It's the majesty of Kerry; the landscapes really influence me

Artist Mary J. Leen is renowned for her stunning stained glass pieces. She talks to Stephen Fernane about her work and her early influences

Mary Leen from Tralee is a contemporary stained glass artist. She studied stained glass under famous Italian Master Alberto Positiano in Italy. She paints real people and subjects, something new that has never been seen in stained glass. Photos By Domnick Walsh
Mary Leen from Tralee is a contemporary stained glass artist. She studied stained glass under famous Italian Master Alberto Positiano in Italy. She paints real people and subjects, something new that has never been seen in stained glass. Photos By Domnick Walsh

Artist Mary J. Leen is renowned for her stunning stained glass pieces. She talks to Stephen Fernane about her work and her early influences.

It's easy to imagine someone of Mary Leen's talent sitting for hours on her own observing the stain glass windows of medieval churches in Europe. It's what one might call the archetypal vision quest of the artist. Mary's artistic flair was already alive long before her epiphany in the ruined old churches dotted along coastal France, Spain, Portugal and Sicily. But it's a moment the Ballymacelligott artist considers an important point in her career.

Inspiration is often a latent force waiting to be activated by passive experiences, and when Mary loaded the camper van and headed for the Continent over a decade ago, the first move in a colourful and creative journey was in motion. Obtaining a degree in Fine Art and a Masters in Professional Design Practice were the basic rudiments of her trade - necessary and helpful, but not always conducive to distilling an artist's true calling. A couple of more years spent working as a graphic designer only succeeded in nudging the artist in Mary ever closer to the surface.

"I remember just being drawn to those churches in Europe and I would sit for hours studying them. I didn't realise it at the time but it was directing me to what I do today," she says.

Mary's inspiration is down to a combination of creative influences. She worked alongside her stonemason father, Billy as a child and remembers carving her first headstone when she was 16. The subtle but hard-handed prudence of the stonemason might seem at odds with the delicate finesse of the glasscutter she would later become, but both crafts are intertwined in the same creative process for Mary.

"It was certainly there from a young age. That appreciation of art, culture, crafts and making something well. I think my father gave me a more down to earth point of view of art. Sometimes people see art and they don't understand it. But if you do something that is a bit more approachable, it will stick with them. The whole point about art is to give somebody an emotional reaction or inspiration. To impress them with skill is also important and if you can do any of these things, you're succeeding. In my work I include a lot of symbolism. Whether this is picked up on or not will usually depend on the way the person comes at the piece," she explains.

Mary's first eureka moment occurred when she was still in school. She had applied herself to Business Studies but soon discovered this went against the grain of her true ability.

"I remember saying 'I really don't like this'. I begged them to let me try art and I started doing life drawings, which were impressive. The teachers realised there was something and soon after I won a competition in the National Gallery. I knew at that point I had something extra. It was following my own instinct and it's important for young people to know that there is something for everybody in life."

Mary later applied for a stained glass apprenticeship in Sienna, Italy - a place where she trained while savouring the cultural liveliness of Italy's ancient architecture. She spent three months there learning her craft in a busy studio. Mary recalls the experience as an enlightening and tense one.

"You can't beat the Italians for their craftsmanship, and you can't beat having a grounding in a place like Italy for what I do; you had everything from the art to the technical side. Every day I would go for a run and stop to view architecture. I felt really inspired there and I did have a moment when I completed my first piece. I just said, 'This is it. This is what I'm meant to do'. That was the exact moment."

Over the years Mary has worked on some amazing stained glass projects. Her website reveals inspiring examples of commissioned work for Watergrass National School, Ballyseede Castle Hotel, Jameson Distillery, Ventry Church, while the Donal Walsh 'Petition for Living' memorial window in the CBS School (The Green) is a piece Mary personally felt inspired to complete.

