What Matters to Thomas Dambo

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Thomas Dambo is one the world’s leading recycled material artists. In the last he decade built over 125 giant trolls made out of recycled wood in 17 countries all over the world.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?
I think it’s what I do. I’ve been so fortunate and have worked so hard on it. I’ve managed to take all the things I like to do the most and then put them together in one project, building my trolls. I build giant, recycled sculptures and hide them in nature around the world. I make them with local volunteers and then write stories about them. I like to hunt for recycled wood. I like meeting with the local culture and volunteers and building these monumental things together. As a musician and a songwriter for many years, I like to write small stories. I also like the struggle of the process, the joy of the finished product, and the happiness the trolls bring to people who set out into nature to find them. All of these things are what I’ve cooked together into my projects. And now, I can do them with my wife and children.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?
From an early age, I would build huts and treetop houses and think of caves like many children. But I would do it on a big scale. I would always go around the neighborhood on a little white BMX bike and in a little denim jacket; I was like a bad boy. Then, I’d drive around the neighborhood and look for materials that I could use to build. That’s where I learned to create and where I learned to take ideas from my mind and then give them life in a physical form. I remember making my own Monopoly game with my brother. I took a stick, sewed the different pieces, the hotels, and the houses, drawing them with a stick, then dying them, and taking a big cardboard box and drawing up all the streets from our neighborhood and the local park. That became like Monopoly. I still have it because my brother gave it to me on my 40th birthday in an old chocolate box. All the pieces and cards from all the different streets are there.

What is your biggest regret?
My biggest regret is when I was a musician. I had a ten-year career as a musician in Denmark, where five of my friends and I made a band with an American-style positive vibe—hip-hop, like De La Soul or Fugees. We were good, and we got a lot of fans. I made all the iconography, music videos, T-shirts, and stickers. Graffiti was big in those days, and we would paint the album cover with graffiti and shoot a music video in front of it. I felt creative and super positive.

Although we traveled and played all the biggest music festivals, we did not have a radio hit. We got impatient with our trajectory, so we decided to make a fake gimmick band like the first band’s evil brother. That one was a mockumentary of a band; you don’t know if it’s real or fake, but we tapped into the gangsta rap popularity. The fake band took off and became really big. We achieved a high level of fame, in the end, playing for 15,000 people, but it wasn’t me, it was a character. What gave me my success as a musician, I had to kill. And one of my friends told me you should never pursue a dream you don’t wish is fulfilled.

If I had been patient and put all that energy from the satirical rap group into the original band, the first band would eventually have succeeded. Maybe now, 20 years later, we’d be doing a reunion tour. That’s my biggest regret, not staying true to that. I hope I would have learned the same lessons. Maybe I wouldn’t be making trolls; perhaps I’d be making glass dinosaurs or something else instead. But I think that the education, drive, and all that would have been the same.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?
I’m not a person who’s super good at it. I need to have a companion in my life. I need somebody to talk to, and I need a good friend. I’ve never been good at sitting with heartbreak. I dive into another project. Instead of feeling sad and down, I channel the energy into creating something new to get something positive from the situation.

What makes you cry?
What most often makes me tear up is something that makes me happy. Just yesterday, I told my friend this story about when I went to Mexico for a commissioned project. The person in charge of the project asked me, “How many sculptures have you made at the location where you made the most?” I told him, and he said, “I want more.” He asked me how big my biggest sculpture was. I told him, and he said, “I want mine to be bigger than that.” And then he said, “I want all mine cast in a fine metal.” In this situation, everything seemed impossible, but the challenge was invigorating. I find myself tearing up a little bit due to excitement. But then my Danishness humbles me, and I feel ashamed of tearing up because I shouldn’t be so heavy, and I try to hide it; everything is going so well for me.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?
Not a long time. It lasts until my heart rate has come down, and I’ve had the time to sit down, shower, eat healthy food, and spend some time with my family. Then, I feel I should do something. I’m like, “Why haven’t I achieved anything today?” I have to achieve all the time. Typically, when we’re on vacation, I hike to the top of the mountain, write a poem, or take photos of my kids and make it into something. I’m damaged in the way I need to achieve all the time.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?
I’m not a religious person. I live too much in the present to contemplate what happens in the future. My thoughts about death are that I don’t want to be a burden to the world. I don’t want to be a part of this industry of conserving people in big energy-consuming storage facilities. I don’t want to be buried in a box covered with glossy paint that my children paid a big bill for. I want to be recycled into the circle of life and be fertilizer and energy for the soil and the world in the future. That’s my present thought about it. Many people change their minds as they age. I have yet to learn about the future, but that’s how I feel about it right now.

What do you love most about yourself?
At my age, there are many qualities that I didn’t like about myself when I was younger, but I have made them into positives. For example, I had ADHD as a child, and it made me not able to focus. I would jump from thing to thing. But also it gave me a lot of energy. I think now I’m super happy that I experienced everything I did. I’ve been a performer and a graphic designer, produced music videos and social media, and created many things. I feel super fortunate that I tried all those things. I’ve now learned to channel all that energy into a high output of projects. In some ways, ADHD became my superpower. I’ve learned how to wield it.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I’m bad at planning. I’ve always struggled with it. I hate writing things down in long lists. But it’s taught me to control chaos. I did a project in Mexico City that I called a future forest. I built a huge forest of plastic with 1000 volunteers, featuring animals and flowers, and a pond made of respirator tubes from the hospital. It was this gigantic, crazy, uncontrollable project. A control freak would never be able to do a project like that because there are too many unknowns in a project like that. The planning could take many years and cause many headaches. Once you arrived, everything would change anyway.
I think, “Let’s just go tomorrow and start doing it.” I’m not afraid of it because I’m good at controlling the chaos. That makes me not scared of trying things I haven’t done before. I thrive in chaos—an extremely good quality to have. You have very little control when working with recycled materials, making planning impossible. I am happy for not being afraid of the chaos. If you have no plan, you can never fail.

What is your absolute favorite meal?
My favorite meal is lasagna. It’s always been lasagna. I’ve been rapping about lasagna for years. Liking lasagna has become a part of my artist persona. I am an efficient person, and with lasagna, everything is together in one meal. Cut a corner of lasagna and get all the food groups in one piece.

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