The year was 1948, Canada needed more farmers and sculptor Leo Mol shared the path of many other newcomers arriving to Canada at that time, ending up in Hudson Bay Junction, Saskatchewan. If he arrived there in midsummer, he probably would have found some kind of a job, but it was the middle of the winter and young couple headed to Winnipeg – the capital city of the neighboring province. There Leo was lucky from the beginning – he proposed to make porcelain figurines of animals to one of the local stores. They were sold pretty well which gave him enough money for his start. However, he was looking for more because at that time he was a very skilled painter and sculptor who knew various techniques.
While helping in one of the churches, Leo was asked by the priest if he could do something similar to the reproduction of the mosaic from some Italian church. Leo came up with the idea which priest approved and three months later church decor changed beyond recognition... As a result Leo got more commissions. Margareth, who knew English, got a job as a teacher in a school few miles from Winnipeg. There the couple lived in a house provided by the local school board. Little by little their life began to settle down.
It might have been Leo's dream in the beginning – to have a quite life in a small town and to work for himself in his own studio... He was not very ambitious and have already experienced a lot in his life. But he always craved for his work and – did he know it then? – was a very talented artist, so he could not remain in the shadow. His talent helped him to overcome his fears and the desire to remain unnoticed, it put Leo Mol in the spotlight and made him known to the world.
I've never seen neater and more meticulous to the very little detail archive counting dozens of boxes filled with thick files – each document was signed an dated, each photo of sculpture or painting had dimensions of the original on it. It was very well preserved by the archivists of Manitoba University. But despite many days of tedious work I realized that I can not find answers to the questions I had. There became to be more and more legends that led to nowhere or stopped suddenly in the very midst of narrative. James Kominowski – Slavic Librarian/Archivist in Elizabeth Dafoe Library (University of Manitoba) – was very knowledgeable and helpful. I asked him where all these documents came from and he said that they were maintained and donated to the archive by Leo's wife Margareth. I wondered why among hundreds of photos of his creations I could hardly find just a few ones of Leo himself mostly showing him at work. There was only one picture where you can hardly recognize Margareth. This archive contains almost no personal information. James said that Margareth promised to bring more documents (she supposedly had to prepare them properly) but it never happened. “I would not be surprised”, said Brian Petrynko, Mol's family friend – “if Margareth just disposed of everything personal. They did not like to be noticed. But may be their relatives got photos and documents”.
Leonid Molodoshanin (in some documents his name is spelled as Molodozhenin) was born in 1915 in the small town of Polonne on the Khomora River in Western Ukraine. It was a multinational town where Russian Orthodox monastery neighboured Polish catholic church and a Jewish synagogue, though not at all times living in peace with each other. Leonid was the first son in the family of Olga and Grigory Molodoshanin. His father was a self-employed potter, making plates, cups and toys from clay he dug just near his house and selling them at the local market. Since his early childhood Leonid had seen turning potter's wheel and watched miraculous transformation of the lump of clay into a human's creation... Modelling from clay was his first entertainment. In one of his later interviews he told “I made a rabbit from a lump of clay, made his eyes from two pieces of charcoal, it was very much like real, it was a big surprise for me”. Leonid's father wanted him to pursue his own business – well, it's hard to imagine a potter from small provincial town thinking about a sculptor career for his son. But the son had convinced the father to support him when he wanted to pursue his education ... in Vienna.
There is a story in the archive written by Leo himself and edited by Jane Shen in which he also tells about his desire to become a sculptor and his study in Vienna. The Saga of Leonid Molodoshanin article by F. Manor gives more details and says that Leo was a student of Austrian sculptor Villiam Frass and “later on, saving more money, he headed to Berlin Art Academy”. In the book Leo Mol Sculpture Garden written by Paul Duval we can read that “Leo excitedly boarded a train for the great art centre of Vienna. He had just turned fifteen”. It also mentions Leo's teacher name... Ann Fallendorf (not Villiam Frass as was claimed by F.Manor). By the way, Paul knew Leo very well, met and interviewed him many times and sent a draft of his book to Leo for proof reading.
There are multiple articles about Leo and his interviews in the archives. Most of them share the same excited story about Ukrainian boy that headed alone to Vienna to become a sculptor. It seems that their readers had no questions or concerns about the story. But let's take it with a grain of salt – the son of a potter, 1930, Ukraine as part of USSR, money required for education... It's not very likely that something like that might have happened.