Mary works closely with people to get the balance right between their concepts and her creation. It's not always easy to take another person's inspiration and turn it into a living piece. But it is a self-fulfilling challenge that is the core of Mary's work. Mary's designs are living pieces that change throughout the course of the day as natural light changes. She is proud of her work and the enjoyment clients and the general public get from it. But where does Mary's inspiration come from when working on her own signature pieces?

"Mythology, symbolism, history, nature and psychology. There is an element of ancient spirituality about my work," she says.

"Light is a big thing in my work, but I also try and have a message within it. I'm also influenced by people who have led amazing lives. I did a piece on Queen Scotia as she wasn't represented anywhere previous to that. Without wanting to sound too hip about it, I do a lot of dream work and I have often gained inspiration for a piece through meditation. I don't labour on designs as I don't think it works when you do. It has to have that original spark. The psychology and power of imagery interests me. In one of my pieces I have the concept of soul mates and how two people can merge to become one. One of the things I love about my work is that it is constantly collaborating with nature and light. It is not isolated from its surrounds."

While Mary's work is naturally soft on the eye, many people will be unaware of the technical nuances involved in creating a piece of stained glass structure. Mary's work is an inspiring collage of colour and imagery that in many ways masks a complex manufacturing process.

"There is a lot of mathematics and engineering involved in figuring out what I'm doing. I'm currently working on a really big stained glass project for a school in Fermoy and the engineering side is very complicated. You have to build a frame, then you have to allow space for the led and glass. You have lines and lines of measurements that have to be exact or else it won't work. It's a 50/50 process between art and engineering. I did my degree in sculptor so I have that knowledge to assist me."

Mary has completed pieces of art that have helped inspire people in different ways. She invests a great deal of emotion in her work and even runs her own stained glass courses for beginners. In many ways, one might describe Mary's work as a process whereby aspiration is reduced to fine margins.

"All my work demands the same emotion. Every job I do I do it as if it were my last piece. I give it everything. It's a very tense process as every step of the way you're prone to cracks or breaks. You have to be really conscious of what you're doing. Combining colours and getting the balance right is vital, as is cutting the glass. If you draw a line with a marker when cutting the glass it has to be on either side of the line. It's all about accuracy. Glass is expensive too, so when cutting it you can't make a mistake. Neither is there any margin for error when painting because if you make a mistake you can ruin an entire piece. The installation of a piece is even more nervous, as it's out of my control. I'm there with the carpenter or builder and all it takes is one accident and it's destroyed. It's a tense process."

Mary rates the church window in Ventry as one of her best pieces as the feedback she received from it really moved her. The Donal Walsh piece in The Green school is another of high emotional value. Donal's inspiration still travels far and wide today and the stained-glass depiction of him is a wonderful shrine to his personality, which still glows thanks to Mary's work.

"That piece is called 'Petition for Living' and it carries over 40 signatures of famous people who backed Donal's message. It's a powerful message. My nephew goes to The Green and he said everyone there is really careful around it. That project was very organic as like so many people, I too was moved by Donal. It goes back to the origins of stained glass and how it was used as a memorial to mark the life of someone important."

Living in Kerry is a calming environment for Mary's creative instincts. She is talented in many ways as she also paints and designs her own bespoke range of jewellery. In July she will take up an artist's residency in Berlin working in an exclusive, high-end studio with art critics and other artists. At the end of her residency Mary will host her own solo show.

"It will be a change and I'll be open to new influences such as the urban landscape. It's sometimes about going outside to discover what is inside," she says.

Lastly, while Mary is looking forward to returning from Berlin and seeing how it will have influenced her, artists have roots that spread in several directions but are connected by the same soil. It is very much Kerry soil that inspires Mary.

"It's the majesty of Kerry; the majestic landscapes really influence me. It's like what Donal Walsh wrote about 'God's mountains' - they surround us. There is an inspirational presence in Kerry that I don't think you can get anywhere else. You don't have all the stimulus that you have in a city and this creates time for me to come back and actually reflect on a piece worthy of where you are from. I was born to create and Kerry has given me the time to be an artist."

To see more of Mary's work or to enrol in one of her classes, visit: