Trolls: The Playful Voices of Nature - Cheekwood
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My name is Thomas Dambo and I turn trash into sculptures.

Bruun Idun. Lincoln Park, Seattle, WA.
Thomas Dambo with Bruun Idun in Lincoln Park, Seattle, Washington

This is how Thomas Dambo, one the world’s leading recycle artists, introduces himself, but the story of how he became a sculptor of more than 125 gigantic trolls goes much deeper. Six of Dambo’s troll creations arrived at Cheekwood in May and will be in residence through September 1 as part of the traveling exhibition TROLLS: Save the Humans.

These stewards of nature, as Dambo refers to them, are hand-built out of repurposed trash and live in 17 countries all over the world. No two trolls are alike, and each has its own story. They exist for us to enjoy and marvel at, but also to give awareness to sustainability, something humans have yet to master.

Gazing up at the six trolls throughout Cheekwood’s 55-acre estate, intricate details like Rosa Sunfinger’s spiky branches of hair, or Basse Buller’s larger-than-life outstretched foot, are delightfully life-like and stunning. Dambo’s trolls, some reaching 50 feet tall, are built with discarded wood pallets and other reclaimed materials, such as twigs, bamboo, plastic, and sometimes even an old barn. Dambo estimates that over the years he’s used upwards of 30,000 discarded wood pallets from garbage dumps. He’s used so many that he belovingly refers to his personal troll workshop in Denmark as the “Pallet Palace.”

Trolls: Save the Humans, Basse Buller. Courtesy Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Basse Buller at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens
Kamma Can at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens

According to Dambo, trash has value. He believes that with small but concerted actions, a world drowning in trash could become a world filled with meaningful, beautiful creations made with it. His works are art with purpose – colossal sculptures that encourage adventure and imagination, while giving a new way to see things.

One might wonder, “But why trolls?” Dambo grew up in Denmark, where trolls are a part of the folklore of Danish culture. For him, trolls have always been the ambassadors of nature, the protectors of our forests.

_Ben Chiller_ - Northside Festival - Aarhus, Denmark
Ben Chiller, NorthSide Festival in Aarhus, Denmark

“For me, the trolls are the unspoken voice of the plants and animals,” Dambo says. “What would the plants and animals say if we could understand what they’re talking about?”

The energy trolls can give is of child-like imagination, inspiring us to dream of things that could be, instead of only what we can see. There is a magic and happiness that troll enthusiasts engage with, that of discovery, exploration, and basking in the extraordinary … all while being surrounded by nature.

The concept is universal and Dambo is ambitious, with a larger personal mission to build 1,000 trolls. While the traveling exhibition TROLLS: Save the Humans is currently captivating visitors at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Dambo is globetrotting far and wide, continuing this work, building as many statuesque troll titans as he can and bringing large-scale art and environmental awareness to destinations around the world.

Ibbi Pip at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens

With a diverse background as a songwriter, musician, and artist, Dambo has always loved storytelling and creating things. Adding his passion for the natural world, Dambo is that rare person who has been able to combine many things they love into a lifelong project.

During his time as a street artist, Dambo made and hung thousands of vibrant recycled birdhouses throughout the streets of Denmark. “This project ran for years and became one of my first successes as an artist,” he says. “To this day, I always try to include birdhouses in my works.”

You can see some of Dambo’s birdhouses by visiting a troll named Ibbi Pip at Cheekwood. Ibbi Pip is a friend to all animals, so she uses birdhouses to keep birds always nearby.

As of this writing in May 2024, Dambo is currently in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, building what he calls “the biggest troll with the biggest foot I have ever done.” The project includes five giant trolls and a plastic rabbit. The troll team has been visiting the local dump, sourcing more than 2,000 plastic crates for one of the structures.

Another project is Greta Granite at Ninigret Park, as part of Dambo’s upcoming Thunderstone exhibition in Rhode Island. Greta’s hair is made of 300 split bamboo shafts obtained from a local neighbor who recently cleared their garden. All Dambo’s creations have something unique about them, from Mama Mimi in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to the Giants of Mandurah in Australia, to Oscar the Bird King in Vashon Island, Washington.

Sofus Lotus at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens

Dambo often builds hidden trolls that require viewers to search for them on a Troll Map and discover them hiding in nature. You can experience Cheekwood’s “hidden” troll, Sofus Lotus, throughout the summer, but we’ll let you experience the joy of finding out where he is on a future visit.

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