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Leo Mol: the rise to greatness.


HE TURNS 77 THIS YEAR, YET LEO Mol willingly continues with a workload that would beggar many half his age. He creates monumental works, yet shuns personal grandeur. He is one of those rare artists who makes a living by his art, yet he values creativity above cash flow. He works in solitude and seems to prefer a quiet life, yet his public stature has risen dramatically with the opening of the $1.4 million Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in Assiniboine Park, to which he has donated a vast array of his signature noble bronzes and bright ceramics.

His output is staggering -- more than 100 portrait busts, more than 80 stained glass windows in Winnipeg alone -- but when he's asked about hard work he just shrugs. "I don't feel I'm working hard," he defers. "I just like to do it. That's how it all came about."

Through almost 45 years in Winnipeg he's marked wide sections of the city, from the outsize portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at the Centennial Concert Hall to stained glass windows in a heavenly host of churches. He's known beyond Winnipeg as well. His monument to John Diefenbaker presides over Parliament Hill. His renderings of the great Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko pay tribute in Brazil, Argentina and Washington, D.C.

He warms to the observation that he thinks like an artist, not an entrepreneur. "In art, there is so much going in -- thinking, studies, and so on -- for which nobody will pay you a thing. You must enjoy doing it. It must be with pleasure, because you just love to do it. And then you have a chance, maybe, (that) your personal feeling is transported to the people who look at art. That is the means how to talk to the viewer."

Nonetheless, Mol has done well by his art -- well enough to make it his living for more than 40 years, well enough to have the rare distinction of having a gorgeous garden devoted solely to his work.

His work sells, too. Sales of Mol's work are not only undimmed by the recession -- this in a year when six Winnipeg commercial galleries restructured or closed completely by the end of July -- but flourishing.

What's more, these are large sculptures -- large as in free-standing, yard-dominating works whose price tags were in the five figures. While a small nude is a relative bargain at $2,800, the gallery has works, such as a deer and fawn, setting prices at $30,000.

He has also earned personal respect. Bill Mayberry, co-owner of Loch and Mayberry Fine Art, has represented Mol for 20 years. "In the last five to six years, we've sold a lot more larger pieces," Mayberry says. "People were somewhat reluctant to buy a large piece and put it in their yard, and I guess with the sculpture garden opening, people are realizing those large pieces should be displayed in front yards. We've sold out entire editions of large pieces, where we wouldn't have done that before."

Often, Mayberry adds, the editions are sold before Mol has the chance to finish casting. "People will put their name down for a piece, and then they'll have to wait a year or two years."

The resale value is high as well. About seven years ago, the gallery marketed an edition of Tom Lamb, the bush pilot, at $15,000 each. A Toronto gallery recently resold one of them for $40,000.

Winnipeg remains Mol's biggest market, and many of the pieces sent beyond the city limits are going to former Winnipeggers.

Mayberry says, "People realize now what he has done over the years, the magnitude and importance of his work, and the credibility that goes along with it. I think that all appeals to collectors."

Born in Ukraine, Leonid Molodoshanin trained in Leningrad, Berlin and The Netherlands. When he and his wife Margareth came to Canada in 1948, however, he was just another immigrant who couldn't speak English. He worked as a farmhand in Saskatchewan before they moved to Winnipeg.

On his second day in the city he was ambling along Main street when his attention was caught by a church supply store -- its windows lined with crucifixes and icons. Mol approached the owner. "I told him I was a newcomer looking for work, and quickly said, 'Whatever you have in your window display, I could do it also'."

The owner had Mol do an icon painting. The results were so convincing that Mol was promptly hired at $20 per week -- this, he reminds his younger guest, when a bus ride cost a nickel. It was only a short time after that Mol won a commission to redecorate the sanctuary of St. Edward's Church on Arlington Street. Soon his weekly wage was up to $50. One job led to another as his reputation spread, and though he was by no means a wealthy man, he persevered at making his own way.

The turning point came in 1962, when he entered an international competition to design the Shevchenko monument in Washington, D.C. He didn't think he had a chance -- a friend had to talk him into it -- but he entered, and won.

Mol beams as he remembers working on the 14-foot monument, which was unveiled in June, 1964. "It was really a marvelous time, and I was physically and mentally fit to do that."

Mol met American sculptors, exhibited in New York ("Such a stimulus!") and presently was offered the job of chief designer at the U.S. Mint. He turned it down, preferring the relative quiet of Canada.

In 1989 he entered the Order of Canada of which he says, "I had a wonderful feeling when I was in Ottawa and the governor-general (then Jeanne Sauve) was paying compliments about my Diefenbaker monument. I said to her, 'You know, I came to Canada as a farmhand in Saskatchewan. It's along stretch to meet the governor-general.' And she said, 'Yes, but that's all about Canada."

His portraits tell other stories. Even in model form his rendering of Pope John Paul II radiates love and wisdom; one half expects it to wave. Mol talks with his subjects to find more of the soul behind the visage, and not just to ease the stiffness of modelling sessions. "It helps somehow to understand the person. When you're talking with him, it makes him so alive."

Mol doesn't get out to the studio as often as he used to, but the work continues. Holy Eucharist church in East Kildonan commissioned him to do all of its windows. So far he's done six, and has about 20 to go.

And he talks wistfully of other work, such as finishing Moses and personally supervising its casting in a foundry in Germany. "It depends how much life is granted to me," he muses.

(Randal McIlroy is a Winnipeg freelance writer with an interest in art and music.)

The Art Garden

Hartley Richardson, real estate manager for James Richardson and Sons Ltd., became involved in the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in 1989 after negotiations between Mol and the city broke down. Following a meeting with Mayor Bill Norrie, Richardson formed a creative committee with gallery owner David Loch, of Loch and Mayberry Fine Art, building designer Les Stechesen and landscape architect Garry Hilderman. As chair of the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden Trust, Richardson also began the search for corporate and private funding from across Canada to supplement the various levels of government support.

By late July this year, the trust had raised more than $500,000 towards a project that cost $1.5 million, not including the value of the donated works.

The most encouraging support has come from individuals, contributing mainly via a donation box on the site. With an estimated 4-5,000 visitors on the weekends alone, those dollars add up.

"It's such a broad base of support," Richardson said. "It's not just corporations and foundations. I think it's people who are just delighted with the park."

Garry Hilderman, whose firm Hilderman Witty Crosby Hanna, designed the park, says the layout is an "axial design." Roughly translated that means it is balanced by lines.

Hilderman says, "There is a comfortable feeling because there is balance of texture -- edges and corners are trimmed. Everything is meant to be symmetrical. There is no tension in the park. A person sitting in it should feel relaxed."
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Title Annotation:Canadian sculptor Leo Mol
Author:McIlroy, Randal
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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