Early in my days as a curator, I had the opportunity to visit artist Molly Lenhardt at the Fairview Confectionery on a trip to Melville, Saskatchewan, to visit my in-laws’ family. In the days before 7-Eleven, the confectionery was the place to go for a Coke, a bag of bread, or a pack of cigarettes. But at Molly’s store, which she ran with her husband, Mike, you could also buy a painting or two. Molly was kind enough to show me around, taking me to the small studio in the back where she painted during slack times. In retrospect, my impression of the store was of a space where every square inch was occupied, whether by canned goods, bottle-cap-covered crates, model planes, or artworks. Eberhard Otto’s black-and-white photographs of the store capture the density of this accumulation—clutter to some, creative proliferation to others—with deep-focus intensity.
I felt a certain sadness after my visit—the store didn’t look very prosperous and the paintings looked, well, self-taught. But first impressions can be misleading. Talking to David Thauberger, an artist who has done more than anyone I know to raise our appreciation of Saskatchewan “folk” artists, I learned that Molly’s store served a vital role for railway workers in Melville, who would visit her store at the end of a late-night shift. He also helped me to put a value on Molly’s artistic vision. Her paintings may not obey the laws of perspective or conform to the dictates of “good taste,” but what they do, they do like few others: they burn with a desire for an elevated world—a world where a proud Ukrainian heritage is honoured, a Saskatchewan landscape is loved, and an artist is celebrated as a cultural hero.
Molly believed in elevating the world on a practical level, too. As David told me, she ran for Melville city council with a mind to bring water and sewer services to the part of town where she and her neighbours lived. Once that had been accomplished, she didn’t run again. I guess she had too many glowing visions in her mind left to paint.