When retired Steeler Baron Batch and his brightly colored art got drafted last September by art teacher Adrienne Day, some unexpectedly cool things began to happen at West Greene Elementary School.
Even now, Day is amazed at the circumstances that ensued from the moment, “I Googled ‘modern artists locally’ and found a football player who makes art,” to a winning season of inspiration, instruction and ultimately, canvas wall hangings for the school to celebrate a unique partnership between her kids and that football player.
Baron Batch retired from the Steelers in 2012, but stayed in Pittsburgh to make a name for himself as an artist with a penchant for public works. His Studio A.M. in Homestead is part gallery, part studio and sometime café, with lunch specials and a chance to meet the artist in his element.
Day, a creative force happily packaged as an art teacher who brings out the best in her students, was on a mission to show them that artists are still alive and well in the 21st century.
“Last year, one of my students said to me, ‘All you ever talk about is dead artists.’ I decided that this year’s focus would be on artists that are currently making art,” Day says. “When I found Baron, I loved his colors and animal totems. I saw the connection between what he was doing and my kids’ need to find themselves through symbols and color – plus, he was an athlete. These are things they can really relate to.”
The art of Baron Batch is bold and bright, with plants and animals, cityscapes and succinct statements painted on canvases, buildings and walls. It incorporates verbal prompts that spell out the metaphors of mindfulness – honor, courage, resourcefulness, respect. His symbols – eyes, feathers, swirls and reversed letters that create patterns within words – were something that Day’s students would soon discover were a language that can be used to tell the world who they are and who they hope to be.
At the beginning of the school year, Day introduced Batch to her students by adding his elephant that appears on garage doors around Pittsburgh to her PowerPoint presentation, showing what they would be doing for the year. This, she told them, is a real-live artist.
“A parent called me a week later to ask, ‘Who’s this retired Steeler who does art my son’s been talking about?’ I knew I was onto something if her son was excited enough to go home and tell her. So I contacted Baron through his Studio A.M. website to see if he could come meet my students.”
Once the connections were made, Batch and Day began brainstorming the many ways of teaching kids through his art. “It was very open-ended. We talked about him visiting to talk and helping with a public piece that could be put on display. Baron was very flexible about what it might cost, but there was no school budget for extra projects, so …”
Serendipity stepped in.
Day, a Washington & Jefferson College graduate, decided to attend the homecoming dance in October. There, she met fellow grad Kimberly Price, external communications manager for Rice Energy Inc., a natural gas extraction company that hires 90 percent of its work force locally. “We started talking shop, and I told her about using Baron’s art to work with my students, and she loved it. She said Rice is committed to investing where they do business and told me to submit a proposal.”
By Thanksgiving, Day was thrilled to learn she had the funding and made her first visit to Studio A.M. to meet the artist over Christmas break.
Day created lessons using Batch’s imagery as themes. Kindergartners worked with butterflies, using color and shapes to send their imaginations soaring. First- and second-graders headed to outer space, using torn paper, line art and plenty of paint, glue and glitter to build rockets and add texture inspired by the colors in Batch’s works. Third- and fourth-graders explored all things up in the air, learning more advanced techniques to express their ideas.
Fifth and sixth grade is where “they start becoming self-conscious, talking about themselves and wondering who they are,” Day says. “Because they’re kind of shy about it, I got them to express who they were through their animal totems. Baron’s symbols and words helped them key in personal statements about themselves, and they made their own emojis and did paintings on canvas.”
Those canvas paintings were a warmup for the centerpiece of the project – making wall hangings for the school that fifth- and sixth-graders would paint and Batch would take to his studio, add his touches, then bring back to the school to be part of the spring art show.
Baron came to school for a day in January and February and worked with all of Day’s students. “I was impressed with his ability to watch and ask questions that got them thinking. They were so comfortable with him and his approach, which was to let them explore, yet be able to talk about what they were doing, and why. It’s funny, but the only thing they ever asked him about football was what his number was.”
Batch returned March 21 to an art room floor covered with pristine white canvases. A group of Rice Energy volunteers was there to set out supplies and do some painting themselves. As the day progressed, teachers and parents dropped by to add their own touches to what, in the end, would be hundreds of square feet of art.
The first class of fifth-graders attacked the canvases with bright colors, some brushing large swatches, some finding quiet corners to decorate with lines and symbols familiar to the universal child – rabbits, cartoon monsters, rainbows, hearts. As other classes arrived, the images began to change, were added to, painted over or transformed with new visual meaning. Batch stood above it all, watching, moving, sometimes leaning down to observe more closely, sometimes striking field poses as he added his presence to the moment to ask questions or make observations.
“That looks very thoughtful.”
“What were you thinking when you did that?”
“You own it. You made it. Now, how do you make it better?”
Kids rubbed elbows and joined forces to create symbols as colors brightened, darkened or were transformed. Images made by others morphed, and Batch sometimes interrupted the flow by asking, “What is the difference between thinking and playing?”
A moment of silence, then a tentative, “When you play, you don’t always think.”
“Check. Now back to work.”
“When I start working on it, I’m getting into it, into the minds of all these little kids I’m seeing that process now; it’s amazing. I’ve never had a chance to do art like this,” Batch says, standing with folded arms, eyes intent on the riot of color, image and random pattern that was emerging. As the day progressed, thoughts would occasionally become words to describe his own creative process: “It is impossible to teach. But it is possible to learn. I own my own mess because I learn from doing, not from being told.”
An age milestone was crossed when sixth-graders arrived to look at what had been done so far before dropping to their knees to tackle empty spaces or layer over to find their own inspiration. Dark areas became background for symbols, bronze and gold paint added honor to brown, words began to appear more strongly. Splatters and dots moved the eye, and those moments of sudden silence as play became thought became more frequent. As the last class painted, used scrapers to add texture, danced on one leg to plant a symbol in a sea of wet paint, music provided a backdrop, and the level of concentration it brought caused Batch to smile.
“I always have music when I work.”
Watching the body movements of 20 energetic kids as the last class painted to the music, it was easy to see why.
A week later, Day gave her students another chance to enhance the canvases with markers, then packed them away to be delivered to Studio A.M. over Easter break.
“Wow!” Batch says, grinning broadly as the first canvas was rolled out on the floor of his studio. “Look at the detail they finished up with. It’s awesome! I can’t wait to paint!”
At the Spring art show, the halls were filled with more than 1,000 pieces of art and students were there with their impressed parents and relatives in tow. It was a good time to ask: What did you think about a football player who is also an artist?
“I remember the whole classroom saying, ‘Wow!” sixth-grader Jacob Dane says, taking time to seek out a wall hanging and point to his part of the composition. “See, that’s what I did.”
And what did you learn? A moment of thoughtfulness, then, “He told us to open our minds up and just be creative. He really inspired us.”
What does Baron Batch think of the students of West Greene?
“I think he likes us,” Day says. “He asked me what it would take to get on the substitute art teacher list!”