Photographers' eye for details transforms architecture into sentiments

John Conti
| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 8:27 p.m.

Want to add some extra fun to walking the streets of Pittsburgh? Or the campus of your alma mater? Or even while wandering about in the church of your choice?

Mark and Peggy Holewinski have come up with a new wrinkle on an idea that might be called finding the “alphabets of architecture.”

They take artistic photographs of architectural details that resemble letters and then they mount them in framed and matted sequences to create words or names.

The basic idea, they will be quick to tell you, is not at all new. But they have added their own twist: specializing in photographing specific places that hold special significance to the people who might hang their art at home. They try to find all the “letters” they need for their art in just one location, like a campus, or a church or school building, or even on a particular street.

The idea can have great resonance for someone who receives one of their pieces as a gift or orders it especially for just that right spot in the living or family room. It not only recalls special places meaningful to individuals because they have had a relationship to those places, but it also leads many who experience their art to go out and find all the “letters” that the Holewinski's, with their trained eyes, have seen.

Among places they've photographed are the campuses of Pitt and Penn State, areas of Pittsburgh, the center of Mt. Lebanon, Seton-LaSalle High School and the place where they started their “alphabet hunt,” their parish church, St. Bernard in Mt. Lebanon.

Mark has been a commercial and architectural photographer for about 30 years, and Peggy has a discerning eye. So, they've made a sort of sideline home-based business out of their art, and have created some 230 finished pieces in the last two years. They even take their sub-teen children out to help find good “letters” on buildings.

They first got the idea while contemplating a fundraiser for St. Bernard's, a cathedral-like, architecturally rich pile of Romanesque-style stone masonry, tile, decorative art and ironwork. They hunted “letters” and photographed them over three weeks. They then created, to order, some 40 pieces for members of the church, sharing the proceeds with the church. Some members chose a word like “Faith” or “Family” and others chose to have their names spelled out. All the pieces were based entirely on the photographs made at the church.

They then branched out to college campuses like Pitt and Penn State — one of their largest pieces spells out “We Are Penn State” — and they're considering other area campuses, as well. They found enough at Seton-La Salle High School — a fairly modern facility — to spell out “Rebels” (the school's team name) and “Seton,” too.

They even scoured the route of the Pittsburgh Marathon for “letters,” making up gifts for spouses to give to runners who competed successfully.

The results are artistic, engaging and, sometimes, humorous. One of several pieces that spell out “Pittsburgh” end with the “H” shape of the starkly sunlit facade of Fifth Avenue Place, Downtown. They end “Penn State” with a cleverly rendered perspective view of the new School of Engineering making the “E.”

The Holewinski's art is not just attractive, it has something to teach us about architecture, too.

Many of us don't often bother to examine the details of the buildings we like. We just take in our overall impression of a building without recognizing how much the fine points of a building contribute to our understanding and enjoyment. The old phrase “God is in the details” has long been a favorite of architects and artists, and the Holewinski's art can show you why. Even limited exposure to the Holewinski's art can help to train your eye.

The Holewinski's work with a framer — Lewinter Moulding in Sharpsburg — and a friend has started making jewelry pieces out of their photographs, too.


John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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