The Three Rivers Arts Festival opened Friday without any works from Baron Batch on display, which in light of his fast-rising reputation in the West Texas art world might be a shame.
Only, Mr. Batch himself does not yet want to put on a display in Pittsburgh -- other than displaying his running skills for the Steelers.
"Here it's kind of tricky because of how big the Steelers name is," Mr. Batch said. "I don't ever want it to turn into people coming to see a Steeler; I want them to come to see the art."
They have been doing just that in other places, such as April's 35th Lubbock Arts Festival, where Mr. Batch was the featured artist in a field of about 100, and not because he starred for the college football team there, Texas Tech. His acrylic on wood painting, "Papa Time," was selected for the commemorative poster for the festival.
"I didn't follow football at all, I had no idea who he was," said Elizabeth Regner, executive director of the Lubbock Arts Alliance. "But his artwork is extraordinary, that's what intrigued me the most, not the fact he's a football player or where he comes from. It's the fact his artwork is a fabulous example of contemporary folk art."
Mr. Batch painted 11 originals for the festival. He said he sold them all, with the large pieces fetching $2,500 apiece. Karen Knight, wife of Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight, wanted to buy one that Ms. Regner owns and isn't giving up. She settled on a canvas reproduction that Ms. Regner was delivering to the Knight home Friday.
Mr. Batch sold hundreds of prints and postcards at the festival, and his works continue to be so popular that they are included on the monthly Art Walk in Lubbock.
"People were calling me at the office, 'Do you have any of his artwork still around?' " Ms. Regner said. "We're literally selling artwork out of the office."
It all began with what was not a lucky break for Mr. Batch, when the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee tore during his rookie training camp in 2011. He had surgery and missed the rest of the season. Last spring, still rehabilitating his knee from the injury, Mr. Batch found time to paint.
"When I was a kid I would draw and was artistic, and then I stopped. I had time on my hands and figured I'd pick it back up," he said. "Now it's turned into something, it's evolving. I don't have any idea where it will go."
In about 15 months, Mr. Batch has produced "probably about 50" originals. He painted one for teammate Brett Keisel that incorporated the defensive end's famous beard and his celebration dance. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin admired it and Mr. Batch went to work on a large painting for him. He delivered it to Mr. Tomlin recently. It's a painting called "The Standard," which has a group of Steelers gathered around introductions at Heinz Field, each with the name "Standard" on his back.
"That's one of my favorite things he says, 'The standard is the standard,' " Mr. Batch said of Mr. Tomlin. "That's what it means, whoever is out there we expect you to get the job done.
"I did that for him. He liked it. It's fun to do stuff like that, to have teammates and coaches appreciate it."
To have those in the art world appreciate it has to mean more.
"I'm pretty convinced he's an artist who happens to make his living as a professional football player," Ms. Regner said.
"His art tells a story," she said. "So many times in art you see it is just a pretty picture. It's a flower, it doesn't have meaning, and if you know Baron and know his story and read any of his articles, you can look at a painting and see where it came from. That's what good art does, it tells a story, and all his paintings tell a story about him as a person and I think that's what makes it so appealing."
Not long after the Steelers drafted Mr. Batch in the seventh round two years ago, many of the team's fans discovered his blog and his moving story about how he drove 860 miles to spend draft day with his estranged father in New Orleans. His popularity took hold much faster than most ordinary seventh-round draft picks as fans followed his blog, where his writing and story-telling skills became obvious, as did his photography.
He traveled to Haiti in January 2011 to help that ailing country as it rebuilt from earthquake devastation, selling the photos he took to help the relief effort there. He had a first-person story published in Pittsburgh Magazine.
Now, he's turned his talents to art. One story Mr. Batch did not tell was why it took him so long to move from drawing as a child to painting as an adult.
"The reason he didn't start painting until he was older is because his family could not afford paints or materials," Ms. Regner said. "He would sit in church and draw all over church bulletins. A little old lady would sit behind him and thump him on the head and tell him to quit drawing all over everything in church."
His fervor to paint has not affected his passion to play football, Mr. Batch insists.
"Football itself a lot of times isn't necessarily fun -- it's a lot of work, a lot of injuries," he said. "But I love competing, and playing in the NFL is one of the most competitive things you can do. That's why I love it, I love the competition and I think that's why I excelled at it.
"It's no different than anything else I go to do that I'm passionate about, art whatever, me competing to get better, to improve. I love the game."
His first season back from his knee injury was not a big success in terms of production in 2012. He ran for just 49 yards on 25 carries and caught four passes for 31 yards. He was released in November and spent three weeks on the Steelers practice squad before he rejoined the 53-man roster with three games left. An arm injury in his second game back was enough for the Steelers to place him on injured reserve a second time.
The team drafted a running back in the second round, Le'Veon Bell, and Mr. Batch returns with two others from last season, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, along with free agent veteran LaRod Stephens-Howling to compete for playing time and maybe even a roster spot.
"I don't want to confine myself to a box," Mr. Batch said. "I'll work on getting better, playing special teams and making the team again."
Coach Tomlin might call him a work of art in progress.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published June 8, 2013 4:00 AM