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


Now a story about trolls - not the kind you find on the internet, not exactly what you would 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 the Danish artist Thomas Dambo. They've been called magical and otherworldly, and they're made out of recycled wood. And now he is building new trolls throughout the Pacific Northwest. Here is NPR's Elizabeth Blair.


ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In the woods at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, a small army of - let's call them Geppettos in hoodies - are building a giant.

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

BLAIR: Perched on scaffolding, using jigsaws and screw guns, they're making the giant troll's skin by fastening hundreds of pieces of wood onto a huge interior frame. The troll's feet alone are almost as tall as I am. Artist Thomas Dambo designed five trolls for the garden's more than 300 acres.

DAMBO: And then I always look for, like, locations that has a little bit of different feelings to, like - so one that's close to the water and one that's deep in the woods and one that's, like, next to the lake and one that's, like, down and up and in and out, like, to try and give people a good experience when they then walk around in the forest and find my art - because it's not really only about my art. It's also a lot about that experience you get when you walk around 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 thrown-out shipping pallets, which he finds all over the world.

DAMBO: You can just get all the pallets you want. You can just go down the interstate and then look at some big factory. And then you can just go and ring their doorbell, and then they'll have 500 pallets out the back that you can have. There's so many. And they'll just lay there and rot, or they'll get burned or something. So like - so for me, they're like a nice medium to work - to make art in because I'm not creating any trash. I'm just using other people's trash and then rearranging it a little bit.

BLAIR: Rearranging is an understatement. Dambo's trolls are not just huge; they're sculptures designed with so much imagination and whimsy, they've become social media stars. One lounges with his hands behind his head. Another uses a car for an armrest. Dambo gives them names, like Sneaky Socks and Leo the Enlightened.

DAMBO: I like to think that my trolls are, like, alive. And now I probably sound a little bit crazy.

BLAIR: This fairy tale does have its villains. In 2018, Dambo made a troll for an arts festival in Breckenridge, Colo. At about 15 feet high, Isak Heartstone had a gentle smile on his face as he stacked rocks on the side of a hiking trail. Dambo says Isak was inspired by the region's history of breaking up the ground to mine for gold.

DAMBO: And then the story talked about that Isak Heartstone is trying to, like, build a new little mountain because he's sad the other mountain has been broken down. And so I made like a little story about this.

HALEY LITTLETON: There was so much excitement around just how cool he was and how well he actually fit into our scenery and our environment.

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

LITTLETON: We essentially had thousands of visitors a day on some of our busy weekends coming up there and, you know, really having an issue with parking and trash.

BLAIR: Neighbors complained. In winter, people slipped on the ice going to see the troll. Dambo was following the drama from Denmark.

DAMBO: Of course, I don't want people to get hurt. But, like, in Denmark, it's - we have another view on insurance and liability. So in Denmark, like, if you hike a mountain in the middle of winter, it's your own fault if it's slippery and you fall on the ice.

BLAIR: That's not how it works in the U.S. Eventually, the town council of Breckenridge voted; Isak Heartstone had to go.

DAMBO: I get a phone call in the middle of the night saying, like, now they're going to take down the sculpture. And then I'm like, OK, well, that's really a shame. 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 that they're taking down the sculpture. Then I'm like, it's out of my hands. I can't do anything.

BLAIR: To avoid an outcry, the town kept the day of Isak Heartstone's destruction by chainsaw a secret.


THOMAS DAMBO AND CAMILO & GRANDE: (Singing) Heartstone - he used to live on the stone, but the government just didn't want to leave him alone. Now he's...

DAMBO: It was just such a crazy story, and I didn't know how to cope with it. So what we did was that me and two of my friends - we made a reggae song that's called "Isak Heartstone Killed By The Goverment."


DAMBO AND CAMILO & GRANDE: (Singing) Now he's evicted from home, stripped to the bone. But nobody is like Isak. Just leave him alone. Heartstone - he used to live on the stone, but...

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

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

BLAIR: Artist Mark Rivera first met Dambo in Puerto Rico. Dambo was building a troll in a parking lot across the street from Rivera's home. Now Rivera's part of his crew. He says another one 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 on the water's edge with a rock in his hand.

RIVERA: And he's just grabbing a rock and throwing 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 launched a GoFundMe campaign to return to Culebra and rebuild Hector in the same spot. And he invited the island's community to help out.

RIVERA: Local fishermen helped us out with scavenging wood. There was like a school, and you had the children come, and they made a necklace for the troll.

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

RIVERA: It's kind of like a - became like an icon to the island now. And, you know, a lot of people love him for that.


BLAIR: Back at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Dambo hopes these trolls are attractive enough to get people away from their screens and out of their house.

DAMBO: I like to use my sculptures as a mechanism to show people wild nature because why would people care about protecting nature if they are not connected to it and not reminded that it's there?

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

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


DAMBO AND CAMILO & GRANDE: (Singing) ...Sing. Heartstone - he used to live on the stone, but the government just didn't want to leave him alone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.