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Eric's Heroes: The man who gave us the Fremont Troll

The Freemont troll. (Photo: KOMO News)

The fullness of the moon never reaches the glint of its ghastly, leering eyeball.

Gnarled knuckles gouge the ground.

And a dirty monstrosity looms in the shadows of our darkest fears, waiting.

Who was it that possessed the perverse audacity to look at a dark patch of dirt under the Aurora Bridge and imagine a peculiar form of immortality?

It is, of course, the world famous Fremont Troll, a colossus of engineering and vision and quirky, twisted madness.

A tourist stands atop concrete fingers and says, "I just wonder what the real meaning behind it is?"

A young woman stands beneath the monstrous shoulder of the beast and marvels, "It's so cool to see all the details that are actually happening. The hair, the eyes, it's really cool."

It is not beautiful art. Anyone who has looked up into that one eyeball can tell you that. No, it's not beautiful. It is grotesque. So grotesque that in a grim, creepy way it is, almost, beautiful.

In a sunlit shop on the University of Washington campus, a tall, elegant looking man in his early 70s watches a group of students as they piece together a shade structure for a childcare center in the Central District.

The air is punctuated with the sounds of power drills and banging hammers.

He glances around and says out loud, "This is the next generation of designers and builders."

Steve Badanes is his name. Many years ago, the Troll rose up from the fertile ground of this man's imagination.

We remind him that none of his students was even born when the idea for the Troll was hatched.

His reaction is immediate. "I was 46 when I did it so that makes me feel %&$damned old!" He laughs.

He met us under the Aurora Bridge, at the corner of Troll Avenue and North 36th.

He is quick to point out that although he is the front-man for the legacy of the Troll, he was by no means it's only creator.

"The only story that really needs to be told," he says, "is that this is a collaborative project."

We moved over to the concrete giant, and as I looked at it, I imagined it rising up from the brown dirt and wondered if one day it might just sink back down into whatever hole it came from. It's easy for the imagination to run wild in this place.

Perhaps that's the genius of the thing.

As we stood there looking at it I said, "So you had no idea I'm guessing, when you were coming up with the idea, that this would become something that's an iconic symbol of this entire area ..."

There was a glint in his eye when he replied, "I wouldn't say that. I think we thought it would be a pretty good idea. And we thought it was an idea that could turn into a pretty major tourist's attraction. It was a beautiful site."

On any given day, 365 days per year, 24 hours per day, you can find somebody at the Troll. Posing. Looking. Thinking. Wondering.

How could any of them know that it was Steve Badanes' very first sculpture?

"We did a pretty good job on it," he says, "which is interesting because I had never built a sculpture before. I'm a house builder."

I'm amazed by that statement. "You had NEVER built a sculpture?"

"No," he says.

A Fremont arts committee sponsored a contest in 1989. It had a space available under the bridge, and it wanted some public art. Something that might attract people to the funky, quirky neighborhood that calls itself, "The center of the universe."

Steve came up with the idea of a Troll living under the bridge. He recruited the help of two of his students at the time, Will Martin and Ross Whitehead, and his girlfriend at the time, Donna Walter, and they went to work.

They built a model of the beast with long strings of hair covering the right eye completely and the left hand clutching a Volkswagen Beetle, as if it's about to devour it in a single bite.

They keep the model these days at MOHAI.

Steve and his friends won the popular vote easily. He says it was a 6-1 margin.

And so they set about building.

They built a rebar framework, with mesh over the rebar. Where there were compound curves, they used chicken wire, layer after layer. Volunteers helped with the project, mixing ferrocement (half cement and half sand, used in boat building) and gradually forming the features, one batch at a time.

The eyeball was a Volkswagen hubcap.

"The only things that really needed detail," says the creator, "was the fingers, obviously, and the nose, which is fairly similar to this one." He tilts his head back so his own beak roughly approximates the profile of the Troll's.

"It's patterned after your own nose?" I ask.

"What do you think," he replies.

"I can see it!" I said.

The bold, flaring nostrils... the triumphant bump... it's a stunning likeness.

The popularity of the Fremont Troll never seems to wane, even after 27 years.

Rock bands make videos. Japanese tourists flock to the place. Several people have been married there. And every Halloween there is a celebration called Troll-o-ween.

I asked Steve if he likes the idea that it will be here long after he's gone.

"Yeah," he says. "Wouldn't you?"

All these years later, under the light of the moon in the grimy shadows beneath the Fremont Bridge, our greatest piece of public art continues to enthrall and fascinate.

We can't take our eyes off of it, because it is so strange. So unusual. So very, very Seattle.

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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