The Sunday Football-Related [Arts] Post: Baron Batch
One of my favorite Steelers during his relatively brief time with the team was Baron Batch. I loved his story, his determination, his writing, and his free spirit.
Since he left the NFL he has reinvented himself as an artist, although I’m quite sure he wouldn’t say it this way. I think he would tell you he has always been an artist, and rediscovered this during his rookie year when he had to rehab from his ACL injury.
He’s much more than an artist, though. I would describe him as a free-thinking entrepreneur, or perhaps as an entrepreneurial free thinker. During his time with the Steelers he carefully saved his money, something I wish more players would have the sense to do, and used some of it to buy a building in Homestead. For those of you unfamiliar with Pittsburgh, Homestead was a very dirty but prosperous place during the heyday of the steel industry. After the demand for steel dropped the area became a classic “rust belt” town.
Homestead is currently enjoying a renaissance. The first part of it was the clean-up of the old mill site along the river, which has been turned into a large shopping area. Of course, as part of the law of unintended consequences, the businesses along the main street of Homestead took a hit from the shopping center. Enter people like Baron Batch, who offered something unique. He refurbished the building as his art studio. It had previously been a restaurant and had a small open commercial kitchen, so he brought a chef on board to offer Sunday brunches. That’s when my husband and I met him, and Baron has since become a friend.
I have acquired some pieces of his art, and I love them. I find I respond strongly to his work—certain pieces I love, certain pieces I don’t. Very little of it leaves me with a “meh” feeling. His art calls for a response. Which is how art should be.
He has since expanded into a separate art studio because so much is going on at the original Studio A.M. He is involved in various projects, and every time I see him has something new going on.
He loves his adopted city of Pittsburgh and desires to make it a better place than it was before he came. He has donated artwork to all types of charities, live-painted before the concert at a Pittsburgh Symphony gala opening night (and many other events,) and is incredibly generous with his time and his gifts.
But he has recently fallen afoul of the law. I’m going to let him tell the story through the blog post he sent out to those of us on his mailing list. I’ve edited it for length, but it’s still long, as you can see. I’ll comment from time to time:
As you all have become very aware of over the last several years, I desire to be a great artist.
And great artists paint on things.
And sometimes great artists paint on things they aren’t supposed to.
As some of you may have recently heard I broke the rules.
I find the next part to be interesting and yet painful. It is a reminder to those of us who watch football just what these guys live with to play the game we love so much:
The one non-work related activity that I would say I am passionate about is cycling… Riding the trails over the last few years has given me a new appreciation for the beauty of Pittsburgh. Seeing the city from the bike trails is its own special perspective, cycling is my primary way of staying active…I am 28 years old and have no cartilage in my left ankle, I live in chronic pain and every step I take is uncomfortable.
Here’s where the trouble began:
Beginning last summer I started leaving spray painted tags on various locations along the bike trail to add my art to the hundreds of other various tags and messages that you will constantly see while riding the trails. When I started doing this I only left the tags in discreet places that only I would know to inspire myself as I passed, reminding myself that the pain I constantly feel when I walk does not exist when I ride.
The beginning of this summer was very much the same, but instead of tagging in discrete locations I left my tags directly on the trail to ensure that they were seen by every cyclist that rode over them. Painting a majority of them by large cracks in the trails that already had been spray painted to warn cyclists. Never in my mind did I think about anything else other than the opportunity to leave my mark on a place that can constantly inspire people that pass, and that is exactly what happened. I began to see people post photos on various social media platforms documenting the tags and their appreciation for them. I am never trying to throw my art into people’s face, but I am trying to give them something that they can relate to when they see it.
Here are a few of the tweets:
— Livia Vissat (@liviavissat) June 18, 2016
— BurghRunner (@redoberman) May 31, 2016
Not surprisingly, somebody didn’t like it:
A week and a half ago a woman began to complain on social media regarding the tags on the trail of course this engaged the rest of the very loud minority that chose to band together and call for justice as to what they called “disrespectful tags along the trails”…As the noise grew louder and the loud minority more angry I received a call from a close friend informing me that the Executive Director at Friends of The Riverfront would like to speak with me directly to sort things out. Upon taking the call I apologized for breaking the rules and explained that none of it was meant to be disrespectful but simply to inspire. As the universe would have it, he was a fan of my work and expressed his excitement about the opportunity to work together to better Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately it didn’t stop there, and Baron has been charged with 30 counts of criminal mischief. Thank heavens we have a vigilant populace who can protect us from being exposed to art. Baron freely admitted the work was his, and the end of the story is yet to be written.
To the people who feel that I disrespected the trail, I am sorry, I did break the rules, however I am very thankful and proud of the city for the support and encouragement everyone had, as the loud minority threw stones into the dark. It just so happened that the complaints that were said and stories that were written to bring negativity only built the steps for me to be introduced to the correct people.
Just so you hear it from me I won’t be tagging on the trails anymore, but just so you hear it here first, in the future I will be working with the people who build them.
Art demands a response, even if the response is negative. This doesn’t mean that anything which provokes a response is art. I can’t help but think of a Damien Hirst work. A Smithsonian.com article titled One Man’s Trash tells the story:
British contemporary art is sometimes mistaken for garbage—literally. In 2001, a Damien Hirst work valued in the mid six figures was, well, cleaned up by a janitor at London’s Eyestorm Gallery. Of course, Hirst’s assemblage consisted of such objects as half-filled coffee cups, cigarette butts, newspaper pages and candy wrappers scattered on the gallery floor. “It didn’t look much like art to me,” Emanuel Asare, the gallery’s cleaning man, told the London press. “So I cleared it all in bin bags, and I dumped it.” The “bin bags” containing Hirst’s work were ultimately rescued and the piece reassembled the following day (with the addition of a “Keep Off” sign). Hirst found the whole incident funny, and Asare kept his job.
A similar incident about another “artwork” was detailed in the article, and the judge’s comment about the piece was interesting:
“It is not possible for me to describe it,” Justice Teare said when announcing the decision. “One expert described it as sensuous and sexy, the other as clumsy and somewhat absurd.”
I’m not one of those people who says that anything someone says is art is art, but I admit the boundaries are tenuous and it can be challenging to defend your position for any given work. But it seems to me that the difference between what Baron did and a gang tag, which has an entirely different and sinister purpose, should be pretty obvious to almost everyone. I understand it can be difficult, if not impossible, to legislate against the latter without criminalizing the former. Which makes me really sad.
I have no idea how this is going to end, and find it really unfortunate that this was the response of a portion of the community he loves. So from me, and from a whole lot of people, thank you for what you bring to our city, Baron. I’m excited to see what beauty you can bring out of this, because your whole life has been a process of bringing beauty out of adversity.