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Art School professor Jeff Carter showcases ‘Urban Fill’ sculpture at Chicago Architecture Biennial

Exhibition focuses on modernist themes in architecture

Jeff Carter and Jaxanna Fink
Jeff Carter (right), a professor in The Art School, and DePaul alumna Jaxanna Fink with their Chicago Architecture Biennial sculpture "Urban Fill." ​​(Photo courtesy of Jeff Carter)
Inside the Chicago Cultural Center rests a large landscape of neatly tiered construction materials atop a blue dumpster, marked with a small goldfinch in one corner. DePaul Art School professor and multi-media artist Jeff Carter created “Urban Fill,”​ a unique and playful yet deeply layered sculpture that explores different approaches to appreciating and using architecture.

The sculpture is on display as part of the prestigious Chicago Architecture Biennial through Feb. 11. Carter earned a University Research Council grant from DePaul to fund the project, and collaborated with student Jaxanna Fink on its design and construction.

“Having a piece included in the Biennial is something I’ve aspired to since the first one in 2014,” Carter says. “My piece takes on whole new possibilities when it’s in the context defined by the curators with the Floating Museum, which is very exciting,” he says, referring to an art collective that creates new models for sharing art with the public.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial showcases an eclectic mix of artwork from around the world. This year’s exhibition, “This is a Rehearsal,” focuses on economic, environmental and political issues woven into architecture.

The history behind the exhibition

“Urban Fill” is part of Carter’s “The Singer Pavilion Project,” which focuses on the last remaining structure of eight mid-century modern buildings that comprised the Michael Reese Hospital. The other seven were torn down by the city in 2009. Famous Bauhaus modernist architect Walter Gropius’ open design plan for the building was considered innovative for its time.

Carter has been interested in Gropius’ modernist designs for a long time and says the Singer Pavilion’s sleek glass windows and landscape views were very exciting during its time. The structure was used as a stand-alone psychiatric unit, offering patients a relaxing view of the outside world.

“According to Gropius, simple and uncluttered spaces were better for people,” Carter says. “They made people calmer, happier and more productive.”

Though the building still stands, it is dilapidated and endangered for demolition, inspiring many Chicagoans to advocate for its preservation. Carter previously focused on the other seven buildings in his project “The Common Citizenship of Forms,” which was displayed at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s S.R. Crown Hall in 2011.

Behind the Scenes of the Build

Carter collaborated on “Urban Fill” with then-student Fink, who graduated from DePaul in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in art and a minor in industrial design. Fink also received a grant from DePaul’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, which allowed her to use DePaul’s Idea Realization Lab to complete the project. Though the massive sculpture required extensive digital processing, material laser-cutting, sorting and constructing, Fink says it was a fun challenge.

“It’s an organized chaos of sorting everything because you have so many irregularly shaped pieces of wood and ceiling tile,” Fink says. “Personally, I thought that was fun. It was like a puzzle.”

Carter and Fink layered new materials including wood, drywall, pink insulation and cardboard in the form of a dumpster pile, a contrast Carter says supports his symbolic vision of “recycling” ideas for the Singer Pavilion.

“I wanted it to not just be about waste,” Carter says. “But also, the possibility of building new things. That’s when I came up with the idea of using new materials and giving them the shape of old materials.”

“Urban Fill” also touches on themes of health-care quality and access, especially for mental health conditions.

“It’s emblematic of a poorly functioning healthcare system,” Carter says. “It’s more than physical health, too. It’s mental health, which I believe has broader boundaries.”

The pavilion’s design had its flaws, as modernist architecture like the Singer has contributed to huge increases in bird deaths. For “Urban Fill,” Carter added a tiny goldfinch in one corner of the piece in memory of the 1,000 birds​ that recently crashed into the nearby McCormick Center’s glass windows and died.

“The little goldfinch model was included to be both a memorial for those birds and a reference to the landscape,” Carter says. “But also, to be surprising and delightful for the audience.”

Carter plans to add another landscape piece to his “Singer Pavilion Project” with the goal to display the whole collection in one space one day. Though the Singer Pavilion’s future remains ambiguous right now, Carter’s paradoxical sculpture of “new waste” offers a fresh and unique sight for visitors to enjoy and interpret.

For Fink, her work on this project has opened many avenues of personal growth as an artist, both technically and personally. “I wasn’t able to get much experience scanning and splitting things before,” she says. “Jeff taught me how to use different software on a massive scale. That really sharpened my problem-solving skills.”

Fink is proud to be part of such a large and publicly displayed project. “I noticed these tourists talking about the Chicago Biennial exhibit downtown,” Fink says. “They don’t know that I did something in there that I’m incredibly proud of.”

Emily Diaz is a student assistant for internal communications in University Communications.