Bright, bold and happy: A journey from stained glass to mosaics

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Pictured above: Tree Sculpture

By Rhona Duffy

Without a formal art education, Irish mosaicist Elaine Prunty worked her way from a night class making stained glass bird light-catchers up to creating four-metre high stainless steel mosaicked structures. Rhona Duffy talks to her about her 23-year art career.

Elaine Prunty’s exterior mosaics are bright, bold and happy. At a local night class in stained glass more than twenty years ago, Elaine says she fell in love with glass immediately. “It was the colours, the lustres, the reflectivity and the textures,” she says. “I didn’t have stained glass and leading skills then and so, instead, I decided to use glass in mosaic work. I sometimes feel I’m committing a certain ‘sacrilege’ in using the glass the way I do, as I’m not using light behind it, but such is the nature of the glass that it’s equally as beautiful without the light.”

Starting out

Elaine initially started out making little mosaics for craft fairs. “I realised very quickly that you can’t compete with ‘made in China’ and that a lot of people don’t understand the value of handmade,” she says. Her first foray into 3D public mosaic work was the ‘Seven-year-old tree’ a self-financed project that was accepted into the Sculpture in Context exhibition back in 2009.

“In creating that sculpture, I wanted to imagine what would happen if a child’s drawing of a tree came to life and appeared in real size in the cedars woodland area of the Botanic gardens in Dublin,” explains Elaine. “I was inspired by the drawings of trees I received from the children of Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, a local Gaelscoil (an Irish language-medium school) in Ballymun, where my children had attended.”

Elaine Prunty in her studio

Government initiative provided boost

It was the seven-year-olds whose drawings resonated the most with Elaine’s remembered childhood drawings of trees, with curly trunks and apples in the shape of numbers sixes. “That project gave me the confidence and experience to continue,” continues Elaine. “In Ireland, we have a fantastic initiative that supports and encourages artists. It’s the Per Cent for Art scheme and it means that any new building work must spend 1% of the budget on art.”

Elaine says the scheme has been hugely important to her. “As a self-taught artist with no formal art education, it has allowed me to develop, grow, experiment and challenge myself. It has provided budgets that allowed me to work on a larger scale and in different dimensions. In essence, it has funded my development as an artist.” 

Over the last 20 years, the main building work happening in Ireland was in the building of new schools. “I applied for many of the related Per Cent for Art projects, which have budgets ranging from €10K to €50K,” says Elaine. “They’re generally an open two-stage competition. The first stage is usually an expression of interest and a CV. If you get to stage two, you get paid to prepare and pitch your idea and you have about a one in five chance of being able to realise your idea. To date, I’ve created 12 public artworks throughout Ireland under this scheme.”

St Bridget mosaic

Pricing a project

Elaine believes it’s important to have a ballpark figure for pricing projects. “I remember reading an article by Sonia King in relation to pricing our work and she was adamant that as mosaic artists we should NOT apply a per square meterage price to our work – that was what tilers did and we were artists,” explains Elaine. “However, it’s been my experience that you have to have a ballpark figure to be able to start somewhere and that helps you work out what size to make and what figure to charge.”

She acknowledges that, while she’s worked out roughly how long it’ll take her to do a particular design, there will be some variations to factor in. “I ask myself a number of questions to reach a final price. Will I have to allow for time for student participation workshops? Will the work involve kiln use? Will I have to involve other artists and other trades, e.g stainless steel fabrication or fibreglass moulding? Will I need an assistant? How long will installation take? I’ve found for the majority of my work I can put a ballpark figure of approx. €3,000 [euro] per metre square for the mosaic work element of a project. I may need to increase that though as glass prices, along with a lot of other costs, seem to have gone up 30% recently.”

Spring panel – detail from Tree Sculpture

What now?

Up to this point, Elaine has mainly been creating child-centred and child-focused art. “I’ve learned so much about five to thirteen-year-olds and I’ve loved their involvement in my work. I’m honoured that these commissions have allowed me a little, but amazing, glimpse into these children’s lives.”

So what’s next for Elaine? “For the future, I want to challenge myself to create more adult-themed work and to make more personal and political work. I’m also really keen to learn new glassmaking skills to properly utilise my kiln, which to date I’ve only used for making decals (another sacrilege!). In keeping with this year’s Glass Society of Ireland climate-conscious theme for the United Nations International Year of Glass 2022, I’m hoping to try to create work that uses the many boxes of glass offcuts I’ve steadfastly retained.” 

To date, Elaine says she’s mainly worked in “splendid isolation” in her studio in her back garden. “But recently I have got together with some fellow Irish mosaic artists and we’re in the very early stages of starting an Irish mosaic artists association. MAAI is our new organisation and we’re excited to find out where that might lead.”

Elaine Prunty’s advice for winning and managing public art projects

  1. Don’t take rejection personally. In 2019, I applied for nine Per Cent for Art projects; I was shortlisted for four and ultimately awarded one of them.
  2. There’s room for everyone.
  3. If it isn’t for you it’ll pass you by. 
  4. You will find the right fit.
  5. The more applications you do, the better you get at making applications. 
  6. Get someone else to look over your application. Writing about yourself and your work can be difficult, someone more detached might do that a lot better. 
  7. Don’t give up.
  8. You’re only as good as your last job. 
  9. Sometimes you have to bite your lip. I’ve worked with both the best and the worst of curators. The best to date was Hilary Morley, who was hugely supportive and helpful on the Crann Tree project. I’d love to kiss and tell about the worst, but sometimes you have to bite your lip! 
  10. Get everything in writing. Contracts are really important. Stand firm. 

Instagram: @elainepruntyartist