A Troll Museum Curated by an Elf

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03/04/2002

120 Orchard St. NY 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

One would be inclined to describe Jen Miller’s 5’3” frame as pixyish, were it not for her very strong self- identification with another sort of sprite. Miller, a 29-year-old Lower East Side performance artist, would love to wake up one morning to find she’d become an elf. Barring that unlikely miracle, she’ll have to settle for wearing her prosthetic elf ears, which she does nearly every day.

The Reverend Jen, as she’s known in downtown circles, also has a thing for another woodland creature, the troll. More specifically, she loves troll dolls–the fuzzy-haired, saucer-eyed plastic figures that became hippy good-luck totems in the 1960s–so much so that she’s converted the front room of her Orchard St. tenement apartment into the Lower East Side Troll Museum (212-560-7235). The institution, the only one in the U.S. celebrating troll dolls, has been open for a year and a half.

A Maryland native and the School of Visual Arts graduate, Miller has declared herself the “Patron Saint of the Uncool,” going so far as to found Hal, a congregation- and rule-free religion celebrating that which is not cool. Her qualifications? She’s been ordained by the Universal Life Church, a mail-order ministry.

Among Miller’s multitude of other, uniformly colorful accomplishments are putting out “Sex Symbol for the Insane,” a handmade book of essays and letters; co-founding the Dance Liberation Front, an organization protesting the city’s cabaret laws; hawking “magically worn panties at human prices” at her elfpanties.com site; and hosting the Rev. Jen’s Anti-Slam, an open-mic night held every Wednesday at the Lower East Side’s Collective Unconscious performance space. Between all those activities, she supports herself working temp jobs. One Christmas she played one of Santa’s little helpers at Bloomingdale’s; she was hired despite telling the employer that she was a real elf.

The small, light-blue room that constitutes the Troll Museum is crammed with trolls and related paraphernalia as well as the curator’s paintings, including several self-portraits (all feature her with elf ears, naturally). There’s a chart explaining the subtle differences between Norfin, Russ, Ace Toys and “black market” trolls; a television and VCR for viewing troll-themed videos (including the 1986 horror movie “Troll,” featuring Sonny Bono); and a gift shop complete with museum T-shirts and trinkets. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged.

Miller estimates that she has 250 troll dolls. Among the museum’s highlights are the pregnant troll (a visitor favorite) and what Miller calls the “Mona Lisa of this Louvre,” a two-headed troll, reverently encased in Plexiglas. Unlike many collectors, Miller says she is not particularly interested in the monetary value of her collection. “I’m not a troll snob,” says Miller, who even speaks in cheery elfin tones.

Miller insists that the museum, which she thought up while having a beer with a friend in 1999, is not ironic. She does, however, indulge in a whimsical brand of satire, leveled against what she sees as the pretentiousness of the mainstream art world. One target is the 2000 Armani exhibit at the Guggenheim. The Troll Museum features its own Armani show in which the “designer” outfits are made of felt.

“I saw the people who were at the museum–all those ladies in fur coats on the audio tour–and they were taking the fashion so seriously,” she recalls. “There’s this idea in America that when you go to a museum you have to be very serious and quiet. And I hated that. I’m just trying to bring back fun to museum-going.”

Despite her genuine love of trolls, Miller admits to some ulterior motives in opening up her apartment to the public. “The Troll museum is a good ruse for getting art dealers to come: ‘Oh, would you like to see my paintings?'” she explains. “It’s also a way to get cute guys here.”

One male lured to the museum was underground filmmaker Nick Zedd, who subsequently became Miller’s boyfriend. It seems curious that Zedd, who founded the bleak, taboo-shattering Cinema of Transgression movement in the mid-1980s, would visit a place as benignly kooky as the Troll Museum in the first place. The director of “They Eat Scum” and “Geek Maggot Bingo” explains that while reading about the museum on the Web, he felt a strong attraction to Miller. “I’m drawn to my opposite,” Zedd says. “She seems to epitomize goodness, and she’s very popular and charming, whereas people have referred to me as a dark cloud.”

(Zedd has directed Miller in “Lord of the Cock Rings,” a bawdy Tolkien parody; “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” based on the first chapter of the Nietzsche book of the same name; and “Elf Panties: The Movie,” in which Miller models underwear in the Troll Museum.)

Zedd theorizes that when his girlfriend writes about trolls and their charms, she is in fact writing about herself and her own allure. In much the same way, Miller’s guided tour of the museum tells the story of her life. There’s the artist’s first troll, an orange-haired Norfin, now stuffed with loose change, which she got when she was 12. And there’s the poor troll that had its hair chopped off by Miller’s sister’s boyfriend, the captain of the football team, as she looked on, aghast.

As important as trolls are to her, Miller can’t fully explain her fascination with the dolls, except to say that she’s always been attracted to cute, yet slightly disturbing things. “When somebody collects art or fine china people don’t ask why they collect it. That’s just accepted,” she says, paraphrasing author Pat Peterson’s book “Collector’s Guide to Trolls.” Miller adds, “Something about [trolls] struck a chord, and that’s all I know. I try not to analyze my obsessions too much.”

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