- Feature Stories
- News Flash
- Making Noise
- The Fence
- Beyond the Cut
- Inspire Innovation
By: Brittany McCandless (HS'08)
Long before he made his mark on the Academy Awards in Hollywood, well before he illustrated the summer Olympic Games in Athens, two decades before he brought to life the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, and 21 years before he released Pop!, a coffee-table book featuring a retrospective of his artwork, Burton Morris thought he'd hit it big.
It was 1986, and he was graduating from Carnegie Mellon with degrees in illustration and graphic design; more importantly, he had a received a job offer with a big title. He would become the art director for a major Pittsburgh-based advertising firm. Soon he was art directing TV commercials for McDonald's foods and Tasters Choice coffees and winning ADDY Awards, the industry's most prestigious recognition.
But he found that the job entailed hiring illustrators rather than doing the creative work himself. After two and a half years, he decided to end the frustration. He quit to become art director at a smaller Pittsburgh agency. There, he planned to bring in new accounts and be the illustrator. Six months into his new job, he was working diligently to find clients, something not typically expected from an art director. The president of the firm pulled him aside. "Things don't happen overnight," he told Morris. "If you keep this up, you're never going to make it in this business."
Morris' response was to put in his two weeks' notice.
After some sleepless nights, wondering what he should do next, he took the little money in his bank account and rented a small space on Pittsburgh's North Side, which became Burton Morris Studios. He began putting his illustrations on canvases and T-shirts and transformed his drawing skills into a natural knack for painting. He had a unique style that incorporated bright, bold colors in simple designs of everyday images--everything from jazz musicians to coffee cups.
He didn't ignore marketing himself either, making sure he was represented in commercial illustrator catalogs that would land in mailboxes of corporations. "He was always busy, always working," remembers Morris' older sister, Stacey Raskin. "He was never, 'Woe is me.'" After she moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, she did what she could to support her brother by convincing some California boutiques to sell his T-shirts.
Thanks to Morris' marketing, calls started coming in from companies such as Sony, AT&T, Disney, and Hallmark. Although not every company chose to work with him, Morris didn't mind. He realized his reputation was growing. "Half the business was getting your name out there," he says.
In 1992, he opened his first art show at a gallery in Pittsburgh. Nationally, the Burton Morris name was spreading, too.
Then, the call came.
It was from an Absolut Vodka representative. Morris knew immediately that it was a watershed moment. Artwork commissioned by the Swedish company had become something of a modern art icon. Andy Warhol is widely regarded as starting the phenomenon when in 1985 he was commissioned to create a painting that included an Absolut bottle. Since then, Absolut ads, by a wide array of artists, have become collectors' items. In 1991, the company began its Absolut Statehood campaign, which selected an artist from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The artists were to create original paintings saluting the Absolut bottle and their home states, and the works would appear individually in full-page ads in USA Today and other publications.
The caller told Morris he had been selected to design the Pennsylvania ad. He would now have a national presence.
Two years later, he received another phone call, this time from his sister. She'd just sat down with her husband and kids to watch TV when she caught a glimpse of a Burton Morris T-shirt. "You're not going to believe this," she exclaimed on the phone, "but there's a guy on TV wearing one of your shirts."
The guy was David Schwimmer, and the show was Friends. But unlike with the call from Absolut Vodka, Morris couldn't fully appreciate the exposure. The fledgling comedy series had only aired six episodes. "I thought it was just a fun, lucky break."(Continued …)