Do you remember that feeling when you opened a new, unused box of crayons? That's the feeling that this recycle artist has when he finds ways to use what has been discarded as trash.
Thomas Dambo of Copenhagen, Denmark is a recycle artist, using recycled and found objects to make his art. His many projects include walls of recycled-scrap wooden bird houses, a colorful forest made of plastic, and over the last few years, 85 wooden trolls (averaging 20 feet high) made from used wooden pallets, lumberyard scraps, and pieces of found wood from the places the sculptures are being built.
Using only recycled trash and resources found on-site where the troll is being created is a deliberate and important choice, and has made him one of the most well-known recycle artists in the world. He learned the practice of using discarded items as a kid when he helped his parents gather used, and often discarded, items and turn them into theater costumes (his mother) and working bicycles (his father).
As Thomas says, “One of the ways we are killing the world is by taking the natural world and turning it into products and then only using those products for a really short time. Then we dig holes and put the stuff in the holes and then build cities on top of these landfills. I think that the reason we work like this is because we view an old pair of shoes, an old TV or a telephone that’s not working or Tupperware or the wrapping of fast food as having ‘less value’.”1 He hopes that by building really creative things out of trash, people will change the way they look at what is thrown away and begin to see trash as a resource of value rather than as something to be discarded in a landfill.
Not only does he try to model better use of our earth's resources in his work, he creates stories that emphasize these values. Each troll, in addition to a unique appearance, stance, place, name, and personality, has its own story. Dambo, who started as a rapper, obviously delights in creating not just a creative wood sculpture, but a story world around that sculpture and the land that it "lives" in. Often these stories contain a reproach toward human misuse, but because it's told through a fairy-tale, it feels less didactic and more like a parable.
It is fitting that Dambo creates trolls, which orginated in Scandinavian mythology. In Denmark, they are known as troldfolk ("troll-folk"), bjergtrolde ("mountain-trolls"), or bjergfolk ("mountain-folk"), and they dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, living together in small family units. They are rarely helpful to human beings and are often considered somewhat dangerous. Depending on the source, their appearance varies greatly; trolls may be ugly and slow-witted, or look and behave exactly like human beings.
For Dambo, trolls represent nature and human beings represent the biggest threat toward nature, thus many of his trolls have a story of conflict with humans, with the trolls being the guardians of the forests.
Guardians of the Seeds
by Thomas Dambo
Somewhere between the mountains and the rocky coast
lays a forest pristine green forgotten by most
and deep in this forest is a secret place
with 10 golden seeds at the end of a maze
they were hidden by five giant forest trolls
protecting each part of the forest so old
It was told that the trolls spoke the tongue of the trees
and had sworn to protect them from war and disease
Birk had roots, Roskva was wide as the trunks
Gro was like the leaves, breathing life with her lungs
Soren, like branches, would wave in the wind
and Lilja like the flowers each summer would spring
The forest was ancient, had stood for millions of years
but recently the trolls had seen what they had feared
Little people came plenty, across – over the seas
and cut, chub, fell, broke down, most all of the trees
So in fear that a day all the trees would be gone
they collected all seeds for forever and on
Chestnut, cherry, elm, spruce, and hazel
Oak, ash, beech, birch, and a maple
The five trolls now hold around all of the seeds
and harder and harder they started to squeeze
so hard that stars started flashing and shaking
so hard the ground started rumbling and quaking
And right then 10 golden seeds appeared in a haze
The trolls took them and hid them at the end of a maze
Where in secret and safe all the trees could grow tall
Cause a future with no trees, is no future at all
So the question is now, do you want to help
Cause a secret is lost if no one keeps it to themselves
Please run, find the seeds, and hold them in your heart
So if everything gets lost, you’ll know where to start.
On the more pointed side, for an exhibit at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago, six trolls were placed around the property, luring humans into their traps in a humorous yet reproving commentary on the human effect on the earth.
But, Dambo's goal isn't to keep people out of the forests, but just the opposite; his goal is to draw people in. Creating his huge, surprising, fanciful sculptures in the middle of a grove of trees, or next to a river, is in a sense to lure people away from their screens and out into nature. He wants people to explore, delight in, and strive to protect the places around them. Rather than convince them with arguments, his art aims to lead them into experiences that will change the way they see the earth and its resources. He emphasizes the sense of exploration and discovery that can be found in nature, not on the other side of the world, but right where they live.
The construction of the trolls is not done by him alone, but with a small team that travels with him, and people in the community he invites into the building project wherever the installation is happening. According to Dambo, this is where the fun comes in.
When Covid-19 hit in 2020, Dambo's busy calendar suddenly emptied out. He looked for a project to fill those holes in his calendar, find an outlet for his energy, and do something constructive that built community. He found the answer in creating the Giant Troll Treasure Hunt in his home country of Denmark. During 2020, he created, with the help of over 1000 volunteers (carefully socially distanced), ten giant wooden creatures whose exact locations in Denmark are secret, and only found through clues stored on a webpage. During a very difficult time, Dambo was able to lift his own spirit as well as the spirits of those who helped with the project and those who came looking for the trolls once they were built.
Every piece is special to Dambo, but perhaps none means more to him that Hector the Protector on Culebra Island, Puerto Rico. In 2014, with the help of the community, he built Hector the Protector, who kept the island safe by throwing rocks at anyone wanting to hurt the island.
When Hurricane Maria hit the island, Hector was destroyed. Residents and visitors asked Thomas to rebuild Hector and he did so in 2019, with a lot of help, but Hector's stance was changed in the process. Instead of throwing rocks to keep the island safe, Hector now holds a lantern, illuminating the beauty of the island for any future hurricanes coming that way, so that they will see the beauty and pass by without harming it.
Perhaps this is best way to protect something—to illuminate the value of it, whether it be trash, art, nature, or community, so that those who might devalue or harm it will see it in a new way, work to protect it, and carefully and creatively interact with it, all fueled from a recognition of its true value and potential.
To watch a video that Thomas Dambo has created of one of his projects, visit here.
To see more of his project, visit his webpage.
Invitation to our Readers: Adding to the invitation I sent out last week to take a walk and bring along a camera, on the lookout for something that especially prompts you to praise the Creator, I'm adding an additional invitation to send in a photo of something you saw that surprised you or helped you see the world differently. Send the picture to my email address below (along with a sentence or two saying why it strikes you) and, in a week or two, we'll share those pictures and comments in a Thursday Art of Creation post. I look forward to seeing what art of creation you notice when you're out walking! Thanks for those who have responded already!
You can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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1 Foody, M. (2019, October). Humans are Turning the World into a Giant Trash Can: An Interview with Thomas Dambo. Panta Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.pantamagazine.com/