In 1994, the National Film Board of Canada made a documentary entitled (I think it's a very symbolic name) Leo Mol in Light and Shadow. Here you can listen to the story told by Leo himself and it is not hard to notice that Vienna was not mentioned at all and the version presented is quite different – we will discuss it a bit later.
Gloria Romaniuk, archivist of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg told me - “I spoke to Margareth Mol and she confirmed that Leo did not study in Vienna. His life forced him to invent some parts of his biography so at the end he could hardly tell the truth from imagination”.
In 1995 in Ukraine, professor D. Stepovick published a book “Sculptor Leo Mol. Life and work” - the most comprehensive research about the artist, which contained some new details that Leo did not provide before.
Let's return back to Polonne. During WWI hard times had started for Molodoshanin's family. They were exiled (because of Grigory political activity) to Siberia to a village near Irkutsk which had a symbolic name that could be translated as Mouse Trap. Over there, Grigory worked at the porcelain factory where he was paid by factory products which he had to sell on the weekends at the bazaar in Irkutsk to get money. Sometime later, the family moved to Irkutsk and then in 1917 October Revolution occurred. They wanted to return back to Ukraine but decided not to as Leonid was sill young and they were not certain about the future. In 1921 Grigory got a job at porcelain factory in Krasnoyarsk where there extended family (Leonid had a brother named Victor and a sister named Nina) moved. In Krasnoyarsk Leonid attended school where drawing teacher Rokhletzky noticed his abilities and tried to help him making progress. At the same time his father taught him pottery. Yes, it happened here, in Krasnoyarsk and not in Polonne as F. Manor wrote – back then Leonid was still too young.
In 1929, the family moved into small village in Kabardino-Balkaria and some time later to its capital Nalchik. Leonid was 14 years old and moved to grade 8. At that time high school was trade-oriented and the career of electrician awaited Leonid. But he he did not want to be one, he felt his artistic abilities and wanted to realize them. During the summer time he got a temporary job as decorator and was asked to paint the background for a stage decoration. This work was noticed by the union which advised Leonid to get education in Leningrad and use this painting for his portfolio. Supported also by his family, Leonid headed to Leningrad but it was too late – the class was already formed.
Leonid loved Leningrad. He visited Hermitage and other museums and decided firmly to stay there. Young Soviet country had a great demand in artists and Leonid easily found a job. He discovered evening art school and enrolled in the sculpture class of Ann Fallendorf (whom Leo “sent” to Vienna or Berlin in his fantasies) – the follower of prominent Russian sculptor Matvey Chizhov. Fallendorf soon noticed that Leonid was a gifted sculptor – he moved ahead beyond many others in his class who have been studied for much longer. She gave Leonid individual assignments and even asked him to make a sculpture of “live model” which nobody in the class could do. This sculpture together with a reference letter Leonid sent to the address provided by Ann Fallendorf and soon he was accepted to the Russian Academy of Arts gifted youth school where he studied together with later well known Soviet sculptors Lev Kerbel and Mikhail Anikushin. At the same time Leonid completed his high school education.
The summer of 1934 Leonid spent with his family. At that time Nalchik was a well known resort for Soviet political elite. Leonid was asked to make sculpture compositions for the building of new sanatorium for the members of Central Committee of Communist Party. With the money he got for this work his family could buy their own home in Nalchik.
In 1935 Leonid became a student of Leningrad Art Academy in the class of a well known Soviet sculptor Matvey Manizer. His student years were bright and full of events, two of which were related to music. Leonid loved classical music and frequently attended concerts in Leningrad Conservatory. Because of this and also as his speciality in the class was sculptural portrait, Leonid made bust of Pyotr Ilytch Tchaikovsky and when it was ready he decided to show it to the rector of Leningrad Conservatory. This bust was commissioned by the conservatory and Leonid was also asked to make sculptural portrait of composer Alexander Borodin.
This small bust of Tchaikovsky was later manufactured in multiple copies and could be seen in many musical schools and homes of music lovers. Borodin's sculptural portrait by Leonid Molodoshanin is still decorates the entrance hall of Saint-Petersburg Conservatory.
