Thomas Dambo has built giant wooden trolls around the world. The Danish artist, based in Copenhagen, had erected 51 at last count, but none caused a bigger stir than Isak Heartstone, the beloved, wildly controversial troll that Dambo built in Breckenridge last summer, only to see him taken down in the fall, then rebuilt this spring at a new site on the south end of town.
If you missed the hullabaloo, here’s a quick recap: Breckenridge Creative Arts originally commissioned Isak for the town’s Breckenridge International Festival of Arts last August. Using scrap lumber and downed timber found along the Wellington Trail in French Creek, Dambo and his team spent nearly a week assembling a wooden troll with an unruly mane of tree branches, a mischievous grin, and a heart-shape stone inlaid in its chest, reclining against a rubble pile, playing with a rock cairn—a figure as big as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. But when Isak’s popularity exploded beyond expectations, drawing thousands of visitors even on weekdays, residents of the densely populated Wellington neighborhood felt overrun. Illegal parking, litter, dog waste, and generally unbecoming crowd behavior spurred residents to take it up with the town council, who in turn formed a troll task force. After voting last October to leave Isak in place, the council abruptly reversed course a month later and dispatched a deconstruction crew to evict the troll, possibly forever.
As a war of words raged on social media between Isak’s supporters and besieged local residents, the town’s very identity seemed to be at stake. Media coverage put the issue under a microscope statewide, depicting the spectacle as a war of locals versus tourists. Dambo rallied supporters from across the Atlantic and ultimately brokered a deal with the town to rebuild Isak in Illinois Creek, behind the ice rink. He brought Isak back to life in early May, using 15,000 screws and 3,500 pieces of recycled wood to add to the head, hands, and feet that were salvaged from Isak’s first iteration. “I’ve never made the same sculpture two times,” Dambo said after introducing his rebuilt troll to the public. “So the new Isak doesn’t look like the old Isak. It looks like the same character stood up and walked to a new location and sat down there instead.”
He even made up a story to explain Isak’s journey: The 15-foot-tall troll walked down to Kentucky to be with his family for the winter, then returned to Breckenridge this spring.
“Isak is about integrating into the legend of a community,” says Nicole Dial-Kay, director of exhibitions and special projects for BCA, who commissioned the project last year. “So it’s not just the actual act of seeing the troll, but it’s hearing about it from your friends and, once the troll decomposes, hearing the legend of the troll that used to be. It becomes much more than its physical presence; it’s sort of interwoven into the cultural memory of a place.”
Dambo says he never received a single email from someone who resented Isak, but he received more than 500 from people who loved him. The experience, and feeling caught in the middle, reinforced his resolve to build art that resonates with people, whether positively or negatively. He wants to spread a message that trash doesn’t have to be a nuisance; it, like the pallets that were broken down and used to build Isak, can be repurposed in unexpected ways. If nothing else, the intense attention from last fall allowed him to maximize Isak’s reach.
“What everyone needs to remember is that eight months ago Isak Heartstone was a pile of trash that was laying on the street corners of Breckenridge, and then I put it into the troll cauldron and mixed it with creativity, and out came this thing that has touched so many people,” Dambo says.
Its return had a particularly poignant impact on the four local girls who found Isak’s heart-shape “heartstone” and gifted it to Dambo as he was building Isak last year. He placed the same rock in Isak’s chest after the girls delivered it to him once more in May.
“It makes it feel like everything is part of a fairytale,” Dambo says. “These girls are so sincere. Their noses are pressed against the windshield when they drive into the parking lot, and they’re really excited about it. Those are the little people of the future, so it’s good to tell them that trash is not an evil, disgusting thing. It’s something that can be the best experience of the year.”