Never one to consider playing football the sum of a man’s existence, iconic Steelers coach Chuck Noll often referred to the ends of NFL players’ careers as them getting on with “their life’s work.”
Baron Batch got on with his on Aug. 25 of last year when, after a brief conversation in an office with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, he learned that he was being cut, ending a two-year, four-month term of employment as a running back with the team that began during the 2011 NFL draft.
He hasn’t looked back since.
Along with fellow former Steeler and University of Pittsburgh standout offensive lineman John Malecki, Mr. Batch opened the art studio and marketing company Studio A.M. in Homestead’s historic East Eighth Avenue business district. Their motto “Up Late, Up Early” comes from Mr. Batch’s proclivity for staying up into the wee hours and still waking at dawn.
The setting is one of juxtaposition: a stately Victorian-era building with exposed brick and wooden floors, decorated with antiques and brightly colored modern art.
With his tight dreadlocks poking out under a backward black trucker cap, and his black T-shirt and gray jeans smeared with brightly colored oil paints, the Odessa, Texas, native waxes philosophical about art, business, writing and football, changing topics like a scat jazz artist, while the A Tribe Called Quest classic “Bonita Applebum” plays in the background.
“I loved my time with the Steelers ... [but] I had the opportunity to do something in my eyes, much bigger than football. So when I walked away, I walked away knowing where I was going.”
Ironically, it was during the downtime of recovery from a season-ending knee injury sustained during his rookie training camp that Mr. Batch rekindled a childhood love for visual arts.
“When I was a kid I would draw and draw and draw, because I couldn’t afford paints,” he said. An NFL salary changed that, and he took to it with the same discipline as the physical training and playbook memorization of football.
“I approached it like a job,” he said, devoting hours each day to painting and poring over texts on art and design. Although never formally trained (he studied communications at Texas Tech), he counts Andy Warhol, Banksy and Dr. Seuss among his influences.
“In grade school someone would ask what do you want to be, and I’d say ‘an artist,’ and they’d say, ‘Be realistic,’ and I’d say, ‘Well then, I want to be a football player,’ and they’d say, ‘Be realistic’,” laughed the guy who has managed to do both by age 26.
Hand grenades, astronauts and elephants are among his signature images, and he frequently incorporates text in his paintings. In addition to canvasses, he’ll paint objects from an old guitar to antique gear cogs or a crosscut saw emblazoned with the word “WORK” dozens of times. He uses mixed media, painting over screen printed photographs or carefully curated collages of newspapers to create a larger theme.
If Mr. Batch is the avant-garde polymath, Mr. Malecki is the Ron Swanson craftsman of the duo, creating custom-made furniture from reclaimed woods and metals.
Mr. Malecki, also 26, entered the NFL in 2010 as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans. For three years, he bounced around among five teams’ training camps and practice squads, including two different stints with the Steelers. He played in one game for the team and was released by Pittsburgh less than a week after Mr. Batch.
The two became close during offseason training and were nearby neighbors on the South Side. After being cut, Mr. Malecki stopped by Mr. Batch’s place to commiserate.
“We were just sitting there like, ‘Well, what’s next?’ and Baron said ‘I’ve been painting nonstop. I’ve never had so much time to be able to do something.’ Literally every waking moment of our lives to that point was consumed by football. Baron said, ‘There’s a freedom that exists here,’ and I looked at him and I realized, ‘Yeah, there really is.’ ”
Although Mr. Batch had quickly turned the page, turning down a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, Mr. Malecki briefly continued pursuit of NFL dreams but by winter was regularly working with Mr. Batch. He nearly accepted a white collar sales job in April.
“I hit a crossroads with myself internally — do I want to walk the beaten path and run the rat race with the rest of the world, or do I want to jump out of the jar and do something different?”
He declined the offer, rather accepting a position as a “partner-in-hustle” with Mr. Batch (they refer to themselves as “creative hustlers”) and began building the Studio A.M. space.
Likewise Mr. Malecki has no formal woodworking training, but the Pitt marketing graduate and Murrysville native grew up with family in the construction trades. He describes himself as “handy,” and what he doesn’t know, he researches via the Internet and other local craftsmen.
One of his pieces, a gorgeous 4-by-8-foot table made of reclaimed oak, is decoupaged with antique newspapers and advertisements from Pittsburgh’s past, including a 1960 Pirates schedule and a 1959 Pittsburgh Press article, declaring “Forecast Glowing for Steel Output” — a painfully ironic headline for a Homestead-based business.
But, Studio A.M. is part of a mini revival for the Homestead business district that includes the soon to open Dorothy 6 Blast Furnace Cafe across the street, a planned facility for Meadville-based Voodoo Brewing and the $13 million One Homestead project of 51 apartment and townhouse units and four storefronts to open in May.
“There’s a lot happening in Homestead, and we’re very excited to have Studio A.M. here,” Homestead borough manager Ian McMeans said. “Baron has hung art around town — bringing people to Homestead who see that we’re on our way back up.”
Mr. Batch refers to Studio A.M. as an “incubator of creativity.” They’ve hired a full-time videographer and have a stable of other artists pursuing projects. The Pittsburgh Symphony has signed on as a marketing client. They are making T-shirts with a local screen printer. The studio is the former location of Smoke BBQ Tacqueria and they intend to use the kitchen space to host occasional dinners with local chefs. They make and jar gourmet salsa, too.
Referencing the legendary New York Factory studio space of Warhol, he said the pop art icon “created an awesome space to work, had creative friends come and make awesome things and had their famous friends pimp their stuff.”
In that respect, they’ve got a leg up — former Steelers teammates Brett Keisel and Doug Legursky are among those who’ve purchased work.
Their stated goal is simply to make the rent each month, and to that end they are cleaning up making custom cornhole boards for tailgates and backyard parties. Handmade by Mr. Malecki and colorfully painted to suit by Mr. Batch — typically with pro and college team montages — they cannot make them fast enough, even with a $300 price tag.
It’s quite a journey for the West Texan who came to Western Pennsylvania sight unseen three years ago.
“I love it here,” Mr. Batch said. While he could hardly have landed in a more football-frenzied town, he said he is enthused by the abundance of young creative energy in and around the city, from the arts to food.
“It just feels like the place is gonna pop big time.”
Late Saturday afternoon, Mr. Batch sat on a couch in Studio A.M. looking out at the traffic and passers-by on East Eighth Avenue and musing that the Steelers were playing a preseason game later that evening.
“I didn’t realize how stressful that was until it was gone. Literally every single day worrying about losing your job, getting injured and playing against guys that are trying to kill you. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for it.”
He laughed and added, “But I fit in the real world much better.”
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412.