The work of a researcher can sometimes lead to a dead end – witnesses of various events pass away with time, ties get broken... But I was lucky to find Nadezhda Emelyanenko – curator of National Museum of Kabardino-Balkaria. She is very involved and responsible person with excitable curiosity which is such an important quality for good museum researcher. For about 20 years she tried without any success to find the author of the bust of Kabarda's national poet Bekmurza Pachev which was made in 1937 and installed in Nalchik City Park in 1940. When Leonid's sister Nina returned to Nalchik from Irkutsk in 2004, she found Nadezhda Emelyanenko and told her that her brother Leo Mol, now well known Canadian sculptor, is the author of Pachev's portrait and also many other sculptures that could be found in Nalchik. Nadezhda Emelyanenko was shocked. She began to collect information about Leo Mol and opened an exposition of his works in the museum. Leo was still alive but very sick and it was hard for him to communicate, but Nadezhda Emelyanenko got in touch with Margareth, who (knowing that Leo remembered Nalchik a lot) donated his sculptures, paintings, sketches and photos (670 items in total) to the museum. But because of museum's financial difficulties and lack of support from the ministry of culture, this generous donation got stuck until now in Russian customs.
Let's return back to history. Leonid was a student of Matvey Manizer in Leningrad Academy of Art, successful and talented student whose career started very early. It was a time to discuss the theme of his graduate work. While Manizer insisted on sculptural portrait of Yakov Sverdlov, Leonid wanted to create images of Kabarda shepherds. This discussion was interrupted by the war. There are few versions of what happened to Leonid during that time. I have to say upfront that I do not fully believe any of them, so here they are without my comments.
One story suggests that when war began Leonid was exempt from military service (there are no evidences to it) and lived in Nalchik. When Nazis occupied Nalchik, Leonid was enlisted to work in Germany. He met German reporter Ernest Shule and had shown him pictures of his work. Shule helped him to be sent to the workshop of William Frass in Austria (please note, it's the same Frass that Leonid mentioned in another story as his teacher in Vienna). Later Frass, noticing Leonid's abilities, arranged work for him in Berlin as assistant of Fritz Klimsch. There he allegedly studied in Berlin Academy of Art having status of a foreign worker.
Here is another story from the letter of Leonid's sister to Nadezhda Emelyanenko. When Nazis invaded Russia, Leonid was conscripted in the Soviet Army and was a cadet in Grozny Infantry School. After graduation his regiment was sent to Stalingrad and the last letter from him was “The fight begins, will write to you later...”. He was captured and became prisoner of war but was considered missing by his family.
Each of these stories has its own flaws. If you try to reconstruct any of them in all details, you can tell indirectly that some things just could not have happen. You can not verify them as Leo's archive contains no documents of the war period (though there are plenty of photos of his works that were made by Leo at that time and meticulously dated). We also do not know if Nina knew the truth. Members of Leo family did not know anything about him for many years. Nina's niece accidentally noticed an article in the old newspaper about an opening in London for a sculpture of St. Vladimir by Leo Mol (and in brackets was his Russian name) and immediately called Nina. Leo Mol in Light and Shadow documentary shows the meeting of a brother and a sister after 50 years of separation. Nina told that being in Germany, Leo was afraid of bringing harm to his relatives and never tried to find them. In his Canadian interviews he sometimes claimed that he was the only child in the family. Apart from Leo and his sister, we do not know for sure what happened to the other members of the family. Nadezhda Emelyanenko told me that by the words of Nina's friend “Leo's father and brother made their way to Germany where they found Leo and worked for some time in theater in Berlin (father as a porter and brother as a decorator). When collapse of Germany became inevitable, they decided to return to Nalchik despite of Leo's arguments about their destiny. His father was arrested immediately after return in 1945 and Victor – in the winter of 1946”. In the nineties Grigory and Victor were rehabilitated.
University of Manitoba archive has many pictures of Leo's works belonging to the WWII period. Among them there is sculptural portrait of his father named with love – Kirilich. It is possible that his father posed for Leo in Berlin.
In one of Nina's letters I noticed a phrase “his first wife Katya”. Does it mean that Leo was married before the war? Did his wife know what happened to him? What happened to her? Many questions yet no answers...
It is impossible to say that all this is irrelevant to Mol's future creations. It will not be an exaggeration to say that his permanent fierce business, modest way of life, his circle of friends was defined by this short period of time for which we do not know the most important things – what he did or did not, what he had to go through, what decisions he was forced to make... People who knew him well enough, could feel some reticence, as though he carried some permanent burden on his shoulders.
