Wilmer Roballo was walking along Park Point when he came across a piece of driftwood.
It looked like a woman holding her arms up, and he soon found wood that would later become her legs and head.
With some glue and a bread knife, Roballo created his first sculpture, the Lady of the Lake.
Soon, he upgraded his bread knife to power tools, and what followed were a loon, a Pegasus and a large buck with antlers that are taller than him.
He is a self-taught artist, born out of the pandemic, and he is learning with the driftwood.
“Art is a kind of expression, people say, but I don’t say that my sculpture is trying to express something about me. Not yet. Right now, I only work together with the driftwood. I am not the owner of what it says,” Roballo said by email.
This fall, Roballo and his fiancée, Susanna Ojakangas, moved from an apartment to a home in Congdon with a little basement studio where he could work.
“I was a little alarmed when they started getting bigger,” Ojakangas said of the sculptures. “I said, ‘They have to go outside now because my house is not big enough for this.”
Their yard soon became an impromptu gallery, with people stopping in their cars to take photos of his works. “If the people like my sculptures, it is like feedback to God, not me. They are being grateful for the beauty from the trees,” Roballo said by email.
The couple is hosting a show and silent auction from 12-8 p.m. Friday on their lawn at 2920 Greysolon Road. Weather permitting, the event will remain outdoors. Refreshments will be served, and fans can expect to see Ojankangas’ mother Beatrice Ojakangas, who will be selling and signing cookbooks.
Roballo took time to share more about his process.
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Q: Describe your go-to creative setting.
A: It’s nothing about the environment, really. I work in the basement in a very small space, so my creativity comes from my inspiration. It is nothing I can see or touch. It is a minute or those moments where I can escape from the real life. Suddenly I see something in the wood, and I begin to work. And everything flows easily. Sometimes I play instrumental music such as Chopin. But this is not the thing that inspires me. Everything is from the world that I create inside my mind.
Q: Share a quick breakdown of your driftwood sculptural process.
A: The first step is to go to the basement. I put on the special clothes I use to work. I feel better with my hat, my Minnesota sweatshirt and my work apron. They make me feel safe. It makes me feel more confident that I am doing these things, that I can do art.
I give special meaning to clothes. When I was a pilot (in a South American Air Force), my flight suit had special meaning. When I sat in the helicopter with it on, I functioned as part of the helicopter. Now, it is like I transferred the value I gave to my flight suit to my art clothes.
The second step is looking at the wood. I try to see and listen to the wood. If this is the day, this simple piece of wood gives me an idea of what it wants to be. Usually the woods give me the message, like, "Hey here is a girl." Or an eagle. Or a horse. I only have to complete it.
I find the first piece, and I look for the other pieces to complete the sculpture because the pieces are spread around the garage in my wood.
When I have a good day, I find the pieces easy. Everything matches. They find their places. When I do not have this spiritual connection, it becomes difficult. The woods don’t match, don’t look good.
All this wood comes from trees, so they have (at) one time been full of life. They are not only pieces of wood together. I feel like sometimes I can return life to the wood that was lost when the tree they came from died. I think about how a sculpture may have wood from 100 different trees.
When I make my sculptures, I make a movie in my mind. I imagine what it thinks, what it would say.
Q: Describe working with driftwood as a medium.
A: Driftwood for me is not just a piece of wood. It means a part of the trees who die and the journey the wood took to travel to the beach. I try to return to the world the life and beauty that this tree means in a sculpture.
A beach covered with driftwood seems like a graveyard. But driftwood means to me life, not death. When they go into a sculpture, the driftwoods are respected.
Working with driftwood is a feeling of working with life. With driftwood art, all the trees continue their life.
Q: Are there any works that ended up differently than you envisioned?
A: The idea at the beginning is a general idea, not with details. I see just a bird, or a woman. The details come as I add more pieces, so they are not planned. As I work with the sculptures, I think about legends or stories, or histories from my life.
It is like the driftwood and me assemble the story that is going to be told together.
One thing I try to do is never force the wood to be something that I decide it should be. I don’t create something from wood with tools. I don’t force a piece to be, let’s say, a leg. NO. I take a piece of driftwood that looks like a leg (and) maybe I use tools to make the leg look better or fit better.
For this reason, I do not feel like the driftwood sculpture is my creation 100%. I only assemble. Something about them lets me discover where they are, but I don’t create the sculptures. And there are days when I just do not feel it. I require a certain connection or energy to get my idea.
Q: To which sculpture of yours do you most relate?
A: Every sculpture has something about me, so I cannot pick one that I relate to the most. Maybe memories, maybe something about my love for flying, or something about mythology. Maybe something about philosophy or Greek history. Something about spirituality or love, or the human feelings that make life more interesting.
I like if my sculpture means something for the people. I can say what I thought. But I don’t want to try to put each sculpture only into the meaning which I think because they are not my property. It is better if somebody, when they see the sculpture, create their own meaning.
Q: You’re from South America. Where else have you traveled?
A: I have not traveled so much. I think about travel as vacation. I traveled to France once to work with a flight simulator for the super puma helicopter. But we were so busy. It was work. I traveled to (the) United States a few times when I was younger, but the only inspiration I had was to buy things in the malls that we could not find at home. Not to create.
My work, my job flying, maybe my experience working with the Air Force marked my feelings about humans. About nature. I spent a lot of time flying over the Amazon jungle, the flat lands, the beaches, the mountains. I saw so much beauty from the helicopter. But also so many bad things from humans. When we rescued people. When we went to the place where the guerillas had exploded a truck full of soldiers, and I saw body parts all around in the grass. Maybe these experiences assembled my ideas about beauty and what is not beauty.
Q: Advice for other creatives?
A: Don’t wait for your 50s to begin!
If you feel you want to invent or create or make real your ideas, then do it. Don’t wait for permission, because life is running so fast. You have it in your storage in your brain and in your heart. Use it now.
Q: What does art mean to you?
A: At some point, for me art is the way to escape from the real life. Also, art is about seeing beauty in the most simple things, like a little piece of driftwood lying in the sand on the beach.
Q: If you could have dinner with any three people, alive or dead, who would they be?
A: There are so many people who are alive who I can have dinner with, but there are four people who are no longer alive who I wish I could invite for dinner. They are Michelangelo, Socrates, Leonardo Da Vinci and my dad because they were all people that I admire.
I want to know if Michelangelo and I feel the same when we create something. I only create when I feel that something is coming from somewhere that I do not really know.
Socrates talked about philosophy, politics, spiritual things, poetry and art. I would talk to him about if it is possible for one person to feel connection with all these things at the same time.
Da Vinci mixed engineering, creation and art. He dreamed things about aviation, about men flying. He was the creator of the first machines to fly, the first helicopter on paper. And of course he was at the same time an amazing artist. I would ask him: how did he mix these things?
My dad would be important in this dinner because for me he knew a little bit about all of these things. He was an artist of life. He worked with machines, and I know that he felt the connection with the crane he operated like I felt with the helicopter I flew.
I would want my dad to realize the things that he had in common with all of those other geniuses at the table. He may not have made David from marble, but he made me a good person.
If you go
What: Driftwood sculptures by Wilmer Roballo show and silent auction
When: 12-8 p.m. Friday
Where: 2920 Greysolon Road
More info: WilmerRoballo.com, WilmerRoballoArt@gmail.com
Refreshments will be served; cookbook sales and signings by Beatrice Ojakangas.