Burton Morris speaking at podium next to Cathedral artwork
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Pop artist Burton Morris said he owes his life to the Cathedral of Learning. You can now see his painting of it in Hillman Library.

  • Arts and Humanities
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Cathedral of Learning

On March 31, internationally acclaimed pop artist Burton Morris returned to his hometown to unveil a painting of the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library.

“The unveiling has been long in the making but we’re here despite pandemic interruptions to celebrate the creation of this amazing painting,” said Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd. “Creativity unites all the University’s intellectual and artistic endeavors, and I believe no single virtue better describes what humans do best than creativity. Burton has such deep roots at Pitt, and this fantastic work of art is heartfelt and meaningful.”

The painting, which Morris said he aimed “to make larger than life but simplify in my style,” stands at six feet tall and will be on display indefinitely at Hillman, across from the Text and conText Lab.

“Trying to simplify a building with such complexities is fascinating,” said Morris, who some might recognize from his artwork on the television show “Friends.”

“I added pop colors in the background to energize it, make it radiate and monumental. My goal was to make it a universal piece to excite people,” he said.

While delivering remarks at an unveiling ceremony in the library, Morris held an armband his mother received as a Pitt student in 1954 and expressed hopes for his three daughters to one day attend the University that means so much to him.

“My joke is: Thank God we had the Cathedral, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “My father was a war veteran and finance major, and my mother was a physical education and health education major. They met at the Tuck Shop.”

He recalled seeing the iconic structure every time he set foot outside his childhood home on Beeler Street, located less than two miles from the University of Pittsburgh.

Since then, the Cathedral has remained ever-present in his life.

In grade school, it was the setting for Saturday morning drawing courses. As a teenager, it became a haven to relax and sketch the flying buttresses and fireplace. Even as a Carnegie Mellon University fine arts undergraduate student, he was propelled back to Pitt for more art classes in the Cathedral and to socialize with Pitt people, including his friend Fred Rogers

After launching his professional career in advertising, his work as an illustrator for Pitt Magazine kept him nearby. This position, he said, freed him to explore his artistic style.

While it never landed him his childhood dream job of Marvel or DC illustrator, his skill would eventually capture the eyes and revere of President Barack Obama, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, his late friend Stan Lee and other globally respected people and institutions.

But Morris says the Cathedral commission was a career highlight. He was asked to paint the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere two years ago by Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Provost Cudd to commemorate Pitt’s 2019-2020 Year of Creativity.

I'm known for painting icons and symbols, but the Cathedral, a unique and special place, is one of the pinnacle icons of Pittsburgh, so being asked to do this was an honor,” said Morris. “This was a work of passion and happiness,” said Morris. “I’m just glad I could leave something here.”

After a day of visiting campus, Morris spoke to students, including University Honors College fellows in the Creative Arts and UHC Research programs.

“It was such an incredible opportunity and a great example of how artistry and creativity can translate into a successful career path,” said Ben Asciutto, a third-year student dual majoring in business and film. “The biggest lesson I took away from it was his advice surrounding failure in life. He told us to ‘expect failure’ so we can expect our success following it. I thank Burton for coming in to speak to us and for an amazing unveiling.”

Get your own version and support a good cause

In honor of the new installation, the University Store on Fifth will be selling reproductions of the artwork.

Our store has partnered with Burton Morris and the chancellor’s office to provide merchandise featuring the commissioned art,” said Megan Moser, Pitt’s business and operations merchandise manager. “We’ll have apparel pieces, drinkware and accessories as well as notecards and prints for featuring this amazing rendition of our beloved Cathedral.”

Products will be available both in-store and online, starting April 1. Eighty percent of the proceeds will support the Pitt Success Pell Match Program.


— Kara Henderson