Danish sculptor Thomas Dambo dreamed big for the Pacific Northwest—but his dreams took giant, trollish form. His public art project Northwest Trolls: Way of the Bird King seeks to both highlight indigenous Coast Salish cultures and foster connections with his native Denmark. The project features six giant handcrafted sculptures across the region, each with its own pleasantly peculiar presence. From Vashon Island to Portland, Oregon, each troll invites viewers to appreciate the whimsy and beauty nature offers.
In West Seattle, a troll named Bruun Idun stands ready to serenade our resident orca families. This wooden giant has clearly been crafted with intention: everything from the flowing curves of her fingers to the roundness of her face demonstrates proof of Dambo’s artistic prowess.
Standing tall at 16 feet, Bruun Idun has her eyes closed with joy as she appears to play songs to her orca neighbors. The flowing curves of her fingers and the roundness of her face are reminiscent of the fluid movements of an orca. A true Pacific Northwest diva, Bruun Idun’s wrists and neck are adorned with jewelry made from shells and other natural materials. The artist’s use of natural materials to create soft yet strong textures in this work channels a sense of femininity like Mother Nature personified.
Roughly two dozen spectators from many generations gathered around her. We formed an agreement that we could each dart in for a quick photo opp between gasps of wonder. As I studied her smooth wooden form, wispy branches of hair delicately curved around her face, I could almost hear the lilting echoes of an orca’s song. The formations of twisted bark and sea-polished shells adorning her wrists brought into focus the soft and fluid nature Dambo had channeled through the sculpture.
Through his trolls, Dambo invites viewers to appreciate nature as expressed through art. Because the trolls in Washington were built on historically Salish lands, the project included a collaboration with indigenous artists such as John Halliday, a member of the Muckleshoot tribe.
In an article from Samantha Swindler in The Oregonian, Halliday says that “the project celebrates the human experience of art by amplifying the network of cultural heritage between Coast Salish tribal communities and Danish and Scandinavian traditions.”
By encouraging outdoor exploration, the trolls play a role in fueling values such as environmental stewardship and preservation.
The second troll I encountered in my adventures was Oscar the Bird King on Vashon Island. After taking a ferry to the island and exploring the beach at low tide, I explored the vast forest area. My ramble among the lush grass had become a trance of sorts, so I barely noticed I was approaching a small glade's edge until a towering silhouette loomed within.
Ahead of me, several wooden birdhouses enhanced with bright paint, shells and feathers sat atop poles guiding visitors to the troll. These elements foreshadowed a connection between the theme of birds and the forest.
Oscar's commanding height, with an outstretched finger directing visitors' gaze, contrasts sharply with the passive form of Bruun Idun. His sterner face, with eyes that seem to hold centuries of forest wisdom, distinguishes Oscar as a leader and protector of the forest. He wears a crown of wooden birdhouses and sits on a throne made of logs, presenting him as an extension of the environment. Contrasting the light colored wood used to fashion Bruun Idun’s “skin,” Dambo chose to use darker tones for Oscar’s body. The artist’s usage of these deep colors reflects the maturity of Oscar’s character, portraying him as a wise protector of the forest.
Dambo’s artistry has the ability to imagine and create trolls that not only reflect but enhance the land around them. Where Bruun Idun reflects the soft nature of West Seattle’s beaches, the Bird King’s presence embodies Vashon Island’s grand environment. By imbuing each troll with a unique story and personality reflective of their surroundings, Dambo skillfully reminds us that appreciating nature involves acknowledging the diversity of life within it.