Driftwood Artist Wilmer Roballo “Listens” to the Wood

Driftwood Masterpieces
Artist Wilmer Roballo “Listens” to the Wood

Driving down Greysolon Road in Duluth, passersby often stop to admire a veritable menagerie, including a deer, moose, heron, buck, flamingo, dragon and more, in the front yard of one of the homes.

7x9 ft Big Horse Fernando by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo submitted.

The Dragon by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo submitted.

No, it is not some mythological zoo, but rather a collection of breathtaking pieces of art, each made entirely of driftwood from Park Point and along the shores of Lake Superior.

Artist Wilmer Roballo has crafted each of these pieces and dozens more that “live” inside his studio gallery. He gets so much joy and satisfaction from displaying his sculptures in the yard because he can see people reacting to his art.

Wilmer is originally from Venezuela, where he served as a colonel in the country’s Air Force. When the political situation there deteriorated, Wilmer, who was visiting his brother in Minnesota, decided it was too dangerous for him to return to his country, so he ended up staying in the U.S.

He later met Susanna Ojakangas, who was living in the Twin Cities at the time, and they began dating. Originally from Duluth, Susanna wanted to come back home to be with family, including her mother and father, Bea and Dick Ojakangas.

Susanna Ojakangas and husband Wilmer Roballo home/studio is on Greysolon Rd in Duluth.

Art Materials From the Shore

In 2019, the couple moved to Duluth and married in 2021. Shortly after moving here, Wilmer was talking about how much he missed the beaches in Venezuela. Susanna said, “We have a beach, go get your coat!

As they walked on Minnesota Point, Wilmer spotted a single piece of driftwood that looked like a women’s outstretched arms. He decided to look for separate pieces of wood to use as her legs and her head.

At home, using just a kitchen bread knife and an old bottle of wood glue, he made his first driftwood sculpture entitled “The Lady of the Lake.” And from there, he was inspired to do more pieces, many getting increasingly larger.

Lady of the Lake by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo submitted.

He typically does not do any sculpting of the wood but finds pieces that he can assemble with just screws and glue; The wood pieces create the flow of movement and life on their own.

Each piece follows the shape of the wood in its original state. He treats them with oil, creating different colors depending on the type of wood.

Wilmer says that he “listens” to the wood and it “tells him what it wants to be.” Sometimes he will be inspired by a piece of wood that looks like an elephant’s trunk or a wave for a whale to be ”riding,” the body of a woman, or two entwined tango dancers.

Susanna said, “Duluth is ideal because Lake Superior supplies inspiration and provides the beautiful driftwood Wilmer uses as his medium. Lake Superior is like an incredibly huge washing machine, processing the driftwood!”

The Greysolon Buck Stops Traffic

Three years ago, Susanna and Wilmer were looking for a home and fell in love with a beautiful house on Greysolon Road. Susanna was driving in the alley behind the home when a buck with huge antlers stopped and stared at her before moving on. Susanna and her daughter took this as a sign that they should buy this house, which they did.

When Wilmer started making bigger pieces, Susanna asked, ”Will you make one of our Greysolon buck?” Wilmer crafted a life-sized buck which they named Hector, who now ”lives” in the corner of their front yard.

The 6.5 ft tall Greysolon Buck by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo submitted.

Susanna explained that people drive or walk by daily, often stopping to take photos. People also often bring Wilmer gifts of driftwood. “If we are outside and have time, we invite them into the yard to get a closer look, and we'll also give tours of our home gallery so that they can see the smaller sculptures inside,” Susanna said.

She added, “We really appreciate it if people hashtag Duluth Driftwood Art when they post a photo on social media and follow @duluthdriftwoodart on Instagram on his Facebook page because the biggest help is getting exposure for Wilmer's work.”

A Ballerina’s Magical Hair

When Wilmer was making a ballerina piece, he was disappointed that “she” was bald, and he didn’t know how to make hair out of the wood. He happened to be digging through his wood pile when he found a small piece of curved wood that looked like hair.

When he picked it up, he saw that it had an opening, and when he put it on the ballerina’s head, it snapped on, fitting perfectly and looking exactly like hair. “Sometimes, miracles can happen when making art,” he said with a broad smile.

Ballerina by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo Submitted.

A Moose and a Mexican Man

Eduardo Sandoval Luna is getting ready to open a taqueria in Lincoln Park at the end of September. The name of his place will be Oasis del Norte.

He explained, “For my logo, I have a moose and a Mexican man, the moose representing the North and the Mexican Man the South.” He purchased the moose sculpture and the statue of a Mexican man holding out a taco from Wilmer to have at the site of his new taqueria.

“I like that the sculptures represent the two places and cultures,” he said.

The Moose and Mexican Man by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo Submitted.

The Couple’s Favorites

While most of his pieces are for sale, Wilmer often feels reluctant to sell them because he loves all of them. Susanna explained, “He works so long and passionately on each sculpture, developing its personality and exposing the beauty of its wood, that he becomes very attached to them, almost as if they were his children.”

Wilmer said one of his favorite pieces is the “Plea for Peace” because, as he said, “The driftwood lets me express, without words, the hopes of people in my country of Venezuela.”

Plea for Peace by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo Submitted.

One of Susanna’s favorites is “Escape.” This piece is a precisely balanced sculpture that depicts a woman who is a moment away from escaping all that has held her back in her life and from expressing her true potential and realizing her dreams.

Escape by driftwood artist Wilmer Roballo. Photo Submitted.

Home Gallery

To schedule a tour of Wilmer and Susanna’s home gallery, call 651-983-9100. For more information and photos of other sculptures, visit their website at duluthdriftwoodart.com




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