Syd Carpenter with BIO 334 students at the hügel site to prepare and organize the garden's plants.
April 17, 2024

Artwork and Sustainability Go Hand-in-Hand at the Berman’s Latest Installation

This spring, the Berman cuts the ribbon on its latest addition to the Outdoor Sculpture Collection. The Instrument is a living work of art that aligns with two of Ursinus College’s long-held values: public art and sustainability.

Over the past year, the Berman Museum of Art has collaborated with artists Syd Carpenter and Steve Donegan to develop a hügel garden on the college’s campus. Carpenter and Donegan previously worked together in 2021 on La Cresta, a hügel garden at the Woodmere Art Museum. On the heels of that project, Berman Museum Executive Director Lauren McCardel reached out to the artists to plan a similar installation at Ursinus.

“I was so impressed by the beauty of Syd and Steve’s hügel at Woodmere—it creates a quiet resting place for reflection in nature,” McCardel said. “I was struck by how hügels at Ursinus could align with the Berman’s mission to engage students across disciplines, enable community participation, and contribute aesthetic value to our campus as a living addition to our outdoor sculpture collection. Syd and Steve understood this vision immediately, and they’ve been wonderful partners in bringing this project to life.”

Stemming from a traditional Eastern European gardening technique, hügels are giant mounds of earth that can be several feet high and can vary in shape and size. The inside of each mound has layers of organic materials—like rotting wood or plant debris—that boost the soil quality and support the plant life on top.

The mounds mimic the natural process of soil formation, where layers of organic matter decompose over time to create rich, nutrient-dense soil. Compared to flat gardens, hügels improve drainage and water conservation, reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and require less maintenance.

Carpenter was enthusiastic to work with the medium again. “As artists and gardeners,” she explained, “making hügel gardens combines two modes of reacting to our environment. Sculpture provides the shape, the footprint. The plantings are the ever-changing element allowing for endless expressive possibilities, from sustainable land use to the creation of ornamental and contemplative spaces.”

The Berman’s hügel garden marks 20 years of Ursinus College’s commitment to sustainability. One of the things that makes the hügel stand out from more recent projects like the rain garden (2022) is its ability to maintain year-round visual appeal. It will be the newest gem in the college’s already gorgeous campus and increase visibility of ongoing sustainability efforts.

The Instrument is also the first addition to the art museum’s outdoor sculpture collection since Kati Merz’s Live the Questions smokestack (2020). Like that project, the development of The Instrument encourages participation from Ursinus students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community. Ursinus College’s facilities team built the mounds this past winter, which included digging trenches, filling them with lumber and gravel, and installing steel beds. A team of faculty and staff in environmental science, biology, and the Office of Sustainability helped guide the project from conception to completion.

“We intentionally incorporated wood that came from campus in the mounds and worked collaboratively with the artists on plants that would suit our southeast PA climate,” Ursinus College Director of Sustainability Kate Keppen said. “Students have already worked on various projects around the hügel in their classes. I think it’ll be a great addition to our community, and I look forward to seeing how it will continue to grow and transform.”

The Berman is hosting community planting days at the end of April to fill the mounds with plant life to get students, alumni, and members of the public more involved in the project. This fall, there will be a dedication ceremony to formally introduce The Instrument at the height of its beauty.

About the Artists

Syd Carpenter sculpts with clay to tell stories of African American culture, U.S. history, legacy, and courage. The medium feeds naturally into her exploration of African American land ownership, farming, and gardening. She is professor emerita of art and holds the Peggy Chan Professorship in Black Studies at Swarthmore College. She earned her BFA and her MFA from the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University. Her work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the University of Illinois, the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Fuller Craft Museum, and many more collections both private and public.

Steve Donegan was born in New York. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York before moving to Philadelphia in 1976 to study painting at Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University. When he graduated Tyler, Donegan went to see the looms at Philadelphia College of Textiles (now Jefferson University) and developed an interest in weaving. His process entails using multiple layers of images from photography, drawing, and painting that are redrawn and converted into a digital file that interfaces with a computerized jacquard loom. Donegan has exhibited his work from New York to New Mexico, including at the American Fine Craft Show at the Brooklyn Museum and Helen Drutt Gallery in Philadelphia. His work also takes inspiration from his garden.