Trolling Wichita: Finding the Hidden Sculpture
In a fairytale, a troll is typically a mean and scary being that lives under a bridge. In Wichita, a troll is a hidden work of art, surrounded by mystery and excitement.
He doesn’t have a name, and there’s no plaque, sign or indication that he’s even there until you’ve found him.
Wichita’s seven-foot-tall bronze troll appeared mysteriously. Residing under his grate for nearly three months before being discovered, our troll has become one of the city's most beloved seek-and-find works of art.
Wichita’s got local artist Connie Ernatt to thank for bringing our troll to life. She was part of a project to redo the riverfront near the Keeper of the Plains Plaza. There was an overflow pit in the area, and because it was both still functional and too costly to remove, the team decided to make it a little more interesting.
“I think it was originally a landscape architect’s idea to do the troll,” said Ernatt, who would later create the statue.
Like any proposed project, it was met with scrutiny at first, with claims that it was too corny. When the plans were approved, Ernatt worked hard to combat the “corny” stigma, carefully crafting her troll.
“I tried hard to not make him too cute or too scary, but right in between, so he’s believable,” Ernatt said. “I did all this research, and there is no one way that a troll looks, so it was fun to do what I wanted to. I was thinking 'okay, I’ll have this big, fat, ogre-y kind of troll down there.'”
The original plan was to have the troll trying to entice viewers over to him by holding a stick up through the grate. Attached to the stick would be a string with a ring tied to the end, drawing people to the troll's underground lair. Check out Ernatt’s wax mock-up of the original troll!
A Change of Plans
Despite efforts invested in the development of the troll concept, the welded-shut grate prevented installation from above, so a much lighter troll would have to suffice. When the city didn’t approve the design, Ernatt created a new concept that wouldn’t stick up out of the grate. Instead, she decided to have the troll reaching up at the passersby above him. Because the pit still filled with water from time to time, it was possible that the troll could be completely submerged, so a water resistant design was crucial.
“I built him hollow so that he can fill full of water and drain through openings on his feet. His body is just made of pieces of sheet metal welded together so they look like stitching. He’s very lightweight,” Ernatt said.
After about six months of creating the troll, Ernatt was ready to install her creation. The troll weighed about 150 pounds, so installation was not an easy task. Though Ernatt could have had a plaque with her name on it nearby, she opted to remain anonymous. She chose not to have any signs indicating that there was anything out of the ordinary and she even requested that the city didn’t send a press release about the new troll.
“I just want to keep it hidden so that people have to find it,” Ernatt said.
Because she chose not to add her name to her creation, Ernatt is able to visit and quietly observe others as they delight in the sculpture she created.
“Everybody makes up a story. I love going there and just being totally anonymous and just listening to what people say about the troll,” Ernatt said.
This is how Ernatt heard one of her favorite stories about the troll who, according to the story, was originally under a bridge, but was moved to a more secure location after causing too much trouble.
The Troll is Vandalized
The troll wasn’t the only one causing trouble. Before long, Ernatt noticed things moving around in the troll’s pit. His bird skull necklace went missing and he would have a stick in his mouth. The City took measures to secure the troll’s pit, but despite their efforts, people were still getting in. Before long, Ernatt got a call: the troll had been vandalized and was missing an arm.
“So many people like the troll, that there was kind of this cry of outrage from the public,” Ernatt said.
Overwhelmed with work at the time, Ernatt knew that she wouldn’t be able to repair the troll right away.
“I thought, 'he’s just going to have to be a one-armed troll for a while,'” Ernatt said. “It’s not a bad idea, because when kids visit, you can tell them ‘look what someone did’ and teach them not to do that.”
The troll remained without his arm for about a year. When the City contacted Ernatt to repair the troll, she discovered that his arm had not been bent back and forth until it was torn off, but rather, it had been sawed off.
“It was a clean, sawed cut, which surprised me,” Ernatt said. “They went down there with the intention to do it.”
Ernatt reinforced the arm when she repaired the troll.
One Year and One New Arm Later
Ernatt’s favorite part of the troll is that people have to get out and find him. Some people try searching two or three times before they discover the troll’s secret location, but when they do, it’s always worth the effort.
“People hear about him, and then they go and try to find him. When they do, they feel ownership and like they know something that other people don’t,” Ernatt said. “I love it. It makes me want to hide things all over the city.”
Since his installation, Ernatt’s troll has taken Wichita by storm, becoming a favorite among locals and a must-see (or must-find, rather) for visitors.
“He’s taken on a life of his own totally separate from me,” Ernatt said of her troll.
While we can’t tell you where to find the troll (where’s the fun in that?), Ernatt left us with this clue:
“Look for the Purple Martin nest.”
Today, Connie Ernatt and her husband own the Diver Studio on Commerce Street, where you can fine their personal studios, their work and the work of several other local artists.
Ernatt has created bronze statues for organizations like Botanica and the Sedgwick County Zoo. You can find her work in the Downing Children’s Garden at Botanica and in various locations at the Zoo. If you see a bronze chimpanzee or flamingo, you’re likely looking at one of Ernatt’s creations!