A Mosaic of Hidden Hands: Five Sisters at York St Mary's Church

By Emily Mears | 10 June 2009
a painting and a mosaic in a church

Five Sisters by Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings. Picture: Shannon Tofts

Exhibition: Five Sisters, York St Mary's Church, York, until November 1 2009.

Deep in the depths of York Minster is a window entitled Five Sisters. Lacking the bright harlequin delights of the neighbouring stained glass windows, it seems to sit alone in a soft attire of greys and greens. Petal-shaped panes of grisaille glass sift through the sunlight and the shadows on the Cathedral floor shimmer like Mother of Pearl.

This unique light, twinned with its intricate abstract pattern, prompted art critic Matthew Collings and mosaicist Emma Biggs to use it as the inspiration for their new installation. Commissioned by York Museums Trust and held within a deconsecrated medieval Church, the installation, also called the Five Sisters, involves a huge mosaic and a set of eerie white oil paintings.

two people in a church

Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings in York St Mary's. Picture: Kippa Matthews

Using 12th century pottery shards stored in the vaults of York Art Gallery, Biggs has created a mosaic that reflects the roundel design of the original. The shards slant sideways, forming circular motifs while the gentle slope of a jug handle continues the curve. By breaking the jug handles in two, she has uncovered circles within circles; a ring of dusty terracotta darkens into a deep apricot interior.

If Emma's mosaic resembles the window's form, then Collings' paintings capture its light. Strict diamond grids made up of off-whites and not-quite pinks glow with a pellucid delicacy. Somehow, Matt has created a light illusion, but although he is the one holding the paintbrush, he is keen to stress that the paintings are "a collaborative piece." "Emma is the mind," he observes, "and I am the hand."

a mosaic

Five Sisters (mosaic) by Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings. Picture: Shannon Tofts

The installation does not just seek to visually echo the window; but also hints at something more. Pointing to a thumbprint on a pottery shard, Biggs explains that the installation is about "focussing on the forgotten labour of past artists."

She sees the window as an amalgam of history and curatorial care. Each time a pane cracks it is dutifully replaced. With different hands working on the same window, patterns inevitably get lost and colours come and go. Instead of losing the beauty of the window, Emma conservation allows it to "gain a little more," arguing that the window now "looks like a piece of modernism."

a painting

Picture: Shannon Tofts

Emma has echoed the evolution of the window in her mosaic. In the same way that the window holds a history of artists, the mosaic highlights the hidden hands which threw the pots, dipped them in the slip and gently placed them in the kiln.

The installation is a celebration of craftsmanship, a sort of small-scale retaliation. "Concept art is moving away from technique and skill," sighs Collings. "The problem is that craftsmanship is not the trendy thing at the moment and hasn't been for twenty years. We want to get it back on the map."

a mosaic

Picture: Shannon Tofts

Biggs has a slightly different view, believing that craftsmanship does exist, but is often outsourced. "Damien Hirst, for example, uses other craftsman to set his skeleton heads with diamonds," she says. "Curators make a sort of beauty out of the rhythm and regularity that they use to show the work, but the craftsmanship does not exist in a single body of the artist."

The church setting leads Collings to call the installation "the evangelism of people's labour", and leaving the installation, you really do feel compelled to make the short pilgrimage yourself through the cobbled streets of York to the Minster and to the window where it all began.

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