Leonid met his wife in Germany. Margareth (nee Scholtes) was born in an Austrian town of Hellmonsodt. According to some sources she was Dutch, but others suggest that she might be Holland or German. The couple got married in September, 1943. At the end of the war they moved to Holland where Leo worked at a small porcelain factory near Eindhoven. Soon he opened his own pottery business. Then he joined an art club and got some connections in artist's circles. He returned to sculpture again and participated in some exhibitions. He also kept learning. Twice a week he attended lessons on stained glass in Royal Art Academy in Hague, which helped him a lot in the future.
Many people at that time thought about starting new life in Argentina or Canada. By the will of fate Mol's family found their new home in Winnipeg. His very first stained glass windows drew some attention to him (now they decorate more than 80 churches in Manitoba). Soon he rented small studio and decided – again – to work with clay. He made figurines of Inuit people, dancers, and animals. In the beginning it was hard to sell them, but gradually they became demanded and in the beginning of fifties Mol was well known in Winnipeg exactly for his porcelain. You can still find a lot of them in various galleries, among them Bear Cubs which was later done in bronze and sold in many copies.
In 1952 Mol returned to sculptural portrait and made a bust of Allan Eastman – director of Winnipeg Art Gallery – which characterizes Mol as mature sculptor. Critics mentioned that this portrait reflects person's character and mood, which was typical for most of Mol's portraits. Some portraits of that period were bronze cast, some – stone carving: Torso with Pigtails (bronze), Madam (bronze), Torso (marble). Mol used Vermount marble and Manitoba limestone that was rarely used by other Canadian sculptors.
In 1954 Margareth and Leo bought a house in quiet and cozy neighbourhood on Claremont Avenue 104, where they lived for more than half a century. Gloria Romaniuk met Margareth in this house and were struck by its modest look and simple old furniture (by the way, Leo never used expensive tools for his work, might visit somebody in old fashioned suit or wear rugged old slippers). Margareth answered all Gloria's questions but did not allow her to write down anything and take pictures. She answered a question about a secret of their 67-year long marriage this way “You need to have your own bank account and do not ask about anything”. They had no children, traveled all over the world and met some of the most famous people on the planet.
Brian Petrynko shared his memories – “Leo was a modest, delicate and kind person. He was pretty rich but spent minimum on himself. He donated a lot to people in need, gifted children, art schools. His only condition was not to disclose information about those generous gifts”.
From the letter of Nadezhda Emelyanenko – “Leo was very modest himself but generous to other people. After Nina's granddaughter decided to study in Winnipeg, Leo payed for her apartment, tuition and brought her groceries every week. When Nina reproached him of wastefulness, he answered that education is the best investment”.
Leo loved animals. There is a story that once he brought home something wrapped in a newspaper and said “It was hit by the car, let's try to take care of it”. Margareth was astonished – “Why have you brought this rat to me?” – but she washed, fed and cured this animal. A beautiful squirrel with furry tail became their pet and a model for porcelain figurines. They also had a dog named Shery who was their friend and another Leo's model.
Next decade brought a lot of changes to Leo's life. As a mere anonymous sculptor, he won international contest for the monument of Taras Shevchenko in Washington. For two years he worked on a bronze statue (that was 7 meters tall and weighed 45 tonnes) and a stone wall with relief of Prometheus. The statue was unveiled in 1964, on the 150th anniversary of Shevchenko's birth. Among dignitaries at the ceremony was the former US president Dwait Eisenhower which was very important for the future success of Leo Mol. In 1969 Mol won another contest for Shevchenko monument in Buenos Aires.
Seven months after opening ceremony in Washington, Mol got an official proposal to create a sculptural portrait of Dwight Eisenhower. The former president met Leo in his residence and posed for him during several days. Eisenhower was an artistic man himself, who liked to draw and discussed Leo's techniques with him. Once Eisenhower asked Leo why he did not measure his head and Leo answered that measuring a character is much more important and complicated. That is what Leo was known for – discovering human qualities and showing them in the portrait. In the sixties he created a bust of Canada's Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and later – his bronze statue installed in Ottawa on the Parliament hill; the statue of the queen Elizabeth II and other dignitaries. His international reputation grew year by year. Vatican commissioned him to make sculptural portraits of Pope John XXIII (from the picture) and busts of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II who posed to Leo in Vatican. These portraits are very “alive” – each one has its own unrepeatable character. This time could probably be defined as culmination of his career – he contributed to the eternal city like other great artists of the past.
Leo Mol met Soviet rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov during his visit to Winnipeg in 1987and made his sculptural portrait. It's known that he had contacts with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn but he likely did not make his portrait (or at least nothing is known about it).
