a way to build relationships, though not necessarily with him. They offer the chance for people to connect. Only one person gets to take home the art, but the rest find themselves in a group with similar tastes in art. Often they start talking. Maybe they’ll grab coffee or go to lunch.
Other artists have begun their own art drops, propelling a movement Batch foresaw when he chose to stay in Pittsburgh.
“I wanted to give the arts scene much more of a voice,” he said. “Pittsburgh has always had an arts scene, but the arts scene has never necessarily had a collective voice.”
He’s not interested in being that voice, but he is comfortable in being a catalyst to a conversation that does Pittsburgh justice and will be at least somewhat to his liking.
“Pittsburgh right now is in such a cultural renaissance, and I’m not sure the city has quite grasped yet what’s actually happening,” Batch says, his entire face lighting up as he talks about his home. “Everybody’s having this great time and things are happening and there’s parties going on and events going on and there’s always something happening. To me it’s cool because I get to help build that, I get to document it, I get to be a leading focal point in that.
“Ultimately I am just a little piece, right? And it’s just gonna be cool to know that my little piece, the stuff I contributed, it’s gonna be remembered.”
Batch is a cultivated brand, but don’t be fooled: the man asking questions in response to questions, teasing his former professors and declaring his goal for immortality is the real Baron Batch. He doesn’t have the time or inclination to create a public face and a private face. He just is.
His success has happened because he worked hard and took risks. It also happened because he was lucky. Batch walks that line every day. Yes, he’s worked hard to get to where he is, and he’s the first to acknowledge that. He talks about successful brands being the result of hustle. He sleeps when it works with his schedule. He has half a dozen projects going on simultaneously. He talks to people. His days, which he prefers to measure in accomplishments rather than hours, are full.
Some of it is just taking that first step – signing a lease and getting some paint on the walls of his studio. Some has been the people with whom he surrounds himself that give him confidence that he’s on a good path.
Some of it is luck, good fortune and happenstance.
“I see life as so circumstantial, and I’ve been in such unique circumstances that have kind of bloomed these unique circumstances,” Batch said. “Whether it’s salsa or football or the art, I’m just really appreciative of where I am now. How did I get here? I have no idea.”
Communication studies professor Narissra Punyanunt-Carter, who taught Batch for two semesters when he was a student, remembers a respectful, intelligent and independent thinker. Other than the hairstyle, the man who spoke to her class in October was the man she remembered from her class.
“Baron has always been a sweet, kind, thoughtful and humble person,” she said. “He doesn’t boast or brag about his accomplishments. He just proves he can do it. He has a great work ethic. He has a heart of gold. Despite all his fame and fortune, he is still the same person.”
Batch is proud of what he’s accomplished. He wants people to see his art and, if not like, at least consider it. Batch is determined to stay that person who introduced himself to Lackey, disagreed with Punyanunt-Carter and told his teacher he wanted to be an artist, even as he is featured in worldwide publications and his name recognition increases as an artist first and a former football player second, third or not at all.
“As far as the fame, stardom, the things that are coming, it’ll be interesting,” he said. “I’ll be excited to see what perspective that gives me. It’ll change my perspective, but it won’t change me.”
Toward the end of his conversation in Punyanunt-Carter’s class, a student asks Batch about his favorite piece of his own artwork. He hesitates, says he has one and stops. His favorite painting doesn’t hang in his gallery, he didn’t sell it and it wasn’t a gift. No one else has seen it. It’s stored in a time capsule to be opened many years from now.
He wants people to look at his art with a different perspective, he said.
“You guys will see,” he said. “Or your grandkids will.”
A couple of years ago Batch painted a portrait of Texas Tech football coach Kliff Kingsbury. In a time-lapse video of the process, every now and then he puts on a horse’s head and keeps painting. It was there, so why not?
He’s spent so much of his life bound – by poverty, limited opportunities and even the collegiate and professional football schedule that in many ways contributed to who he is. Once he was unbound, however, Batch became his own man. He’s never looked back. He’s never regretted football not “working out.” It allowed him to become the signature he paints on every piece of art.
“Art’s like this journey,” Batch said. “In a way you get to experience it but in a way you can’t control what inspires you. Life happens. You meet people. You see things. You touch things.
“The goal of art is to be able to make yourself how you want to be.”