A Look At The Trolls Of Morton Arboretum

Feb 11, 2020

Trolls have lived in Morton Arboretum since the summer of 2018, but the gentle giants are moving out later this year.  

Sarah Sargent (left) manages exhibits at the arboretum and Kara Silva (right) is a PR specialist.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh

The arboretum comprises 1700 acres of forest and green space in Lisle, surrounded on one side by  Interstate 88 and on others by suburban development.  Staff members often bring in exhibits starting in the summer to attract more visitors. Manager of Interpretation and Exhibits Sarah Sargent said inspiration struck two years ago after stumbling on an exhibit by Danish artist Thomas Dambo, called “Forgotten Giants.”

“They were these gentle creatures peering out from behind trees and he has this aesthetic of building his sculptures out of found materials or what other people consider trash," she said.  

Dambo visited the arboretum and picked out six sites across the property.  Then, using various pieces of wood from the park and an outside company, he constructed massive statues. Sargent said they each have a unique pose that reflects their location.

A Ford Focus meets its demise at the hands of Rocky Bardur in the parking lot.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh

“This one is right at our entryway and it’s enthusiastically smashing a car because the trolls are creatures of the forest and they’re not down with traffic.”

That car has been crushed with a boulder, and the troll eagerly hoists a second one over his head.  Another troll is prominently visible even from outside the arboretum. He peers out at the distant interstate, leaning on a spear as tall as him. 

“It overlooks this juncture between the tollway and the concrete and the cars and the noise and traffic, and on the other side is the green quiet bowl of the arboretum. And you stand up there and you’re like, “well yeah, of course you put a troll here,” Sargent said. 

There are six trolls in total, and have been open to the public since June 2018. They’re spaced far enough apart that people go to all areas of the arboretum. Visitor Carol said that’s part of the fun:

“They’re spread all over and you really have to pay attention to that map. It’s challenging, but exciting,” 

Yet they’re also close enough to internal roads that nobody has to hike far out of the way. Kara Silva is a spokesperson for the Arboretum. She said the trolls also have a multigenerational appeal.

The trolls often attract children and families, despite the presence of "traps."
Credit Carey Cavanaugh

“Adults have told us and people at the visitor’s center that when they come here and they see the trolls first-hand, they feel like they’re kids themselves, and it really just kind of brings out that childhood enthusiasm,” she said. 

Silva said the trolls have inspired kids to try making their own sculptures out of found wood, and one child even took an extra step.

“Actually, we did have a kid dress up as Joe the Guardian. He’s the troll on the hill overlooking I-88. And that was pretty impressive. Once you’re a Halloween costume, you’ve kind of made it.”

Sargent said the trolls have been a definitive success in terms of bringing in new visitors.  

“Troll traffic bumped us up from a million up to 1.3 million, and people were coming back the second year," she said. "So we were well up to 1.2 million this year.”

Yet another troll reclines in the sun
Credit Carey Cavanaugh

The statues will be on display through June.  But Sargent says by no means does that signal the end of these kinds of exhibits.  She said they’ve gotten in touch with South African artist Daniel Popper, and are working on a successor exhibit called “Human Nature.” 

“He is famous for these huge, intricate figurines. We talked to him about how our trees and our collections are essential to our love of nature, and so he also came and walked around our sites and was inspired by certain areas of the arboretum.” 

Until then, the trolls will remain on display at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle for all to see.