When things got tough, artist Tom Mosser decided to go big. Really big.
Mosser created the Really Big Faces project as his way of spreading positivity when the Covid pandemic began in 2020. Over the last two and half years, he painted more than 80 5-foot-tall portraits of Pittsburghers ranging from community leader and Manchester Bidwell Corporation founder Bill Strickland to Carnegie Mellon University Vice President Angela Blanton.
The exhibition is at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District through Friday, July 8.
Although he had planned to display a smaller collection of “big faces” in March 2020, Mosser says the delay caused by the pandemic was a blessing in disguise.
“You know those people who went out and played violin on their balconies in New York? This was my way of doing that,” Mosser says.
Mosser was inspired by artist Chuck Close’s massive self-portraits and the drawing style of illustrator Bernie Fuchs. He also drew influence from abstract artist Jackson Pollock’s “drip technique” and the color palettes of Pittsburgh icon Andy Warhol.
In addition to their faces, Mosser incorporates aspects of his subjects’ lives in the paintings. Pittsburghers from all walks of life poured their hearts out to him on social media. Every portrait subject also gave Mosser bios or supplementary photos for him to display next to the canvases.
“It’s about the diversity of the stories as much as the art itself,” says Mosser. “Everybody has a story, whether they’re a TV anchorman or a single mother raising two daughters.”
Due to supply chain issues, Mosser at first found difficulty in obtaining large canvases. But he was able to continue painting with the help of local craftsman Andy Petkac, who built frames for the canvases and helped hang them up in the exhibition space.
Mosser planned to present the exhibition with 30 pieces at the Spinning Plate Gallery in East Liberty, but the collection quickly outgrew the space. When he learned about the Energy Innovation Center, Mosser immediately fell in love with the place. He especially loved the skylights lining the ceiling of the main hallway and the views of Downtown and the North Side.
“It was a dream come true, a revelation really … I’m so glad I learned about this place because it’s truly a hidden gem,” Mosser says.
Although largely an incubation hub for all things technology, engineering and industrial design, the Center has more in store for its future. Don Evans, CEO of Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation, a business consulting firm that owns and operates the Center, says the building will start incorporating more of the arts into the space.
“We’ve never been as energized as we were during the opening of the show … This is another new way we can use this historical building … When you put the arts and sciences together, their synergy can solve problems,” says Evans.
Moving forward, Mosser hopes the Really Big Faces display will travel as a group exhibition and eventually find a home in a museum or at Pittsburgh International Airport. He also wants to hold a second show with even more faces in the future. None of the portraits are available for sale.
The exhibition closes on Friday, July 8, with a free celebration from 6 to 10 p.m. in the main hallway and Covestro Brightspace Room. Mosser will unveil three new portraits at the event: DJ Kinetik (Blake Kinetik), photographer Jill Farrar and Mayor Ed Gainey.