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Second Time Hopefully The Charm For Relocated Breckenridge Troll

Crew member
Amanda Andrews
A crew member works on assembling Isak Heartstone's leg.

Step off the beaten path near Breckenridge's Illinois Gulch area and you're likely to find an unexpected site.

Tucked away amid a cluster of trees is a construction crew building a large wooden structure. The estimated 15-foot-tall sculpture depicts a friendly troll made of scrap wood. He's named Isak Heartstone, after the heart-shaped stone placed on his chest as a finishing touch.

The sculpture was built by Thomas Dambo, a Danish artist known for making large-scale, interactive installations.

"I am known for making big, interactive, recycled art projects that that involve the local community and teaches people about the importance of recycling and all the possibilities that lays in our trash," said Dambo, who is also known for his trolls.

There are more than 50 of the giant wooden sculptures in locations all over the world.

Dambo also likes to make sure his trolls fit into the environment they're being installed in. He gives each a backstory. For example, he's currently working to design a new troll sculpture with a botanical garden in Florida that's right next to a busy highway.

"Trolls, they don't like cars," Dambo said. "So … I thought like, if I was a troll here, what would I do? And then I came up with the scenario of that I'm going to take 24 cars and rip the roofs off and use the cars as plant boxes so the troll there will be sitting there and making a little urban garden in the cars."

The trolls are a way of using interactive art to encourage people to respect the environment, he said.

"It's all about scale because us humans are really small compared to a troll and we are also really small compared to nature," Dambo said.

Troll foot
Credit Amanda Andrews / KUNC
A construction worker stands on Isak Heartstone's foot.

But a year ago, scale became a big problem for the artist and the town of Breckenridge. Last spring, the artist was on the other side of town building the first Isak Heartstone as part of the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts.

"We look at artists all over the world that are doing really innovative things but that also reflect Breckenridge's values," said Nicole Dial-Kay of Breckenridge Creative Arts, one of the curators for the festival. "So all the work we bring here usually rotates around a few themes that we've identified as important to Breckenridge — typically history, nature, recreation."

"We saw so many people that don't hike, that don't go out into nature, that were making that journey, that were seeing a different side of Colorado." -Nicole Dial-Kay, Breckenridge Creative Arts

Dambo's work was a perfect fit, Dial-Kay said, and a real draw for audiences who weren't the usual art or outdoors crowd.

"We saw so many people that don't hike, that don't go out into nature, that were making that journey, that were seeing a different side of Colorado," she said.

Isak was a resounding success and the idea was that the giant installation would remain up until Mother Nature decided otherwise. But then word got out, and that's when the trouble started.

Instead of visitations trailing off with the end of the summer season, the highly Instagrammable troll went viral.

Each week, thousands of people continued to flock to town to see Isak, inundating a nearby residential neighborhood with traffic and trash.

"We did throw a lot of resources out there," said Haley Littleton, a spokesperson for the town of Breckenridge. "We set up some fence and railing. We put a lot of signage out there. We added some trash cans. We increased our bus routes. We also put some of our police officers up there to manage traffic."

Nothing seemed to help and soon there would be another problem, Littleton said. Winter was coming.

"Essentially winter is our big season," she said. "It's very busy in the ski area — and we realized that a lot of our resources — we were going to have to pull back down into town."

The town council held a vote and decided that Isak had to go. But when the sculpture was taken down, people got mad, really mad — even people who didn't live in Breckenridge, or Colorado for that matter.

"No one expected Isak to become such an important member of the Breckenridge community," Dial-Kay said. "We were all overwhelmed by how much love and — the relationships that were actually built with this sculpture by our community members. So I think all of us realized that it was important that this not be the end of Isak's story."

The Trolling Forward Task Force was established to find a better, safer location for the installation. Like most things, the problem with Isak was really all about location, Littleton said.

Isak Heartstone
Credit Amanda Andrews / KUNC
Isak Heartstone was constructed mainly with recycled wooden pallets.

"We wanted to find a place that still felt like an adventure but was close to town, it was easily accessible by biking, walking, by the bus, and that was close to facilities, and would not impact our existing trail network," she said. "And so we settled on this area — the Illinois Gulch area by the ice rink."

Now Isak's home is a little less remote. Still under construction, the Trollstigen Trail — named for a road in Norway known as the "road of the trolls" — will be what Littleton calls a "social" trail. Built just for Isak, the half-mile, one-way route will loop visitors right past him.

"I think we learned a lot in this whole process and what the town council saw was how much people loved this sculpture," she said. "I think we really did realize that our community took a lot of pride in it. We had a lot of people who were really excited about Isak and really took ownership of it and so we thought that we still wanted the magic that he brought to our community but just in a better location."

It's been a lesson for artist Thomas Dambo, too.

"Of course, it was sad to see the old sculpture being taken down but also as an artist, what more can you wish for than so many people come to visit and view your art so it becomes a problem?" Dambo said. "That is like — if you can not get something good of that then I think that you are a little bit too spoiled. So, I was happy to see so many people come and are happy to see all these people come and basically hear my story of recycling."

Isak Heartstone
Credit Amanda Andrews / KUNC
Isak Heartstone's face peeks out through the trees. The artist asked that media not take any photos that would give away the surprise of his new look.

Now visitors can take in that story again, although Breckenridge officials hope they know there's no rush to come see Isak Heartstone's new home the minute it opens to the public (the location remains closed to the public through early June while the Trollstigen Trail is completed).

This time, officials said, he's not going anywhere.

KUNC producer Amanda Andrews contributed to this story.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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