When Piper Buirley’s grandpa invited her to preview the newest project at Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, the 8-year-old wasn’t sure what to expect. What she saw turned out to be far beyond her wildest imagination.
“I wasn’t expecting a big troll to appear in the forest!” says the excited 8-year-old. “It was really amazing how they could build all of those trolls out of wood! I climbed up on the Dad troll’s feet and it was pretty cool! Kids who like gymnastics are going to like it a lot.”
The truth is you never know who you might meet along the Aullwood trails. At Halloween, for instance, forest animals have been known to come to life. Every summer a group of fairie houses filled with storybook characters takes up residence along the paths.
But now, thanks to Danish artist Thomas Dambo, his international crew and some dedicated volunteers, an entire family of trolls will be living at Aullwood on a permanent basis. That’s great news for those of us who’ve never actually met a troll in person and are eager to get to know some of them better. Those of us who’ve already seen these friendly trolls suspect they’ll quickly become a popular tourist destination. After all, they’re currently the only troll family living in Ohio.
Meet the troll family
Four large sculptures --some 20 feet tall--make up the fanciful story you’ll hear about when you visit Aullwood. Each of the trolls is located in a separate area on the three-mile trail and it’s quite an adventure to follow the map and to track them down. The goal is not only to discover the trolls but to enjoy the beauty of nature along the way.
You’ll meet a dad named Bo, a mom named Bodil and a daughter called Bibbi. When Bibbi spots a “giant metal bird” in the sky as well as a massive stone falling from it, she assumes the large stone is the bird’s egg. When she hears stories from her friend, the Cardinal, she wants to learn to fly. We won’t give the rest of the story away but there’s a strong connection with Dayton’s history of flight and an airport so close to Aullwood. By the end of the tale, Bibbi has learned to appreciate the beautiful forest that she calls home.
Trolls and nature are both constant themes in Dambo’s work. He says his sculptures, all made from recycled materials, are purposefully oversized in order to demonstrate what amazing and beautiful creations can be made from scraps and garbage. The troll bodies, for example, are made from unusable wood palettes and old furniture. Bibbi’s wings are fashioned from old plastic totes that have been cut and stained. The huge nest is made of fallen branches and dead tree limbs; the troll’s hair is actually grape vines collected at Aullwood.
“It feels so good when I dive into a big dumpster filled with trash,” he says. “There is so much of value we throw out.”
The last thing the trolls are given is their eyes. “That’s when each troll gets its soul,” says Dambo.
Meet Thomas Dambo
Dambo’s fascination with the forest creatures dates back to childhood.
“Trolls have been a big part of my heritage; they are in Nordic mythology,” he explained to me while his crew was putting the finishing touches on Bibbi after a month-long residency in Dayton. “Growing up as a child in Denmark, I would rent cassette tapes at the library about little trolls. Now I write stories and fairy tales and songs about them. I have a whole world inside my head.”
After he creates the troll heads in Copenhagen and completes the rest of their bodies in a chosen location around the world, the completed trolls can live in the forest. While they can come out of the woods, Dambo says they don’t really like humans so there must be a good reason for them to emerge. The trolls, he says, represent nature.
Dambo’s love of woodworking also dates back to childhood. His father was a fine mechanic and owned a bicycle shop where Thomas was invited to help with projects. “I started building things from wood when I was five or six years old,” he remembers. “On my 40th birthday my brother gave me a little wooden box that I’d made for his pacifier when he was one-year-old. He had kept it all those years.”
His ability to create magical worlds also dates to childhood. His family lived in a house surrounded by other families and the youngsters were given a patch of land in the communal garden to call their own. “We said it was our own country and we built a fortress worthy of the craziest Hollywood movie,” he relates. " We spent six years building it--it had underground caves, a tunnel and we made a trench around it. So I’ve always been making up games and worlds. "
Dambo believes that because his parents allowed their children such freedom, they reared kids who weren’t afraid of going anywhere or doing anything. “It’s OK if a child eats dirt or gets a splinter in his finger or gets burned by fire,” he insists. “If you don’t let them experience those things, they will be afraid of the world. The world consists of good and evil and it’s important to teach children how to navigate it. If you present only good things, how will they know when something is bad?”
In his magical worlds, trolls are the good guys and humans are the bad guys. “If you see the world from the perspective of the animals and plants, the bad guys are the humans,” Dambo says. “We are a threat to their existence. The trolls want to try to help teach humans to be better and live in balance with nature.”
Aullwood’s executive director Alexis R. Faust first saw an exhibit of Dambo’s trolls in a Chicago exhibit and has been working ever since to bring a group of trolls to the Miami Valley. She’s obviously delighted at the outcome.
“It was so exciting to be able to bring this world-renowned artist to Dayton, especially at a time when we all welcome new things to do outside,” she says. “A significant part of our work here at Aullwood revolves around preserving habitat for birds. I see the trolls as protectors of the birds, and they help remind us that we need to do the same.
Piper’s grandfather, Charlie Shoemaker, served as executive director of Five Rivers MetroParks for 34 years, and is now a member of Aullwood’s board of directors. He says it’s a challenge these days to get children and families out-of-doors.
" I really think the trolls are going to resonate with families and individuals young and old,” Shoemaker says. “You don’t have to be a kid to appreciate what Thomas Dambo and his crew have done. I think art and nature are a natural marriage.”
Eight-year-old Piper believes people will come back to see the Aullwood trolls again and again. Before meeting Thomas Dambo, she says she only knew about mean and scary trolls in stories like “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”
“But once you see the Aullwood trolls, you know that trolls can be good and make a big impact,” she says now. “I think Thomas is doing this so that people can get out in nature.”
She’s exactly right. Dambo hopes Aullwood visitors will see the beauty of nature and the importance of preserving it. “I hope they will see that a trash can can be so much more than a problem,” he concludes. “It can be one of the solutions for the problems of our planet.
“In the future people will ask how we could have treated the world like this when we had such a nice life. My trolls are the vehicles that tell the story. Humans live for such a short time but the trolls have been here for millions of years. They see the big picture.”
HOW TO GO:
What: “The Troll That Hatched the Egg,” a permanent outdoor sculpture exhibit created by Danish recycle artist Thomas Dambo
Where: Aullwood Audubon Center, 1000 Aullwood Rd. and Aullwood Farm, 9101 Frederick Pike
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: $12 adults 13 - 64; $10 seniors 65+/ active military; $8 children ages 4 - 12; members and ages 3 and under are free.
A copy of the map and story is posted in the lobbies so you can snap a picture of it or pick up a map/story designed by Thomas Dambo in the gift shop for $5.
Allow 30 minutes to view one troll; 60-90 minutes to view two trolls and four hours to view all three trolls and the nest. If you don’t want to walk the entire trail, you can see a couple of the trolls by parking at one location, then moving to the other.
Accessibility: The trolls and nest are hidden throughout the nature sanctuary and farm and some trails are steep and are unimproved. Trolls cannot be viewed from a vehicle.
For more information: Aullwood.audubon.org or call (937) 890-7360 . To learn more about the sculptor see www.thomasdambo.com