Trolls derived from Scandinavian folklore arrived in the Pacific Northwest this summer.
These trolls, who typically hide within nature, have frizzled snake-like branches sprouting from their heads or faces, their eyes are wide and curious, and their bodies are plastered with wood.
At first, these towering trolls may sound frightening, yet they elicit a contagious feeling of joy — visitors often gather around the trolls, smiling, pointing and giggling like curious children.
Thomas Dambo, a Danish artist based in Copenhagen, is the creator of these trolls.
Since Dambo’s first troll creation in 2014, his art has grown in scale and scope, creating over 120 trolls spanning 17 countries.
Dambo uses these trolls as a vessel to communicate a message of environmental conservation and sustainability on a global scale.
Dambo’s approach to art highlights the use of recycled materials, from wooden pallets to mayonnaise jars, to create a powerful message about the potential for beauty in unlikely places.
“You can always turn trash into something valuable,” Dambo said. “You always turn trash into treasure.”
In the summer, Dambo, his wife, two twins and his crew embarked on his newest project, “Way of the Bird King”.
This project entailed a 100-day journey across the United States, starting in New Jersey and traveling to Vermont, Michigan and Colorado, all before arriving in the Pacific Northwest.
The Pacific Northwest leg of the project began in July and finished in September, leaving behind six trolls hiding in groves, peaking between trees, on the shore watching over the ocean tides or staying close to their roots near Nordic museums.
Each troll has a unique name and story, which Dambo wove together throughout the trip; once completed, the stories tell a cohesive tale that revolves around keeping Puget Sound clean.
Although the message in Dambo’s art is one of sustainability, conservation and environmental stewardship, the Northwest leg generated another message of the power of community and the importance of collaboration.
“A lot of times public art is an artist creating something and then installing it into the community, and there’s not as much opportunity throughout the process for community engagement,” said Amy Dukes, Issaquah’s troll project manager. “This project was different because there were so many ways for people to be involved and to collaborate.”
Before there were six trolls, there was one.
The origin of the Northwest region trolls dates back more than four years ago when the National Nordic Museum became aware of a Danish environmental artist — the museum saw how Thomas aligned with their values and became interested in a troll of their own.
“I think that Thomas’s practice and his ethos are very much in line with our commitment to sustainability,” said Leslie Anderson, Chief Curator at the National Nordic Museum. “We talk about and truly provide a platform for policymakers and cleantech companies to explore how we can act in a way that is keeping in mind the preservation of our planet.”
However, Dambo expressed his vision of a project on a larger scale, said Line Larsen, Program Officer at the Scan Design Foundation.
“We had initially spoken about a troll at the museum, then the idea grew to monumental proportions,” said Leslie Anderson, Chief Curator at the National Nordic Museum.
When Scan Design Foundation — a Seattle-based foundation focusing on Danish and United States cultural exchange — stepped in, the once-local project became a regional display.
With the support of the Paul G. Family Foundation and the help from the site partners, volunteers and the Muckleshoot Tribe, Snoqualmie Tribe and Nisqually Tribe, the idea of one troll developed into the inception of six.
The trolls who live in the Northwest are named Jakob Two Trees in Issaquah, Pia the Peace Keeper on Bainbridge Island, Frankie Feetsplinter in Ballard, Bruun Idun in West Seattle, Oscar The Bird King on Vashon Island and Ole Bolle in Portland, Oregon.
How to build a troll
Building the trolls involved extensive pre-planning and discussions before any building began, said Brady Jensen, the Portland troll volunteer project leader.
These conversations combed through various elements of the project, ranging from the overall design of each troll to specific details related to their locations.
While the trolls shared common elements like their internal skeleton made of wooden planks and their skin of layered pallets, distinct differences in location, position and accessories brought new surprises when building each structure.
“I think as far as the build, you have to remember that it’s an installation and it’s location specific,” said Lynann Politte, troll project lead on Vashon Island. “So you can plan as much as you can plan and then you just have to hold on for the ride… because it’s a bit of a roller coaster.”
Due to the Portland troll, Ole Bolle, being the first build on the Norwest leg, Jensen had the unique opportunity to relay what was working, what was not working and what the team learned along the way to the other site managers.
“We were making calls on the fly that we could then turn around and share back and influence some of the decisions that [site partners] needed to make,” he said.
As each site manager held on tight for the ride, they found harmony in the conversations between one another.
“We worked together collaboratively — we were each focused on our individual sculpture — and we met regularly and really talked through everything together,” Anderson said.” Even when the build schedule began, we were still meeting regularly, monitoring the progress and learning from each other.”
Dawn Janow, the troll project lead on Bainbridge Island, recalled the last site partner meeting and seeing everyone’s faces mirror one another.
“We’re all a little weary and teary that we didn’t get to keep meeting because even amongst the six sites, we developed such a bond,” she said.
Volunteers and the Dambo crew
The community element of the project trickled down from the site partner meetings to the collaboration between the crew and the volunteers at each site.
“It’s almost concentric circles of this community element,” Anderson said. “In this case, it’s like the arts community that came together to execute this project and then the volunteers in our respective communities gave it life.”
Volunteers poured from each community to help create their local troll — some volunteers would stay for multiple days and others for a day.
According to the site managers, sites ranged from 80 volunteers to over 100.
