Thomas Dambo, a recycle art activist, is building giant trolls in Washington and Oregon. Northwest Trolls: Way of the Bird King includes six pieces in the Pacific Northwest. The Portland sculpture has an unveiling on Friday. Dambo uses recycled materials for his pieces and the trolls typically interact with their environment. He’s built pieces around the world and has recently finished Rita, a troll who lives in Colorado. He’s also traveling across the country building trolls and documenting his journey on social media. Dambo joins us with more on his art.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. You can think of our next guest, Thomas Dambo, as a kind of Johnny Appleseed. But instead of leaving apple trees in his wake, there are huge trolls. Trolls hunting humans in Chicago, hugging a tree in Australia, sitting pensively in a forest in China. Dambo calls himself a recycle art activist. He uses castaway stuff like discarded shipping pallets and scraps of lumber, to make these enormous sculptures. He is in the Pacific Northwest these days as part of his latest cross country troll building tour, and he joins me now. Welcome to the show.
Thomas Dambo: Hello, welcome. Or, thank you.
Miller: Thank you very much. How has your trip to the Northwest been so far?
Dambo: It’s been really nice. I actually just arrived yesterday evening in Bainbridge.
Miller: Can you describe the troll that the work for it is already underway in Portland?
Dambo: The one in Portland will be the fifth of my ten sculpture road trip that I’m doing. It’s in the garden behind this place called the Nordia House. There are four small red cabins, and then the troll is like lifting up the roof, kind of like you would lift up the hood of your car. And then it’s looking into the big human cookie jar to see if there’s anything to snack.
Miller: I should say this is at the Nordic Northwest Cultural Center which is in Southwest Portland. One of the things that fascinates me about your work is the ways in which trolls can either be scary or playful, and yours often are both at once. Not truly scary, but not harmless either. How do you think about the range of what trolls can be for humans?
Dambo: The way that I see and the characters that I create, they’re your friend if you’re if you are their friend. And they’re like the voice of nature because trees and animals, they don’t really speak. The way I think it is that I give my trolls the option to communicate with humans. So if you’re treating the trolls and their animal and plant friends good, then they’ll provide for you and your family. But if not then maybe they’ll come and blow your house over.
Miller: Or throw a gigantic rock at you or trap you underneath a big trap.
Miller: I know that trolls are a part of a long tradition in Nordic mythology. What did they mean to you when you were growing up?
Dambo: It was kind of a coincidence in some way that I started building these now 121 giant recycled troll sculptures in 17 countries. It could have been something else that I ended up doing. My mother, she used to sing me a troll song as a kid. And then we always went to this little island where there was folklore about a troll living on this little Danish island. And then I would rent cassette tapes with trolls. And so it’s a part embedded in Danish folklore. And that’s what people believed before Christianity came. And trolls was a part of all the things and all the stories people believed back then. So I think I just took the chance to use it as a vehicle to tell the stories that I like to tell.
Miller: And it’s, it’s worth noting that, when you talk about the stories you want to tell, you don’t mean that as a metaphor, that’s very literal right? For each of these works, you write stories and poems or songs that go along with them that explain what’s happening.
Dambo: I’ve had a long career ‒ now I’m 43 ‒ but I’ve had a long career as a hip hop musician. I’ve made nine rap albums before. So that taught me a lot about storytelling, and how to write poems or how to write rhymes. So now I write poems and fairy tales that comes along with my sculpture. Sometimes they’re as long as a book, and sometimes it’s just four lines of rhymes.
Miller: Could we hear some of a favorite?
Dambo: For example, I just made this one called the Benny Beard Fisher. So Benny, he’s like laying on the shore of a river up in the upper peninsula of Michigan. And then he’s fishing with his beard into the river. So the story is: Benny’s beard can reach across the pond and through the river. Long and strong, the beard will wrap around you like a twister. Trolls can grow a beard both as a baby, miss, and mister. But any troll would envy that of Benny Beard, the fisher.
Miller: Let’s talk about the size of these sculptures, because it’s one of the most striking aspects of your art. We’re talking about work that’s 15, 20, 25ft high. Why have you been drawn to make art on this scale?
Dambo: I’ve had a really big gas tank my whole life. I’ve always been creating and building. And I’m also a big dude. I’m like 2m, that’s like 6ft, almost 7ft tall. I think it’s a lot of energy, and being big and having big ideas, that makes you build big things. And then I’m also really impatient, so I don’t like to sit and fiddle with like one little perfect drawing on a piece of paper. I like to build something really big and really fast. Building things from scraps works really good because scraps, they’re a little bit broken and a little bit imperfect when you start building with them. So they just get nicer when you start using them for something.
And I’ve always loved building with wood, and always loved nature, and always liked exploring and creating something together with other people and overcoming that task, and then looking at what we’ve accomplished together. So that’s basically what I do now, I travel to a place, I meet a bunch of volunteers, like in the last project here we did like last week in Victor, Colorado, we had 100 volunteers helping me and my crew of 10 in nine days. We turned 200 pallets into this massive big sculpture that’s crawling and pushing small gravel into like a mine shaft to clean up after the humans, because the whole area is littered with mine shafts from the 1800s gold rush. We build that, we accomplish it, and then we look at each other and we’re like “wow, look at what all our small hands can do with all that scrap. And now we build this massive big sculpture.” So that’s just a really fulfilling thing to do.
