A large-scale troll, created by Danish artist Thomas Dambo, sits on the forest floor at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Dambo was hired to create five trolls in the woods of the gardens. This one is meant to represent tree roots. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BOOTHBAY — An artist from Denmark who constructs colossal troll sculptures from recycled wooden material has spent the past two months working feverishly in the woods at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens bringing five forest trolls to life. The botanical gardens open for the season on Saturday, though the giant troll exhibition, “Guardians of the Seeds,” won’t open until May 29.

But people who visit before then might catch a glimpse of the whimsical trolls lurking in the woods.

Artist Thomas Dambo and a team of volunteers are constructing the trolls as part of a long-term exhibition about sustainability, conservation and the need to protect the forests – in Maine and around the globe. Imbued with character and personality, the friendly, forest-protecting trolls in Boothbay bring the number of wooden creatures Dambo has created around the world to 79 as part of an ongoing story about biodiversity and the connections among species that depend on the forests for their survival. He began building them in 2014.

In Dambo’s evolving global fantasy, the trolls are coming out of the darkness of the deep woods to protect the seeds that will keep the forests alive, because the “little people” of the earth seem to be doing a poor job and need guidance. Some of the trolls in Boothbay are in plain sight, while others are hidden deeper within the botanical garden’s 323 acres, waiting to be discovered so they can share their lessons for ecological survival.

The story of the trolls and a map of their locations will be available at the visitor’s center when the exhibition opens.

Some of the trolls are two stories tall, watching and observing as they peer out from behind the stand of trees or glance down from atop a hidden rise. One reclines on the forest floor from the waist down, propped up with both arms wrapped around trees. Dambo used roots to construct a flowing beard and bushy eyebrows. Another leans heavily into a tree, while one sits with legs thrust immodestly into the air and a remarkable expression of glee.

Builder Mike Halamek stands next to a partially completed large-scale troll meant to represent tree trunks. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Another troll warms itself with Zen-like calm on an outcropping of rock. “It’s impossible to find rock like that,” Dambo marveled. “I am pretty excited to see that one come to life. That is something I have wanted to do for a long time.”

Based in Copenhagen, Dambo, 42, is considered a global leader in the realm of recycled art. In Boothbay, he is using wood from shipping pallets, discarded construction material and small strips from downed trees. He’s created trolls in South Korea, China and Belgium, among other countries. A temporary installation of six trolls at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago drew more than 1 million visitors in its first year – and protests when it came down because it was so popular.

In planning for more than a year, the long-term installation is part of the botanical garden’s strategy for attracting visitors in 2021 and beyond, said Gretchen Ostherr, president and chief executive officer of the gardens. Attendance was down about 35 percent in 2020, mostly because of a drop in out-of-state tourism related to the pandemic. She expects attendance this year will rise to pre-pandemic levels of 200,000 visitors or more, and the giant trolls will be one reason why.

“As the pandemic winds down and more and more people get vaccinated and more people go on ‘vaccications,’ I think we will see a huge influx of people. People are ready for this magical, restorative experience,” she said. “The trolls are magical and fantastical in every sense.”

Builder Sebastian Claudio prepares lumber for sheathing while helping to execute Danish artist Thomas Dambo’s vision at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Daniel Ungier, vice president of guest experience and education, said the botanical gardens staff had been looking “for something big” as a way to expand audiences before the pandemic hit. They were familiar with Dambo’s work and asked if he would consider coming to Maine. “Lo and behold, he said he would not be far away in fall 2019, so we invited him to come on site.”

Dambo wife’s parents live in New Hampshire, and he said he has long wanted to work in New England. In the United States, some of his other trolls live in the woods of Colorado, Kentucky and Florida.

“For me, Maine reminds me a little of Denmark in some ways, but way more extreme,” he said. “The trees are just bigger and the rocks are bigger. It’s the same climate, but snowing one day and summer the next. It seems like you have five summers and five winters in a month.”

Though it was planned before the pandemic, the exhibition is a good one for these times, because the trolls offer an outdoor adventure that encourages people to explore with their imaginations, Ungier said. “People are looking for something larger-than-life to inspire us and at the same time remind us of the world around us and help us reconnect. The trolls do both,” he said.

This troll is meant to represent tree leaves. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The budget for the project was about $700,000.

Dambo described the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens as “a really big forest and a really big park,” and was attracted by the opportunity to use his art to help people slow down and explore their environment around them so they will be more likely to protect it. In Boothbay, he hopes his trolls lure people away from the cultivated gardens and into the wild woods. “I use my sculptures to draw people down the little path into the forest. When you do that, you start looking for other things and appreciate the mushrooms, the rocks and the formation of the trees,” he said.

Dambo, who was not on site this week and was interviewed by phone, has given each troll a name and distinct personality. “I try to imagine they are alive, and for me, they are alive,” he said. “They are representative of nature. I use the trolls as a tool to make the humans understand how we impact nature. As humans, we think about how we view animals in nature, but we don’t think how nature views us. … The trolls remind us of that perspective.”

Sebastian Claudio prepares lumber for sheathing while helping to build Thomas Dambo’s vision at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Dambo was hired to create five large-scale wooden trolls in the woods of the gardens. This one is meant to represent tree branches. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He explains each of the Boothbay trolls in a poetic fairytale:

“Birk had roots. Roskva was wide as the trunks.
Gro was like the leaves, breathing life with her lungs.
Søren, like branches, would wave in the wind,
and Lilja, like the flowers, each year would spring.”

Dambo built the heads and other key features of the trolls at his studio in Copenhagen throughout 2020 and shipped the partially completed figures to Maine by boat. When he arrived on site in March, he worked with materials the staff had collected for him to complete the project, which continues in earnest. A team of about 150 volunteers has helped, sorting and moving lumber, cutting pieces and hammering them into place.

“Using recycled material is the important thing, so the art itself does not become part of our over-consumption,” Dambo said. “Many artists want to build something to carve their name for eternity. But who I am as an artist? Maybe nobody will want to look at my stupid old art anymore, and I don’t want to leave my trash for the whole world to deal with.”

The trolls will last “as long as people care for them. If they don’t want to do that anymore, they can just rot away and become part of the ecosystem again.”


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