Flower Show to feature student sculpture

Art and architecture students collaborate with the Botanic Garden to design and build a sculptural fountain for Mount Holyoke's 2018 Spring Flower Show.

By Lauren Simonds

A cold January wind carried the scent of snow across the Mount Holyoke College campus. The grounds adjacent to the Botanic Garden, once radiant, lay brown and dormant.

Steps away within the Talcott Greenhouse, hundreds of verdant annuals — planted from seed and ranging from calceolaria and cineraria to pansies and primroses — lined the greenhouse benches, where more than 5,000 potted tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other assorted bulbs will join them shortly.

Among the plants, three students, Deb Kelly FP’18, Stella Chepkwony FP’18 (both architectural studies majors and Frances Perkins scholars, the College’s program for older students whose educations have been interrupted) and Samiha Tasnim ’19 (art studio), wrangled long, bent sections of copper pipe along the central bench.

The students, under the guidance of Joseph Smith, co-chair of art studio and professor of art, have joined forces with the Botanic Garden to create a fountain for the annual Spring Flower Show, which runs this year from March 3 – 18. A touchstone College tradition harking back to 1971, the flower show presents a different theme each year. This year’s theme, “Gateway to Spring,” features three benches of flowers — organized by color and height — and arranged in a linear, angular design to convey formality.

In keeping with the theme, the students decided to build a sculptural fountain approximating Mount Holyoke’s iconic entry gate — the most forward and formal architectural aspect of the College. “Professor Smith challenged us to consider the meaning of the sculpture,” said Chepkwony, “and not just the aesthetics.”

Planning the show is an enormous undertaking and a year-round collaborative effort led by Tom Clark, the Botanic Garden’s director and curator, and his team: Jimmy Grogan, greenhouse manager; Lily Carone, horticultural assistant; and horticultural technician Brian Clark (no relation).

The Botanic Garden, which includes the greenhouses and nearly three acres of outdoor gardens, offers a diverse collection of roughly 2,000 kinds of plants. Like the College’s Art Museum, library and archives, the Botanic Garden provides collaborative opportunities for the academic departments, programs and centers across campus.

In thinking about the flower show, Tom Clark saw another opportunity. Certain elements — the greenhouse with its long rectangular benches and the types of plants they can grow and force to bloom in the time allowed — remain fixed year-to-year. Why not have students design, build and install the water feature, the show’s most changeable element and the one that creates the biggest visual impact?

“Like the way our students updated the Firstie Plants last summer, the flower show provides another a wonderful opportunity to involve students in an important and valued College tradition,” said Clark.

With that goal in mind, Clark approached Smith, whose drawing students are often found sketching in Talcott Greenhouse. Could he recommend students who might be interested in building a sculptural fountain for the show. 

“Creating this sculpture for the Botanic Garden is another way for the art studio department to join forces with a lovely, important and significant College resource,” said Smith. “It’s good for us, for the students and for the community.”

Artistic form meets function

Fabrication took place mainly in the sculpture studio, where the students had access to, as Tasnim noted, “everything from a glue gun to an arc welder.” They cut, bent and soldered copper pipe to build the skeleton. They used a drill press to make holes in the fountain, and they cut wooden panels into an outline echoing the architectural elements of the gate.

While they used a jigsaw to cut the gate’s columns, recreating the intricate scrollwork that spans the arch required a more specialized tool. For that, the students turned to the College’s Makerspace — a large, open space in the Art Building where boundless creativity meets the 21st century. There they used the Epilog Laser Fusion M2, a computerized laser cutter capable of producing the extremely sharp, precise cuts they needed.   

When completed, the linear fountain will be centered in a 34-foot long channel pool and measure just over 29 feet long, three-quarters of an inch wide, and five feet tall at its highest point. The copper pipe skeleton, suspended from the greenhouse ceiling and attached to a pump, will form a loop of flowing water. The arch and two side spans will create a falling, see-through curtain of water.

The student experience

Tasnim’s love of both sculpture and flowers instantly drew her to the project. When she first arrived on campus, she fell in love with the Botanic Garden and attends the flower show every spring. “As a sculptor, it’s an exciting opportunity,” she said. “I’m thrilled to help design and build a fountain for the show.”

For Kelly, the project offered an exciting change from static creations. “You build your art in a studio or create an architectural model,” she said. “In this case, we had an opportunity to create functional, architectural art in a real-world setting.”

The students weren’t the only ones who expressed excitement over the collaboration. Brian Clark noted the challenge of coming up with a new water feature every year. “It’s great working with the students, because they’re looking at it with fresh eyes,” he said. “They also bring metallurgy skills that we don’t have. We’re gardeners.”

The collaboration did not end with the students and the Botanic Garden staff. The flower show, Tom Clark added, could not run like the well-oiled machine it is if not for the effort of College ground crews, plumbers, painters, carpenters and student employees working hard behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, thousands of annuals and bulbs will be organized — by height and a radiating color scheme — to form a spectral explosion beneath an iconic sculptural homage to Mount Holyoke. “The show is as much a treat for the senses as it is a resource for gardeners to see exactly what these bulbs do, especially with regard to color,” said Clark.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re an avid gardener or you don’t know a salpiglossis from a chionodoxa, the annual Spring Flower Show offers something for everyone.

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