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Since the beginning of August, hikers enjoying the high alpine views near the towns of Victor and Cripple Creek may have come across an unexpected sight: a larger-than-life wooden troll on its hands and knees, pushing a pile of rocks. “Rita the Rock Planter,” as the sculpture is named, is the brainchild of international troll builder and sculpture artist Thomas Dambo, who constructed Rita’s troll sibling in 2018 in Breckenridge: “Isak Heartstone.” Given how popular the Breckenridge troll became—perhaps too popular—we caught up with Dambo during a coast-to-coast troll-building road trip to hear what inspired him to come back to Colorado, how environmental activism plays into his installations, and how one might go about finding his latest sculpture.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
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5280: This summer, you set out to build 10 trolls across North America, including a troll in Victor. What was the inspiration behind the trip, and had you ever done something like this before?
Thomas Dambo: I used to be a musician, and I toured all over Norway and Denmark. So I’m used to being on the road a lot. I’ve always wanted to do a big drive across America and see the whole country. Normally, when we come to build trolls in the United States, we stay in a city for a week. But it’s really nice to come and see so many different places, including Victor. We have local volunteers who come from all over the U.S. and help build [the art installations]. To meet all of them, have others invite us to stay with them and offer us food, and then to go out with people to bars or see shows—it’s all really fun. It’s like we’re a Danish band coming to the U.S. to see if we can make it. When I did an art talk in Victor, there were 75 people there to hear it, and I thought, We’re doing it. I think we’re making it.
Before this trip, you already had a hit in Colorado: the Breckenridge troll. “Isak Heartstone” created a bit of controversy when it became so popular that locals began complaining about the traffic. The city debated dismantling the troll and ultimately relocated it near the Illinois Gulch trailhead. Did you follow the drama?
We actually recently went to visit him [the troll] on the way from Victor to Utah. It was so wild because we pulled into the parking lot behind the ice-skating arena [near the trailhead], and it was filled with cars. I thought, There’s probably a hockey game happening. But most of those cars were there because people came to see the sculpture. On the path, I think I met about 120 people in about 12 minutes.
How did that make you feel?
That’s a lot of people. Most often, I build a sculpture and I don’t really go back to it because I’m building the next one. Still, people will tell me the sculptures are very popular. And I must say that when I came up there, it made me understand that the popularity is real. It’s become this crazy thing where millions of people have traveled to see the more than 120 sculptures I’ve done around the world. That’s just wild.
Did the controversy around the Breckenridge troll factor in to your decision of where to place a new troll near Victor?
I’ve definitely learned more about where to put the sculptures through the years. I’ve also learned about different cultures and how a good location in one country isn’t necessarily a good location in another country. In Denmark, everybody would just bike or walk to a sculpture. But here in the U.S. everybody has a car. So I think you need a location that can accommodate more parking.
So how did you pick Victor for another troll installation?
First of all, I love the mountains and I love the whole outdoors mentality in Colorado. I was invited to come to Victor by a couple who lives there. They were trying to do something positive for the community. Victor is such an old city; it looks like it did 200 years ago. It has a gold mining [history] that says a lot about us as humans and our obsessions with shiny stuff.
It seems you were also making a statement as an artist with your troll pushing a pile of rocks, almost like it’s covering up a hole.
So I always try to write little stories and poems for my trolls. I can read the one I wrote for Rita: A hundred suns. That is how long a nap is for a troll. When Rita woke up again, her mountainside had grown a hole. The humans must have dug them in their search for shiny rocks. But someone could fall in, so Rita went to tidy up.
How did the construction process for Rita the troll work?
We went to the hardware store in Victor where they had lots of pallets that they didn’t need. So we took the pallets apart with the help of local volunteers, then collected the dead branches of pine trees to use as the troll’s hair. And the face we built with wood from Denmark. So with local volunteers and scraps, we created an attraction whose visitor numbers would be the envy of any museum.
What’s been the response so far?
I think it’s been great. The city had a little festival on August 4 to celebrate the opening, and it felt like everyone came out. Whenever we build a little sculpture, it doesn’t really feel like much. But we had almost 100 volunteers. And three families came out in honor of a child who had died, and they wanted to help build the sculpture because that child had loved one of my other trolls. So the whole project is just taking on a life of its own. People put so much meaning into it. There are so many people who are searching for something to be part of and for something positive. And I like showing them that we can build big and amazing things with our hands and out of scraps.
I’m super happy to be the captain of the recycle ship, because I think the world needs recycle superstars. We don’t need any more superstars who praise shiny rocks, expensive champagne, and gas-guzzling, red Ferraris.
Initially, Rita’s location was unknown. Did the festival reveal its location?
We didn’t have the August 4 festival at the sculpture; we had it downtown because I’ve done enough sculpture openings now that I know a festival at the sculpture’s location can destroy the experience of people having to go find it.
So are you going to keep the location hidden?
Yes. I do have a map on my website called “Troll Map,” and on that we put approximate locations [including for the Breckenridge troll]. I really want people to go out, get out of their cars, and experience the world with all their senses. That’s why I hide the trolls. Ultimately I believe that it’s not just the sculpture, it’s the experience. It’s really being in nature and hunting for the troll. And you’ll see all kinds of other stuff while you go on a little walk. So the more hidden the troll is, the more prolonged the nature experience is. And if some people are like, We couldn’t find it today, then that’s a big success for me as an artist because they can go out again and search another time. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world to find something cool. It can be hidden in your own backyard. I recommend everybody in Colorado go up to Victor—it’s a beautiful spot with good history.