"Take Me To Another Place," reads the hand-painted message on the mantel above Baron Batch's bed. The words feel not like a plea for escape, but simply a prayer for inspiration: Batch is right where he wants to be. Even sleeping in the unfinished, windowless basement of his A.M. Studios — right alongside the paintings he's working on, and an opened suitcase full of paint tubes — is a choice this quickly rising young artist embraces.
"I wanted a place where I could be myself all the time, where I could have other creative people that did something and where we could work together," says Batch, 27, about the Homestead building that A.M. Studios has occupied since early 2014. In that time, Batch has gone from novelty — an ex-Steeler who paints! — to star local artist, his vibrant canvases as much in demand as his quietly friendly presence at community events and charity functions.
Batch, a star collegiate running back, rediscovered his childhood love of art while recuperating from the torn ACL that had ended his rookie season in Steelers training camp, in 2011. After the team cut him, in 2013, the West Texas native happily began painting full time, and became convinced he could make art and entrepreneurship his life's work.
"What blew it up was my street art," says Batch — small, unsigned canvases depicting pop-culture icons, playful animals and such that he set out in public, unannounced, for anyone to take. Later, he began announcing new pieces on Twitter.
The practice really raised his profile. Batch has painted live at a Pittsburgh International Airport event, and he's a favorite at fundraisers for groups like POWER, which aids women in recovery. He's also done three live-painting programs for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, at events variously designed to appeal to young professionals and young children. "It is really great to work with an artist who is so genuine and so passionate about pushing the arts in Pittsburgh," says the PSO's Gloria Mou.
Batch's heavily textured oil paintings are influenced, he says, by artists ranging from Dr. Seuss and Andy Warhol to Van Gogh and Banksy. He's self-taught, and calls his style "Pop-X" — a blend of pop art and expressionism. The work is typically joyful. Of one new painting, depicting a huge elephant's head on a field of blue, Batch says he told one collector, "It's gonna look like you looked at the earth and it hugged you."
When not painting, Batch oversees A.M.'s other enterprises. Its staff of five, for instance, includes chefs Steve Morehouse and Jamilka Borges: The storefront studio doubles as a dining space that hosts gourmet brunches Saturdays and Sundays, and also ticketed dinner series.
Whether in business or art, Batch says, he's committed to keeping busy. Referring to his sleeping/painting space, he says, "It takes having a bed and your work. I'm still trying to make it. I always will be."