Giant Trolls Invade Detroit Lakes

Sculpture artist Thomas Dambo’s largest U.S. installation opens this summer

This summer, Danish recycling artist Thomas Dambo will bring his signature giant troll sculptures to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

Dambo's trolls in Detroit Lakes, MN
Thomas Dambo’s sculpture Lost Finn

Courtesy of Project 412

Dambo has built similar art installations in 17 countries and now 18 states, but the Detroit Lakes installation will be the largest in the U.S. The Minnesota sculpture series, opening June 10, will include six trolls and three other sculptures, one of which is the artist’s largest troll to date, measuring 36 feet from head to toe.

Dambo’s work was brought to Detroit Lakes last year by Project 412, a local placemaking organization that champions public art and community events in the area. The nonprofit’s name is a reference to the 412 lakes located within 25 miles of the city. A member of Project 412 saw one of Dambo’s other troll sculptures while on vacation in Colorado and was struck by how much attention they drew.

“We thought, ‘Wow, that’d be an amazing project to bring to DL!’ So, we reached out to Thomas Dambo and then one troll became two, which became four, which became six, which became nine. We’re now doing six trolls and three other sculptures that are part of the exhibition,” says Project 412 executive director Amy Stearns.

Dambo, his wife, and two young sons came to Minnesota last year and walked around the Detroit Lakes area with local community members, envisioning a plan for the trolls.

“Their values are my values. They trusted my artistic vision and they gave me control of what I wanted to do, which type of exhibition I want to make. That’s what you want as an artist, somebody that trusts you to do your art,” Dambo says.

A Community Effort

With this being Dambo’s largest U.S. installation, his team needed some extra help to construct the sculptures. After discussing the logistics of such a project, Stearns realized it would take enormous effort to bring the trolls to Detroit Lakes.

“I had to leave my office and walk around for a moment because we had 472 time slots that we needed to fill for volunteers. That’s like 5% of our town. I was like, ‘How are we going to find all these volunteers, especially during the weekdays?’” Stearns says. “But we filled them all. And we got all the housing donated, all the lunches donated, all the snacks donated. I mean, this community has just stepped up and not just in DL, but the surrounding towns. And we’ve had volunteers come from as far as Colorado, North Dakota, and Wisconsin.”

The community volunteers have ranged in age and ability, but mostly consist of retirees who are looking to do something fun and productive with their community. When signing up to help, people indicated their skill levels regarding carpentry and woodworking and were assigned tasks that fit their experience.

“One of the treats of working around the world like this is all the volunteers that we meet and all the local people who helped us in one way or another,” Dambo says.

Thomas Dambo's trolls in Detroit Lakes, MN
Thomas Dambo’s sculpture Little Bibbi

Courtesy of Project 412

Meet The Trolls

Visiting Dambo’s trolls is an interactive experience. Hugs and selfies with the trolls are encouraged, but climbing is not recommended to avoid injury and damaging to the art. Plus, each troll has a name and personality, and they’re all connected by a whimsical folktale that you can follow as you find the trolls. Most visitors will likely start in Detroit Lake’s downtown area, where there is one centrally located troll called Alexa the Elixir.

Dambo’s installations usually feature one easy-to-find troll and then the rest are cleverly hidden, encouraging travelers to get off the beaten path around Detroit Lakes and nearby Frazee to encounter these towering sculptures out in nature. This is also an extra special installation because of the “portal” sculptures that link to more artworks in Fargo, North Dakota, Detroit Lakes, and Perham, Minnesota.

Dambo’s trolls are more than a family-friendly adventure designed to get people out into nature. His works are made entirely out of recycled and donated materials, like wood, used pallets, tree branches, and stones, to spark conversation about the importance of caring for the earth.

“‘My mother always told me ‘you take what you need and clean up after yourself.’ We’re living in a world right now where everybody takes about 1,000 times more than they actually need,” says Dambo.

Dambo sourced his sculpture’s materials locally, transforming Detroit Lakes’ trash into treasure. The artist expresses concern over crowded landfills, animal extinction, and unsustainable land use and says he hopes that he can inspire change by educating volunteers and engaging visitors with his sculptures.

“I hope that they’ll also look at the materials and maybe think twice next time they throw something into the trash can. See if there’s something good that could become something for somebody else.”