Hidden in Plain Sight
The eco tale of South Jersey’s trash troll
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Artist Thomas Dambo with Big Rusty

Just off Route 38 in Burlington County, down an unmarked dirt road, you’ll find a 20-foot-tall sculpture of a troll named Big Rusty.  

Although its giant size may seem imposing, she’s not easy to find. Nestled on the South Branch of the Rancocas River, Big Rusty overlooks the remnants of a once-thriving pottery shop and warehouse. The narrow road just past the Diamond Diner leads to her lair, guarded by signs warning trespassers to stay away. The best approach may well be to travel by boat, via the winding waterways.

But like many hidden treasures, Big Rusty is worth finding. Funded by a South Jersey couple who wish to remain anonymous and sculpted this summer by renowned Dutch recycle artist and storyteller Thomas Dambo, the larger-than-life creation is a monument to recycling. Almost entirely assembled from materials taken from the site, Rusty, who Dambo says uses female pronouns, is a patchwork of corrugated metal, rotting plywood, concrete crumbles and old pallets. She has one arm resting on the dilapidated roof of the former Creek Turn Ceramic Supply Co. and the other gripping a piece of plywood. Concrete strings flow from her mouth, hinting at her appetite for refuse.

Take and post photos with Rusty. Walk through the graffiti-marked structures where, in the past, sculptor Herman Kleiner produced beautiful pottery. Yet as fascinating as Big Rusty is, Dambo warns against feeding her discarded materials. If you do, she will grow even larger – and that’s a big problem.

“She doesn’t mean any evil, but people keep feeding her,” he says. “So she grows bigger and bigger and bigger by eating all the trash that humans leave behind. Maybe she will grow so big that she will blot out the sun if we keep feeding her.”

Ok, so that part is not a fact. Think of it as a cautionary tale or, as Dambo calls it, a recycle fairy tale. Big Rusty isn’t his only environmental custodian. She is among over 100 trolls the artist has sculpted worldwide, each championing environmental causes. As part of Dambo’s “Way of the Bird King” series, Big Rusty’s story ties into a larger narrative. Dambo and his international team roamed the U.S. in their aptly named RV, the Trollercoaster, this summer. Besides Rusty, they installed 9 other trolls and hundreds of birdhouses. Their journey, which began in Hainesport and concludes in Washington State, was well-documented on social media.

Each troll shares a unique story but together, they stress environmental responsibility. The overarching tale revolves around a central troll character who embarks on a quest to understand why the waterways are polluted. She encounters Big Rusty first, unveiling the narrative’s initial clue. 

“Remember, if you feed the beast, she will grow,” Dambo says. “But maybe she’s not the evil one. Maybe it’s the people feeding her who are the problem.” 

Since 2014, Dambo’s Nordic-inspired creatures have graced global greenspaces. Crafted from scrap materials specific to the location, the pieces not only act as interactive art installations that draw thousands of visitors, but as environmental cautionary tales. For instance, Hector el’ Protector in Puerto Rico is formed from hurricane plywood shields. Fallen branches and twigs contribute to the spiky hairdos of the trolls in Denmark. Big Young, a troll sitting in lotus position with outstretched arms in Pyunggang Botanical Garden, South Korea, is made of reclaimed wood. 

Dambo’s trolls troll tourists and the world, but in the nicest way possible. A table book, “Trash, Trolls, and Treasure Hunts” features the first 100 trolls. They also can be found, along with their back stories, on a troll map on Dambo’s website. 

“It’s a commentary on how we humans are treating our planet,” he says. “But I don’t like my messages to come across as fearmongering. I try to make it fun and less complicated. Like, of course my art is environmental. It’s basically about trash. I believe that something made of something old can be just as good as something new. We need to understand the full meaning of the sentence: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure because trash equals treasure, and treasure equals wealth and opportunity. And if you think about it like that, then the world is not drowning in trash. The world is drowning in wealth and opportunities to change the world.”

Big Rusty, Dambo’s 116th creation, veers from his typical process. While most troll heads are crafted in his Copenhagen studio and then shipped to a location, Rusty was constructed onsite, embracing her urban decay setting, he says. Also, they are typically built on mountainsides or surrounded by nature, not along highways like Route 38, Dambo says. 

“I like places like that,” he says. “It reminds me that nature always prevails and takes over.”

Dambo says that when he visited in February, he was instantly drawn in. “I thought it would be fun to make Rusty a rough rogue type of troll,” he adds. “And then I thought it would be funny to build Rusty off the material that she’s eating.”

The setting also reminded him of the very reason he became an artist. 

“I grew up exploring abandoned places filled with graffiti,” he says. “That’s how I started painting graffiti myself, and also dumpster diving for materials. It was just nice to build a sculpture in such a location.”

With Rusty and her 10 siblings now completed, Dambo says he’s unsure what’s next, but it’ll probably involve more trolls. 

“In my life, I’ve been a beatboxer in Norway, then I was a graphic designer, then I was a rapper, then a social media consultant and now I build troll sculptures,” he says. “I don’t know where my life is going to take me but I’m enjoying this for the moment. I call this project the Trail of 1000 Trolls, so I’ve set the bar really high, and we’re not even one third of the way through.”     

September 2023
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