Jutting up into the sky in front of the Mead Art Museum, Stearns Steeple has long been one of the most impressive and distinctive features of the Amherst campus. We’ve all seen its stone exterior and heard its bells, but would you care to guess what else is now inside of it?

Christopher C. Cole makes the final touches on his installation.

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

The bathtub and gauze constitute an untitled artwork by Hampshire College student Christopher C. Cole. As the winning entry to an intercollegiate contest held earlier this spring by the Mead student docents, Cole’s is the only student art installation ever featured within Stearns Steeple—and, the museum staff hopes, just the first of many.  

Samuel Rowlett, who holds the new position of coordinator of community projects at the Mead, oversaw the contest, which called for 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. “This was our maiden voyage, and I think it’s just been a huge success,” he said after a reception for the installation April 14. “We’re hoping that next year we can repeat the process and make it a tradition, because I think it would be a really good way to, one, bring students from the [other] colleges in the area to Amherst and to the Mead, and also to have them think conceptually about architecture and the relics, the sort of relic that [Stearns Steeple] is.”

Rowlett and the docents might even visit classes and work with professors to incorporate the contest into the participating schools’ curricula. The next winner “might not even be an individual artist; it might be a class doing a collaborative project,” he said.

This year’s winning artist moved his installation into the steeple on April 13 and then attended the reception the following afternoon. “All of my work deals implicitly or explicitly with memory—the documentation of experience itself,” said Cole, whose concentrations at Hampshire are studio art (installation, performance and printmaking) 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 originally created the installation last year for a course at Smith College, and it was part of a recent 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.   

Those judging the contest agreed. “[T]he Mead Student Docents were attracted by the simplicity of Mr. Cole’s work and specifically how it activates the history and significance of the steeple itself,” reads the plaque that accompanies the installation. “With its references to purification and preservation, the installation explores ideas surrounding the human interaction with ritualistic and spiritual space.”

Cole’s installation will be on display in the steeple during daylight hours through May 22, 2011. Whose art will the docents select next? The Mead intends to announce next year’s contest by the end of the fall 2011 semester.