By Katherine Duke '05

Hampshire student Christopher C. Cole installed his winning entry—a bathtub wrapped in gauze—in Stearns Steeple in April.

Jutting up into the sky in front of the Mead Art Museum, Stearns Steeple is among the most impressive and distinctive features of the Amherst campus. Everyone knows its stone exterior and has heard its bells, but can you guess what else was inside of it last April and May?

If you said “an antique cast-iron bathtub wrapped in 2,000 square feet of cotton gauze,” you are correct.

The bathtub and gauze constituted an untitled artwork by Hampshire student Christopher C. Cole. As the winning entry in an intercollegiate contest held by the Mead student docents, Cole’s was the only student art installation ever featured within the steeple—and, the museum staff hopes, just the first of many. 

Samuel Rowlett, coordinator of community projects at the Mead, oversaw the contest, which sought entries not just from Amherst and the rest of the Five College Consortium but from community colleges and other institutions of higher education throughout the Pioneer Valley. He said the contest served two main purposes: to bring students from area colleges to Amherst and the Mead and to have those students think conceptually about architecture and relics.

The winning artist moved his installation into the steeple on April 13. “All of my work deals implicitly or explicitly with memory—the documentation of experience itself,” says Cole, whose concentrations at Hampshire are studio art and psychoanalytic theory. “I’ve always had sort of a conflicted relationship to water. So I wanted to take this object [the bathtub] and, with the gauze, attempt to sort of soften or mute it, in a way—subdue it—but also carry with it an element of preservation as well, or care.” He created the installation for a course at Smith, and it was part of a solo show at UMass, but when he read of the contest at Amherst, he felt it would be well suited to the Stearns Steeple space.  

The student docents agreed.  They “were attracted by the simplicity of Mr. Cole’s work and specifically how it activates the history and significance of the steeple itself,” according to a plaque accompanying the installation. “With its references to purification and preservation, the installation explores ideas surrounding the human interaction with ritualistic and spiritual space."

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04