Leo created many very lyrical women portraits – Relaxing, Sandra, Dream, In the Wind, Surprise, Ellene – and many others; sculptural portraits of children, political figures and prominent Canadians. He had a long life as an artist working still in his eighties: his last unfinished sculpture dated back to 2005. He was always busy, in demand and successful. In 1992 Leo Mol Sculpture Garden was opened in Winnipeg Assiniboine Park which exposes more than 300 of his creations. Leo's original studio was also moved into the Garden, where visitors can see how some of Leo's sculptures were created and watch short movie about him.
Mike Grandmaison, well known Canadian photographer, was my guide to the garden. He took many pictures of Leo sculptures in different seasons. “I like to come here again and again, each time you can notice something new...”. Leo Mol in Light and Shadow documentary mentioned before shows how this Garden was created and how Leo himself supervised the process though he was almost 80 at that time. He liked coming to the Garden, sitting on the bench and possibly remembering the stories associated with the sculptures surrounding him, their prototypes ... When he heard somebody say “What a beautiful sculptures! Do you know something about the sculptor?” he would say, smiling, “He is very much alive and you can even sit here beside him”.
Leo met young Scottish Canadian David Loch who wanted to open art gallery in Winnipeg. Later Loch Gallery became his major dealer for many years. It still keeps many of his works. They could be also seen in Mayberry Fine Art Gallery where Lorraine Krahn is working on the first complete catalogue of Leo's creations. Besides sculptures this gallery has Leo's drawings, paintings, and ceramic.
In Leo Archives ones can find correspondence to his models and even copies of tickets to Germany where he traveled twice a year (usually in spring and fall) to the Otto Strehle workshop in Munich where all his sculptures were cast – Leo was always a part of this process himself. It also holds a lot of sketches and ideas for future works.
Leo always remembered Ukraine, was in touch with Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, attended services in St. Vladimir and Olga Cathedral in Winnipeg that was decorated by his beautiful stained glass windows. He remembered Nalchik and Lenningrad, traveled a lot to Europe and America. He could speak Ukranian, Russian, English and German. He truly was “the man of the world”.
It is written a lot about Leo Mol as a sculptor, but he is much less known as a painter, though he was always attracted to it. There are very few of his pictures in the Sculpture Garden gallery, some in Nalchik museum (the ones sent by Margareth), many more in various Canadian art galleries. Most of his paintings are landscapes made by oil or pastel. This was his way of relaxation. I was rather surprised to find so many sketches and photos of his paintings in the archives. During his study as sculptor he was trained to draw, catch quickly the specific of person's face, body, proportions. He always spent some time drawing his models using ink, charcoal, and pencil and left hundreds of them behind. By the way, it was Margareth who took responsibility of cataloguing Leo's creations – all of them were photographed, dated and meticulously arranged. I already mentioned that in the beginning she was a school teacher, then she gave private lessons at home. Later she completely devoted herself to Leo. She was not only his wife and friend, but also his secretary, manager and archivist. She preserved everything that had to be kept and discarded everything that should be hidden.”After his death in 2009”, says Brian Petrynko, “she worked with documents every day as she wanted to complete arranging everything. She was clever and interesting person, knew several languages and probably had some education in art”. She remained in Leo's shadow but played a very important role in his life.
After meeting his sister, Leo visited the Academy of art in St.Petersburg where he studied before the war and met his classmates Lev Kerbel and Mikhail Anikushin who were still alive... “It was so nice to see your studio full of interesting work. It's like a museum. I could not also forget Novodevichy Сemetery where there are many interesting headstones of your work. We paid our tribute to Matvey Manizer, our teacher, who instilled so deep love to art in our souls...” wrote Leo to Kerbel in 1993. “Dear Leonya! I am so glad to meet you. I admire your success and proud or our Russian school...” was Kerbel's response. So touching were these last meetings...
In the late thirties Leonid Molodoshanin helped his teacher Matvey Manizer to work on the sculpture of Taras Shevchenko that was erected in Kharkiv. In the year 2000 another bronze sculpture of Shevchekno was installed in St. Petersburg near Petrogradskaya subway station donated to the city by Leo Mol who was awarded a medal devoted to 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
Towards the end of his life Leo did not recognize Margareth and probably forgot everything that happened to him – both good and bad. He was not tormented by old memories and it was probably fair. I believe that one of the last “fantasies” of Leo was the potter's wheel of his father, his Kirilich, that he could touch...