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Far from the internet, these big, benevolent trolls lure humans back to nature: NPR


Now, a story about trolls – not the one you find on the internet, not exactly the one you’d find under a bridge in a fairy tale. You might find these trolls in New Jersey, Seattle, Puerto Rico or South Korea – giant trolls by Danish artist Thomas Dambo. They’re called magical and otherworldly, and they’re made from recycled wood. And now he’s building new trolls all over the Pacific Northwest. This is NPR’s Elizabeth Blair.


ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In the woods of the Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens, a small army of — let’s call them Geppettos in hoodies — is building a giant.

THOMAS DAMBO: Pete (ph), do you think Scott (ph) could cut some?

BLAIR: Perched on a scaffolding, using jigsaws and screwdrivers, they make the skin of the giant troll by attaching hundreds of pieces of wood to a huge inner frame. The troll’s feet alone are almost as tall as me. Artist Thomas Dambo designed five trolls for the garden’s more than 300 acres.

DAMBO: And then I always look for places that have a little bit different feelings, like – so one that’s near water and one that’s deep in the woods and one that’s, like, next to the lake and a c it’s like, bottom up and in and out, like, to try to give people a good experience when they walk through the forest and find my art – because it’s not really just about my art. It is also very much this experience that we live when we walk in nature and in the forest.

BLAIR: Dambo also wants to show people what you can do with trash. He says most of the recycled wood he uses comes from discarded shipping pallets, which he finds all over the world.

DAMBO: You can just get all the palettes you want. You can just take the highway and visit a big factory. And then you can just go ring their doorbell, and then they’ll have 500 pallets in the back that you can have. There are so many. And they’ll just lay there and rot, or they’ll get burned or something. So for me it’s like a good way to work, to create art because I don’t create waste. I just use other people’s scraps and then rearrange them a bit.

BLAIR: Reorganizing is an understatement. Dambo’s trolls aren’t just huge; they are sculptures designed with so much imagination and whimsy that they have become social media stars. One of them is lounging, his hands behind his head. Another uses a car as an armrest. Dambo gives them names, like Sneaky Socks and Leo the Enlightened.

DAMBO: I like to think my trolls are alive. And now I probably look a little crazy.

BLAIR: This fairy tale has its villains. In 2018, Dambo performed a troll for an arts festival in Breckenridge, Colorado. Standing about 15ft tall, Isak Heartstone had a sweet smile on his face as he piled rocks on the edge of a hiking trail. Dambo says Isak was inspired by the area’s history of clearing land to mine gold.

DAMBO: And then the story goes that Isak Heartstone tries to build a new small mountain because he’s sad that the other mountain is destroyed. And so I made a little story about it.

HALEY LITTLETON: There was so much excitement around how cool it was and how it fit right into our landscape and environment.

BLAIR: But, says Haley Littleton, spokesperson for the town of Breckenridge, Isak Heartstone’s popularity has become a problem.

LITTLETON: We basically had thousands of visitors a day on some of our busy weekends and, you know, we really had a problem with parking and litter.

BLAIR: The neighbors complained. In winter, people slid on the ice to see the troll. Dambo was following the drama from Denmark.

DAMBO: Of course, I don’t want people to get hurt. But, as in Denmark, we have another vision of insurance and liability. So, in Denmark, if you hike in the mountains in the middle of winter, it’s your fault if it’s slippery and you fall on the ice.

BLAIR: That’s not how it works in the United States. Eventually, Breckenridge City Council voted; Isak Heartstone had to leave.

DAMBO: I get a phone call in the middle of the night telling me that now they are going to dismantle the sculpture. And then I’m like, OK, well, that’s really too bad. And they’re like, we can find a new place for it or – but we have to take it down now because there’s an uprising and people are protesting the removal of the sculpture. Then I tell myself that it is no longer in my hands. I can not do anything.

BLAIR: To avoid an uproar, the city kept the day of Isak Heartstone’s chainsaw destruction a secret.


THOMAS DAMBO AND CAMILO & GRANDE: (singing) Heartstone – he was living on stone, but the government just wouldn’t leave him alone. Now he is…

DAMBO: It was such a crazy story, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. So what we did was me and two of my friends created a reggae song called “Isak Heartstone Killed By The Goverment”.


DAMBO AND CAMILO & GRANDE: (singing) Now he’s kicked out of his house, stripped to the bone. But no one is like Isak. Leave him alone. Heartstone – he lived on stone, but…

BLAIR: Eventually, a task force of trolls found a new location for Isak Heartstone and brought Dambo back to rebuild it.

MARK RIVERA: He has many, many, many endless ideas in his head all the time.

BLAIR: Artist Mark Rivera first encountered Dambo in Puerto Rico. Dambo was building a troll in a parking lot across from Rivera’s house. Today, Rivera is part of his team. He says another of Dambo’s ideas is to involve the community where he makes his art. In 2014, Dambo made Hector the Protector on the island of Culebra. He sat down at the edge of the water with a rock in his hand.

RIVERA: And he just grabs a rock and throws it at whoever wants to, you know, invade the island.

BLAIR: But Hector didn’t survive Hurricane Maria.

RIVERA: Things in Culebra were really, really, really bad after the hurricane.

BLAIR: Dambo started a GoFundMe campaign to go back to Culebra and rebuild Hector in the same place. And he invited the island community to help him.

RIVERA: The local fishermen helped us by collecting wood. There was like a school, and the children came and they made a necklace for the troll.

BLAIR: The new Hector contains a lantern with a solar panel so boats can see the coastline during a storm.

RIVERA: It’s kind of like…it’s become like an icon of the island now. And you know, a lot of people love him for that.


BLAIR: Back at the Botanical Gardens in coastal Maine, Dambo hopes these trolls are appealing enough to drive people away from their screens and their homes.

DAMBO: I like to use my sculptures as a mechanism to show people the wild nature, because why would people care about protecting nature if they are not connected to it and do not remember that it is there ?

BLAIR: In Thomas Dambo’s fairy tales, the giant trolls are the heroes who protect the planet, and the humans are the little people.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


DAMBO AND CAMILO & GRANDE: (Singing) …Sing. Heartstone – he lived on stone, but the government just wouldn’t leave him alone.

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