Artist’s amazing journey leads to unique craft


Whatnuts Table Sun catchers Picture frame Key chains Table Chandelier
Picture frame
Albert Tanko, a Romanian immigrant who escaped the country's communist regime in 1982, makes unique art out of nuts and fruit refuse. Here, he shows off a small creation he calls a "Whatnut."
Albert Tanko, a Romanian immigrant who escaped the country’s communist regime in 1982, makes unique art out of nuts and fruit refuse. Here, he shows off a small creation he calls a “Whatnut.”

Albert Tanko is more than just an artist who works with an unusual medium; he’s a man who risked death to make a better life for himself in America.

Tanko, 52, lives off County Road 5 and Zodiac Street between North Branch and Isanti with his wife of 30 years, Ann.

Together, they have two children: 26-year-old Christopher and 23-year-old Jordan.

Growing up in communist Romania, it was tough for Tanko to imagine he’d one day live in America, meet a beautiful woman who would become his wife and have a family.

It was also hard for him to imagine owning anything beyond basic necessities.

Under the government of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s last communist leader, life was difficult.

Tanko said food scares were common, work was hard to find for many, and life consisted of simply trying to make enough money to pay for food and clothing.

His family, comprising his parents and their eight children — four boys and four girls — were like most Romanian families during that time in that they had very little for luxuries.

Tanko said his mother was very loving and did the best she could to provide them clothing she made with her sewing machine, but at a young age, he knew spending his entire life in the country was not a future he desired.

He said he was about 6 years old when his uncle and his family came to visit from Germany.

He remembered being taken aback by his cousins’ clothing; he admired the quality and the style. It was like nothing he’d seen before.

“I thought, ‘When I grow up, I want to live like that,’” he said.


A harrowing journey to a better life

Years after the visit from his uncle’s family, Tanko made the decision to leave Romania.

In the early 1980s, exiting the country was almost an impossibility; Tanko knew he’d have to attempt something drastic to get across the Romanian border and into neighboring Yugoslavia.

At the age of 22, he found his opportunity.

Tanko said a good friend was getting married on the bank of the Danube River, which separates Romania from the former Yugoslavia, and had noticed the widest part of the river was sparsely patrolled by the Romanian military.

He gave Tanko a map of the area, and Tanko used that map to plot is way out of the country.

Tanko entered the river at about 10 p.m. the night of his escape. It took him about two hours two swim the 2-mile stretch.

When he made it to shore on the Yugoslavian side of the river, people who lived near the river came upon him.

“Right away, they knew I was a refugee,” Tanko said.

Thankfully for Tanko, the father of the family spoke Romanian, so he was able to communicate.

The family took him in for the night, gave him dry clothes and food, and told him if he wrote a letter to his family, they’d mail it inside of Romania. One of the family members was going to Romania for a business trip the next day. Three days after Tanko arrived in Yugoslavia, the letter made it to his parents; they knew he had made it out of the country without being apprehended or killed by the military.

“The good Lord was on my side that night,” he said.

Since he entered Yugoslavia illegally, Tanko was arrested and spent two weeks in jail.

After being released, the United Nations documented him, and he approached the American Embassy about entering America and becoming a citizen.

It took six months — he lived in a refugee camp while he waited — but Tanko was able to come to America.


Finding love

Tanko arrived in the United States via plane, and the day he landed he met Ann, the woman who became his wife.

Lutheran Social Service sponsored Tanko, and the woman from LSS who met him at the airport in New York had a friend in college who was working on a paper about foreign cultures. That woman was Ann.

With the aid of a translator, Ann interviewed Tanko.

As it turned out, Ann lived in Minnesota — the state where LSS had placed Tanko.

She and the woman from LSS took Tanko to a church in Richfield and asked the parishioners there if anyone would be willing to house Tanko while they found a more permanent home for him.

A couple — Rich and Mary Lou Wheaton — said they’d provide a home for him.

Over the following months, Tanko learned the culture and began to pick up on the language with the help of Ann and the Wheatons.

They helped him find work, too.

After he settled into America, his love for Ann grew.

He admitted he cried when she made him a birthday cake for the first time.

“Nobody had ever done that for me before,” he said.

A year after he came to Minnesota, he asked Ann to marry him.


A nut for art

Tanko said he’s held more jobs than he can remember and he likes to work, but he said his true passion is art.

From an early age, he showed an aptitude for making art out of unusual objects.

“There weren’t many things to do in a communist country, so my hobby growing up was going into the hillsides and the mountainsides and looking for deer and elk antlers,” he said.

He’d carve those antlers into ashtrays and picture frames he’d give to his family.

“I gave one to my sister, and I remember she made a comment to my mom: She said, ‘Mom, look at Albert; one day he is going to make a living with his creativity.”’

About 10 years after marrying Ann, the couple visited her grandmother in Wisconsin. At her house, Tanko admired a walnut cross she had on her wall.

He thought it would be interesting to make crosses similar to that one and started on the venture after he returned home.

Crosses were just the beginning.

His art evolved into making picture frames, mirror frames, tables, sun catchers, chandeliers, key chains and little birdlike creatures he dubbed “Whatnuts.” At first, Tanko just used walnuts, but now he uses all kinds of nuts and fruit refuse, like peach pits.

He spends days at a time on his projects, but it’s a labor of love.

About 100 yards from his home, he has a workshop where he creates his artwork. He quipped, “I call it the nuthouse.”

Ideally, Tanko said he’d like to make a living off his art.

He’s sold some of it at craft fairs, and said he plans to make more of an effort to get his name out there so people can discover his art.

He’s having an open house to showcase his work at his home in September, and some of his work can be seen online at

Those who would like to purchase Tanko’s artwork can call him at 763-444-5453.

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