Wichita’s favorite troll is back home, and this time, he should be safe in his underground lair.
The troll, a 200-pound bronze sculpture created by Wichita artist Connie Ernatt, has been missing from his hidey-hole under a grate near the Keeper of the Plains sculpture since October. That’s when Ernatt removed him to repair damage caused by vandals who broke into his enclosure, sawed off his arm and stole his necklace.
Ernatt has had him in her workshop since then, creating a super reinforced arm and a new necklace.
On Friday morning, it was time for the troll to go back to the home he’d had since May 2007.
He had been the brainchild back then of a creative project manager working on a restoration and beautification of the Keeper of the Plains and the area around it. The sculpture, the manager suggested, would be a good way to deal with an unattractive outflow area for the nearby Westar Energy plant.
He commissioned Ernatt to create a troll that would hide below the grate and surprise unsuspecting passersby.
He did surprise them, and when he disappeared in the fall, Ernatt and city officials were surprised by the flood of calls and e-mails from people demanding to know where he’d gone.
On Friday, Connie Ernatt and her husband, fellow artist John Ernatt, pulled up in a pickup with the troll strapped in the bed. They were greeted by a crew of city workers, who had come to button up the hole with welding equipment and 5-inch bolts.
Also waiting for them was a crew of Connie Ernatt’s local sculptor friends: Chris Brunner, Marc Durfee and Randy Regier.
The 5-foot-tall troll was flat on his back in the pickup bed, his arms and legs strapped firmly to a stretcher made of boards. A folded-up sheet protected his newly refurbished belly from the straps keeping him in place.
The five artists moved the 200-pound monster – now 210 pounds with his new-and-improved arm, Ernatt estimated – down the riverbank to a side entrance as the city workers used a truck fitted with a crane to raise the metal gate.
It wasn’t easy for Connie Ernatt and her crew, several of whom had helped her with the troll’s removal, to get him back into place. They used a ladder laid down flat, a few boards and a ramp to bridge an area of 3-foot-deep, murky, smelly water and hoisted the troll over to the criss-cross metal grates where he stands.
Regier volunteered to wade into the water, borrowing a pair of rubber boots from city worker Bill Lawrence. As the group worked to get the troll past a tight turn, the boots began to fill.
“The water is so cold, so why does my skin burn like fire?” Regier joked.
Once the troll was back on his perch, the group struggled to get him upright in the awkward spot. As they unbuckled him from his stretcher, one of the straps fell into the water below, joining the eyeglasses John Ernatt had lost during the troll removal in the fall.
The group managed to hoist him up and align the screws on the troll’s feet and outstretched arms with the pre-made holes that hold him in place. A few minutes of wrenching later, the troll was secure.
“Welcome home, buddy,” Durfee said.
“He’s home. Yay!” Connie Ernatt said.
Before exiting the hole, Connie Ernatt re-affixed the chain on the troll’s arm that makes him appear unhappily imprisoned to a nail on the cement wall nearby. She borrowed a piece of chalk from Lawrence and drew tally marks on the wall near the troll’s hand, making it look as through he was counting down his days in captivity.
As the artists loaded up their equipment, city workers got busy sealing all the entry points vandals had been using to assault the troll. Lawrence showed the artists the 5-inch bolts he was about to install to keep the gate in place.
“They won’t move that gate again,” he said. “I can promise you that.”
As Reiger stood in his soaked socks, he said he was happy to be part of the crew that got the troll back home.
“It’s my favorite piece of public sculpture in Wichita,” said Reiger, who’s known for the always changing storefront sculpture next to the Donut Whole on East Douglas. “I love the site. It’s genius the way that it has to be discovered.”
Connie Ernatt said her goal was to get the troll back where he belonged before the Wichita River Festival so that new groups of people could discover him.
She’ll miss him in her shop, she said, though he did take up a lot of space.
She won’t, however, miss the constant, panicked e-mails and calls from his fans.
“I love him being back home,” she said. “He’s been missed so badly.”