The troll dubbed Joe peers out over the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway and the suburban sprawl beyond, one hand shielding his brow as he scans the horizon, the other holding a giant spear.
He is a handmade, deliberately secondhand thing, his body pieced together from discarded shipping pallets, his hair a tangle of trimmed branches, the spear a ramrod-straight trunk of a conifer that had to be chopped down.
But he is imposing nonetheless, standing 20-something feet tall, with an expression that is friendly enough but looks ready to veer into menacing, especially if someone tries to broach the massive berm he stands on to disturb the idyll of the Morton Arboretum behind him.
Thomas Dambo, the effervescent Danish artist who created Joe and five of his brethren for a compelling new woodland installation, sees Joe as a kind of border guard between the placid west suburban tree haven and the frenetic, destructive industrial world symbolised by the scurrying automobiles and the soullessly efficient office towers.
“I walked up on this hill, and I’m like, I’m standing on the frontier, the clash between these two different sides of this story,” he said. “And then I was like, I need to have a big troll standing here and guarding so that none of these cars runs up here and tramples down the whole forest.”
Joe and the other pieces that constitute the arboretum’s new “Troll Hunt” aren’t just art works made from salvaged material or symbols of a friendlier way to manage resources. Granted, there is no mistaking the message delivered by the troll closest to the main Morton parking lot, an angry-looking fellow holding a boulder above his head, about to bring it down on the old car mounted at his feet.
But these are also, in Dambo’s fertile mind, ambassadors of ages-old Scandinavian culture and characters in a story he is spreading across the world, first with a troll installation in Copenhagen, then in South Korea, and now in Lisle.
“I wanted to tell a story where the trolls are representing nature and the struggle between mankind and nature, and the problems that we have with that,” said Dambo, who speaks English quite well and in great rushes of words and notions.
The great story
“Mankind is kind of dependent on nature but we are also nature’s biggest enemy in some way because we are slowly just deleting all nature and just filling it in with concrete and digging holes and putting all our trash in there and then we build new residential areas on top of that. So slowly we are just replacing nature with developed areas. I wanted to tell a story about this. I call it ‘The Great Story about the Little People and the Giant Trolls’. And this is Chapter Three.”
It is Chapter One with Dambo for the arboretum, and it seems to be going well. For the past two months, the lanky 38-year-old has been dubbed an “artist in residence”, and Morton has invited visitors to try to find him and to visit his creations in progress.
They might have spotted him on a platform screwing in the shingle-like pieces that make up the fur of Joe, named for the arboretum worker who donated the car that Dambo’s parking lot troll is about to crush. Or they would see him zipping from Joe to meet with his crew building a seated, treeside troll, pedalling the vintage mountain bike the arboretum provided. Or, if they sneaked into the offstage areas of the institution, they could catch him and his crew after hours at the Morton-owned house they’ve been inhabiting, preparing dinner on the grill Dambo salvaged from a nearby suburban curb on trash day.
“It’s so nice,” he said. “We just bicycle around in this big park and picnic and have lunch.”
Mary Lou Manzo and the two Naperville pre-schoolers she cares for took the arboretum’s challenge and came upon Dambo one bright spring day as he was being interviewed in the grass at Joe’s feet.
“I said, ‘I think I see troll hair, and I see a spear’,” said Manzo, explaining how she guided her charges to the spot.
“It’s really beautiful,” she said. “They’re like protectors, and it’s made out of wood so it’s keeping the forest safe.”
“We are also making a top-secret troll hideout,” Dambo said, conspiratorially.
Manzo said she visits frequently and she and Jack, five, and Sofia, three, have been watching the progress on the trolls, but this was their first time meeting the artist and getting so close.
“Boy,” she said, “I sure am glad we made the trip up here.”
Bringing Dambo here for his first major US installation came about after Sue Wagner, Morton’s vice president of education, found him while searching the web for outdoor or tree-related sculptures.
“His work was a surprise and a delight,” Wagner said. “As soon as I saw his work, I was like, I want that guy. I want him here.”
Sculpture can get lost in the broad expanses of the arboretum, and the monumental nature of Dambo’s creatures was as strong a fit as the anti-waste messaging.
“It came together very quickly,” said Wagner.
Dambo is “thrilled”, he said, to be bringing his vision here, to a public space.
“I didn’t know about the arboretum before they called me,” he said. “I didn’t even know what an arboretum was. And then I went online and I could see that it was this big, not-groomed park. And then of course I called them and spoke to them and then I came over here. I saw them and could understand that they just wanted me to do what I believed in and that they would help me with collecting recycled materials and to tell that story that I want to tell.”
Dambo first came out last summer. He rode around on a bike for a couple of days, he said, identifying potential locations, building the story in his mind. His initial impulse was to make all of the trolls a challenge to find and to get to, out on the many hiking paths.
A bigger purpose
“One thing that I would really like my trolls to do is try to bring people out of their safe zone in their cars and go exploring nature a little bit because when you explore such a beautiful forest as the Morton Arboretum then obviously you will understand that it’s worth protecting it and saving it.
“Just in my life I’ve been so fortunate to go scavenging, hunting for materials, and go into the alleys and climb trees, and that’s where all the good experiences are. I want to remind people that the world is so much bigger than this triangle we move in from, like, our house to our job to our supermarket and then back to our house again.”
Ahem, said the arboretum, at least a little bit. “I said, ‘OK, let me tell you about our visitors,’” Wagner said, a good proportion of whom visit primarily to drive the slow, one-way routes through the various treescapes.
So now the Morton website makes clear that: “All trolls are located between two feet and three-quarters of a mile from the nearest parking lot on a variety of path surfaces. … Five of the six trolls can be observed from your car on the main driving route.”
Still, to get close to most of them, you do have to at least take a walk.
“Often,” Dambo said, “the easiest is not the best. It’s just like fast food, you know? It’s nice a little bit, but then it’s really boring afterward. You feel really empty inside and you feel ashamed.”
Back to an earlier time
One 55-foot-long troll lies on its back in a meadow, as in mid-siesta. Another peeks out of some bushes near the park’s central pond.
They may look relaxed in place – they’ll be around two years or more, depending on how long they stay structurally sound – but building them is a fairly herculean task.
“We’ve had something like 15 to 18 people working on this for two months here plus five people for two months back in Copenhagen,” crafting the detailed faces, which were shipped over, the artist said. “It’s a big operation to make these things.”
Dambo grew up, he said, in “like a hippie commune”, which helped to spark his interest in recycling. After high school, he studied to be a carpenter but found the repetition dull. He was accepted into a design school and has built a quirky but growing practice making everything from the trolls to lamps constructed out of beer tap lines discarded after music festivals.
In the words of his eponymous website, he is “an artist / designer who specialises in making art pieces, sculptures, furniture and anything you / I can imagine out of trash, also known as recycled materials. He also gives a lot of speeches about upcycling and arranges workshops for schools, companies etc, teaching people to build stuff from trash.”
So much of it is about seeing the potential in discarded items, he said, or in imagining stories. Take, for instance, Joe. He’s not just a guard against marauding vehicles in Dambo’s mind. He’s also a representative from an earlier time, from the “Indians and cowboys movies” Dambo would watch.
“I was imagining how this area would have looked like a hundred years ago,” he said. “It would probably have been like a huge land of grass or something, like prairie. So I was imagining a native Indian standing on top of this hill with a big spear looking at the buffaloes migrating here. So these cars are the buffaloes.” – Tribune News Service/Chicago Tribune/Steve Johnson