Artist's 'vivid imagination' created Morton Arboretum's incredible trolls

  • ABOVE: Little Arturs rests in a meadow as part of the "Troll Hunt" exhibit created by artist-in-residence Thomas Dambo. The hunt opens Friday at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

      ABOVE: Little Arturs rests in a meadow as part of the "Troll Hunt" exhibit created by artist-in-residence Thomas Dambo. The hunt opens Friday at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/21/2018 10:31 AM

To reach Thomas Dambo on this morning, you have to take a footpath deep into a forest of conifers.

In these serene woods -- we can't say exactly where -- Dambo is scaling a teepee skeleton that stands some 24 feet tall.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Dambo is the Danish artist behind the Morton Arboretum's "Troll Hunt," the gamemaster behind a journey inspired by Scandinavian folklore and his love of unspoiled wilderness. His artist residency is coming to an end, and Dambo and his crew have finished building six giant trolls around the outdoor museum in Lisle.

But he remains busy putting the final touches on the "hideout," a temple with all kinds of oddities for his troll tribe, before the hunt officially opens to the public on Friday.

"He's just incredibly vivid with his thought process and his imagination," says Joe Acosta, an arboretum employee who worked alongside Dambo for eight weeks. "His mind just never stops when it comes to thinking of new creations and building them."

The arboretum has become a playground for Dambo since he and his crew arrived in April after building other wooden creatures in Korea and a tropical forest made of plastic waste in Mexico. His art implicitly encourages recycling and stewardship for the environment, but in a "brilliant and beautiful way," Acosta says.

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Which is why you have to keep reminding yourself that Dambo's trolls, these mighty guardians of the forest with all their individual, humanlike quirks, are made of trash wood.

Approachable art

Joe the Guardian looks over I-88 as one of the wooden sculptures in the "Troll Hunt" that opens Friday at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
  Joe the Guardian looks over I-88 as one of the wooden sculptures in the "Troll Hunt" that opens Friday at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Dambo named the trolls after the people involved in bringing the mythical characters to life. Acosta, who has shoulder-length hair, sees a likeness in the wild mane of his namesake troll, though Dambo probably wouldn't say so.

With a 30-foot-long spear, Joe the Guardian mans his post above the Reagan Memorial Tollway, protecting the natural wonder of the arboretum from the surrounding concrete jungle.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I was kind of at a loss for words," Acosta says of sharing a name with the most-prominent troll of the six.

It's not meant to be a kind gesture. It's another way Dambo creates community ownership around his work.

He enlisted more than 60 arboretum volunteers and made construction of the trolls a public exhibit. Along with his eight-person crew from Denmark, they built the trolls on-site with the exception of their faces, hands and feet, which were assembled in Dambo's Copenhagen studio.

Kettman Whitfield, a 7-year-old from Downers Grove, crawls out of the mouth of a troll named Little Arturs.
  Kettman Whitfield, a 7-year-old from Downers Grove, crawls out of the mouth of a troll named Little Arturs. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Well in advance of the "Troll Hunt" opening, kids have been climbing inside Little Arturs, the carefree troll in the bunch, through a gaping mouth large enough for his 6-foot-tall creator to fit through.

"I love that people can touch it, and they can help to build and climb on it, and they could take photos of it," Dambo says. "The artwork is not finished before people actually touch it."

Building the trolls took a "colossal effort," Acosta says, as the team dismantled old pallets, and cut and arranged the wood into patterns for the pear-shaped bodies and contours of their expressive faces.

"It's not a traditional style of carpentry," Acosta says. "It really took some serious thought, probably the first time he did this. To come up with the geometry for building the trolls, the shapes of their faces and the materials that he uses, it's not an easy process."

Artist Thomas Dambo at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
  Artist Thomas Dambo at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer
'Engaging creatures'

Arboretum leaders reached out to Dambo more than a year ago after they learned of his viral troll project, "The Six Forgotten Giants," outside Copenhagen.

"We really loved the idea of using reclaimed and recycled wood," says Sarah Sargent, the arboretum's manager of interpretation and exhibits. "It's a great match for our mission and our messages about the environment. We also just loved the way the Forgotten Giants looked. They're these large, gentle, engaging creatures."

Dambo took a bike tour of the arboretum before agreeing to the project. He had to find the right locations for creatures that would seamlessly blend with their environment.

"His works are very much about the landscape and the site they're built on, so our trolls look nothing like the ones that were built in the forest outside of Copenhagen," Sargent says.

The trolls are meant to be stumbled upon -- ideally on foot or bike -- because Dambo is trying to lead troll hunters on an excursion through the arboretum and ultimately to a greater appreciation of nature.

"By rushing inside our cars through life, often we just give ourselves worse experiences," Dambo says. "But if we take the time to do it with our own body, the experience gets bigger."

That sense of discovery culminates with the troll hideout, found only by deciphering clues in a handbook the arboretum will provide with admission. Here, Dambo, a kid who grew up building treehouses and inventing the rules of play for his friends, is still the gamemaster.

"It's just the biggest scale I can imagine now," he says.

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