Lasting legacy

Leo Mol may have been short in stature, but he was long in talent. As a result, he gained a reputation as a world-renowned sculptor, which in turn added prestige to the city he called home. It is because of his contributions to the city that Mol’s recent passing has struck such a sad note among Winnipeggers.

I first met Mol in the spring of 1998 while attending a WinnipegREALTORS® Citizens Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Assiniboine Park. This was a fitting location to engage in conversation with the sculptor as it contained numerous works of art he had so skillfully crafted in bronze, the medium in which he had gained such renown across the globe.

While the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden is prominently known as a major attraction in Assiniboine Park, there was another contribution he made which adds to the park’s allure. Along an elm-lined avenue in the Formal Garden are five busts Mol sculpted of inductees into the Citizens Hall of Fame, which honours those Winnipeggers who have made an outstanding contribution to the city’s quality of life. 

The images of famous Winnipeggers Mol captured in bronze are of former Winnipeg Mayor Bill Norrie, Dr. Paul Thorlakson, Mary Johnson and Isabel Auld. It is perhaps most appropriate that his hand sculpted the very first inductee into the Citizens Hall of Fame — that of former Mayor Stephen Juba, who entered the hall in 1986.

At the time of the 1998 induction ceremony,  I asked Mol about the importance of having such sculptures available for viewing by the public.

“Statues and busts are meant for public display,” he remarked. “Look at the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians — their statues were all in the open.

“In Europe today,” he continued, “the statues are all out in the open. It’s a tradition.

“Statues aren’t meant to be in galleries. They should be on display for everyone to see.”

Today, Mol’s image is on public display in Assiniboine Park, as he was inducted into the Citizens Hall of Fame in 1990. Upon his induction, Mol’s first comment was, “I speak in stone and bronze.”

Although inducted in 1990, his image took a long time to be added to the public display near the Corydon Avenue entrance to Assiniboine Park. Mol was commissioned by WinnipegREALTORS® to cast his own visage in bronze, but over the years of induction ceremonies he attended honouring other Winnipeggers, Mol always said he was still working on the sculpture.

Fellow sculptor Joseph Randa, who passed away in 2000, during one of these ceremonies, quipped, “I asked Leo if he didn’t have a mirror last time I saw him (about the commission).”

Even Bill Norrie, a long-time friend, had bugged Mol over the years about the need to get to work on his own sculpture so it could be placed alongside so many outstanding citizens for all to see. Instead, people visiting the Formal Garden and the walk of fame only saw a pedestal bearing Mol’s name, awaiting his bronze cast.

Mol was always willing to discuss his work, but when he did so it was with a great deal of humility. He wasn’t afraid to express an opinion with conviction, but he never strove to bring attention upon himself. It is perhaps because of this trait that Mol postponed for so long creating his own image in bronze.

“We’re looking at the Citizens Hall of Fame, at least in part, as a visual history,” said Bill Burns, the long-serving chairman of the hall of fame, who retired from his duties this year, at the 1998 induction. “It’s also a history lesson to walk along this avenue of fame.”

It was a comment which greatly pleased Mol, who placed such a high value on works of art readily accessible to the public.

It wasn’t until 2007 that Mol’s image finally was placed in a much deserved place alongside other Citizens Hall of Fame inductees. It wasn’t the result of his own hands, but the work of sculptor Madeliene Vrignon. She has created a truly complimentary and finely-honed sculpture that boldly shows every feature of Mol’s face — to see it is to immediately recognize it as an appropriate lasting tribute to one of this city’s and nation’s great sculptors.

Born in Ukraine in 1915, Mol came to Canada in 1948, eventually moving to Winnipeg. He could have plied his talents in any corner of the globe — many nations wanted him as a citizen — but Mol always felt Winnipeg was his home, the place where he felt the most comfortable, and for that, we are all the wealthier.