Miller: Like an old fashioned barn raising where a community would come together and build something. But in this case instead of a barn, you’re building a huge troll. Where do you get the people? How do you build an army of volunteers?
Dambo: I think first of all, you have to have a message, and you need to have a mission, something that people can partake in. It can be something negative or it can be something positive, but it has to be something. And my mission is to show the world that, instead of having a world that’s drowning in its own trash, we can solve that issue by making beautiful and important things out of our trash. So people would like to be a part of that, and come and help me do that, and they get inspired. And then maybe they go home and make a dog house, or they go home and make a bed for their child or something of scraps.
So I think you need to have that, and then you need to communicate it out. And you need to put yourself in front of that movement for people to follow it. And then you have to be kind and thankful, and then I think that people will follow. And I hope that the people in your presidential run, they will take that instead of taking the hate perspective.
Miller: Where do you get 200 pallets?
Dambo: The last run we did, the pallets came from the hardware store. I think it’s called Ace Hardware or something like that. So they had just been collecting all the ones they normally just either burn or drive to the landfill. We got all those pallets, and then we got some deconstructed sheds and I have some fallen barn and stuff like that up from Colorado, from really old, good quality wood, but because it’s bent or it has a knot or a nail in it or like that, then maybe it’s easier for a modern day constructor to just decommission it and then buy some brand new wood instead.
Miller: But my understanding is for you, it’s not just that you like to reuse things that are scraps or trash or would be thrown away, but it’s also you find beauty in a lot of these pieces, in the bark side of a log that wouldn’t be used for clean boards, that rougher stuff looks better sometimes as the skin of a troll?
Dambo: There’s a couple of ways that I see it. First of all, let’s say you go to a big furniture store and you buy a brand new chair for $100. Then that brand new chair, maybe it’s a beautiful design, but it has no story, it has no soul. It’s never been anywhere before. It just came straight out of the mass production assembly line in some factory somewhere in the world, and then now you have it. So the only value it actually has is those $100 that you obtained the chair for. So because of that, maybe you’re gonna throw it out next year because it doesn’t really have any value.
Whereas if you go and buy somebody’s old chair, let’s say you go to like a visit your grandmother and then there’s a flea market and then you buy it off your grandmother’s next door neighbor because her child is too old and you get that old, blue, beautiful chair that you get for $10, and that has like an affection value. It has a reason for it to stay alive. So even though it has scratches, it’s beautiful, like the wrinkles on your grandmother’s face makes her more beautiful because it tells the story of the life that she’s been living. And you feel that in the material that you use to build sculptures. It’s been something before. It feels like it’s weathered and it has a story, and I think that’s really, really important. And then also the fact that we’re building it with our hands and with all the volunteers, it gives it so much soul. I think that’s why people like it. I don’t know if I’m rambling, but that’s how I feel.
Miller: You noted that you’ve now made 121 trolls in 17 countries. How much do you think about the lives of these sculptures, these trolls when you fly somewhere else, when you move on?
Dambo: Of course, it’s impossible for me to go back and revisit all the sculptures that I’ve made because I’d prefer to go and build a new one instead and give that gift to a new community. But I see all the photos that people put up like in the different seasons. So the ones I made in Korea, now I see the photos of them when they’re in the autumn when all the leaves are red. Or maybe the one in Victor, one day I’ll see it there with the snowy mountains around it. And when we drove down here to the northwest up from Colorado, I already have one other sculpture in a city called Breckenridge. So we passed through that one to go and visit it because it was just on the way. It’s behind this ice skating arena, and when we came there, I was like “there must be a game going on or something like that.” But I realized there was no game going on, there was just like 100 cars there, everybody was there to see that sculpture. I was there for 12 minutes, I hiked in and hiked out again. It’s just a small little hike into a forest. I had met 121 people in 12 minutes.
Miller: Did they know that you were the one who created it?
Dambo: I don’t think that much of them know. It’s not important for me to be famous. It’s important for me that the art that I create, that it’s liked, and that I give people these experiences and the understanding that something made of something old is just as good as something made from something new. Because if we understand that, then the resources we have in our limited world will last us way, way longer.
Miller: I understand that you’re doing all of this now with twin boys who recently turned one. What has that been like?
Dambo: Yeah, that’s correct. My wife Alexa, she is from New Hampshire, so we have bought an old RV, and then we’ve now driven the 4,000 miles from New Jersey all the way to here in Bainbridge where I am now, bringing our two one-year-old toddlers that are learning to walk at the same time. It’s been kind of a challenge, but it’s also been fun. I just feel really fortunate that, even though I have this life traveling around the world and doing this, I can also bring my kids with me and my wife with me. Maybe we can’t do that in five years, but right now we can do it. And I think children, they just adapt and get used to what their grown ups do. Right now they’re just super happy to meet all the people and everybody can just pick them up and they’ll smile and laugh and play with everybody who’s around, and they’re not afraid of anybody. And so I think that’s a good trait. I’ve always been a shy kid myself, so I’m happy to teach my kids to communicate and be happy around other people.
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