When Politte put out a call for volunteers, she was surprised by the public’s interest. She said sometimes organizations and events on the island are hurting for volunteers, yet she had to turn people away.
The sites welcomed volunteers of any level, many who were architects, general contractors, carpenters and experts in landscape and forest restoration.
While many volunteers were local, some ventured from British Columbia, Arizona and one man from San Francisco who worked on various trolls in the Northwest and one in Vermont.
Some volunteers took on the laborious tasks of breaking down old pallets, building birdhouses or hammering in pieces of wood to create a shingle-like pattern on the troll’s belly — other volunteers provided food, spirits, materials and housing.
Politte reflected on the generosity of the local community when it came to outsourcing materials.
A resident on Vashon Island contacted Politte to donate 26 tree logs, estimated to be $10,000 worth of lumber.
Those logs now make up the throne Oscar the Bird King sits on.
Janow was also shocked at the lengths the locals went to, to create their local trolls.
“[The crew] wanted some milled lumber. I was like ‘We don’t have a mill on Bainbridge Island.’ The next thing you know, someone’s dropping off 60 logs of mill lumber… it was endless, like, endless,” she said.
Janow said the project amplified the message of bringing people of different kinds of partners and people together to create something bigger.
“We had people donate materials, people give up their homes for the Dambo’s crew to stay, people brought home-cooked meals for lunches,” she said.
Although the relationships between the volunteers and crew members were brief, Jensen said they were rich and rewarding for every volunteer, no matter their input to the project.
“It was nice to see people making connections, both with the artist and the team, but also, with each other in that kind of community project,” Duke said.
The camaraderie between the locals and the crew did not end at the work site.
Although Dambo and the crew were on a tight schedule, leapfrogging from one site to the other — finishing each troll within the span of two weeks —they are adamant about keeping a work-life balance.
“They worked from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., cleaned up, didn’t work late and they didn’t work on either weekend,” Politte said.
After hours, Dambo and the crew could often be found at local events, dancing, drinking beer and with the locals.
“They worked really hard, and they played really hard,” Politte said with a grin.
Coastal Salish tribes welcome the Northwest trolls
An essential part of this project was the collaboration with the Coastal Salish tribes — the Muckleshoot Tribe, Snoqualmie Tribe and Nisqually Tribe.
“Because the trolls would be on traditional Coastal Salish tribal land, we decided to enter conversation with the tribes in the region,” Larsen said. “We felt that was just a really important part of the project. We wanted to make sure that we respected the tribes and their territories.”
Before the build of the trolls began, the Scan Design Foundation facilitated an artist exchange, selecting one Muckleshoot Tribe artist to travel to Denmark and collaborate with Dambo and his crew.
Coyote (John Halliday), a descendant of the Duwamish people, was chosen to represent the Muckleshoot Tribe.
During the exchange, Coyote said he discovered similarities between Danish and Coast Salish cultures, particularly in their deep care for the planet.
Larsen said the relationship between Coyote and Dambo evolved into a lifelong friendship.
Dambo and Coyote’s collaboration on the West Seattle troll, Bruun Idun, further strengthened this connection.
The flute at Bruuni Idun’s feet is a product of the artist exchange between Coyote and a Danish carver.
The flute, similar to each troll’s head, feet and hands, was made in Denmark and then flown to Washington.
Coyote said the flute, engraved with killer whales, symbolized the call for killer whales back into the Salish Sea.
At the site, Coyote wrapped the horn Bruuni Idun is holding, in traditional materials made of cedar from a grandmother cedar tree and abalone shells.
“We put these things on the troll to show we are welcoming it,” Coyote said.
Ginger de los Angeles, a member of the Snoqualmie Tribe, also used cedar to gift Jakob Two Trees.
The idea of using cedar started when de los Angeles first met Dambo and the team. She gifted them each a cedar rope necklace.
Gifting and sharing is a significant part of the culture, de los Angeles said.
“It kind of started the conversation of the importance of cedar and how it plays into our culture, traditionally and in present-day use,” de los Angeles said.
From there, conversations flowed about the potential role cedar could play in the design of the troll.
In the end, de los Angeles created a necklace made of a cedar rope, which the birdhouses, made by the volunteers, now hang.
With the cedar left over, de los Angeles wove in a plait-brade fashion to create the troll’s bracelet and hair tie.
Lasting impact of trolls
Once the building of the trolls had finished and Dambo and his crew went home, the trolls continued to bring people together locally, regionally and internationally.
Janow said locals would bump into each other multiple times when seeing Pia the Peacekeeper on Bainbridge Island; others met briefly to see Pia but were from vastly different parts of the world.
“These trolls are linking this vast network of people. It’s getting people out and traveling,” she said. “We have people from all over the world coming. People are engaging with each other that they never would have.”
“It was like these threads coming across the horizon,” said Sean Barker, the Facilities Maintenance Manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation. “Kind of that feeling that we’re all tied together.”
Coyote recalled a Native American prophecy that aligned with the effect the trolls had on global connections.
“There will come a day when people of all races will put aside their differences and come together as one,” he said.
Reflecting on his journey, Dambo also began to see these threads connecting through the installments of his trolls, transcending through communities and cultures.
“While in the States, I met loads of enthusiastic volunteers and visitors who were full of energy. It showed me how much people worldwide appreciate public art that carries a message,” he said. “Everyone feels the importance of recycling, as it’s a way to add beauty and excitement to everyone’s life.”