Silo art is reviving the fortunes of forgotten country towns, writes Mark Daffey.
Caravan parks are busier than ever. Hotels are tapping more kegs. New cafes are opening. Festivals have been created and postage stamps made. Best of all, though, is that town fortunes have been revived. Why? Because someone had the bright idea that street art, that city scourge that has latterly become accepted - celebrated, even - could find a place in country towns across the land.
But unlike in cities, these canvases are not found down grimy alleyways. No, the infrastructural backdrop for these modern works of art are silos, those faded grain storage cylinders towering above crop fields across regional Australia.
It all began back in March 2015, when the first silo artwork was revealed. Two street artists - one from the UK, the other from the US - were commissioned to paint eight grain storage bins in Northam, a farming town on the edge of WA's Wheatbelt, 100 kilometres east of Perth.
The two artists, operating under the pseudonyms Phlegm and HENSE, worked simultaneously but from opposite ends, completing the project in 16 days. About 740 litres of paint were used on the artworks which exhibit styles that are polar opposites. One depicts whimsical monochrome characters not dissimilar to those of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, while the other blends abstract patterns in bold colours across its concrete canvas.
Six silo artworks are now scattered across WA's south, in an area that may be the world's largest open-air gallery.
After the pilot project in Northam, silo artworks began popping up in Victoria. The first, in the Wimmera wheat-farming town of Brim where silos outnumber residents, was completed in January 2016. Artists are given loose guidelines about what they can paint. For Brim, Melbourne-based artist Guido van Helten opted to depict a ghostly quartet with heads bowed in contemplation. Though the characters are fictional, they are so lifelike you can almost smell the red Wimmera dust when you look at them.
The Brim silos gained international attention, jolting Victorians into action. Onlookers came from afar and local businesses benefitted from the influx of tourist dollars. Encouraged by the newfound prosperity these out-of-towners brought to the region, artworks were planned in Sheep Hills and Patchewollock.
When the paint dried on the last mural in late 2017, Australia's first Silo Art Trail was complete, prompting a further rush of visitors to Wimmera and Mallee. People were even arriving from interstate.
Other states have since tried to replicate the trail, but other regions in Victoria have too. Councils have commissioned silo artworks ranging from fictitious military figures to a portrait of supermarket founder GJ Coles in his hometown, St James.
Silo art isn't confined to country towns either. Silos in Fyansford, near Geelong, and in inner-city Brunswick feature portraits of local personalities.
In the latter half of 2019, two more towns in Victoria's Mallee region added their grain stores to the Silo Art Trail, extending the route to 330 kilometres from end to end. Nullawil sits at one end of that trail, with its silos illustrating a quintessential Aussie scene of a farmer in checked flannelette shirt with a kelpie.
The most recent town to join the trail is Sea Lake. The area already receives large numbers of overseas tourists coming to see the pink lakes, but the Indigenous-themed mural on Lake Tyrell, by street artists The Zookeeper and Drapl, is now an additional reason.
Further north, the Mildura Regional Development group has proposed a historical military theme across 10 silos along the Mallee Track, bordering South Australia. Called the Remembrance Silo Art Trail, it hopes to leverage the success of the Silo Art Trail by tacking onto its end.
Following the publicity generated by the artwork at Brim, Guido van Helten was commissioned in 2017 to paint SA's first silo art at Coonalpyn, on the Adelaide-Melbourne highway. Five local primary school children modelled for the project.
The silos at Kimba, on the Eyre Peninsula, were painted the same year, followed by those in Waikerie and Karoonda. Most are owned by grain handlers Viterra and many are still functioning. The images painted are of children diving off jetties and standing in wheat fields. Native wildlife and farm hands feature prominently. Karoonda, in the Mallee region east of Murray Bridge, created a nationwide first when it projected cinema art on the reverse of its silos. Its Colour Up show encourages visitors to stay overnight, with instalments changing so there is always something new to see.
New South Wales
NSW jumped on board the silo artwork trend in July 2017, when Heesco beat out nine other street artists for the job of decorating the silos in the cereal-growing centre of Weethalle. There is now silo artwork in four more towns: Portland, Grenfell, Barraba and Merriwa.
Unusually, the Portland work depicts cement workers rather than farmers. And a sheep is wearing red socks in the Merriwa silos, representing an annual event known as the "Running of the Sheep". The Barraba silos painted by Fintan Magee, the artist responsible for the Patchewollock silos, portray a water diviner, reflecting the hardships faced by rural folk in this drought-stricken area.
Take me there
Fly: Grampians Helicopters runs Silo Art Flights tours from Stawell in Victoria. See grampianshelicopters.com.au
Tour: Grampians Wine Tours run Silo Art Tours from Stawell, Pomonal and Halls Gap. See grampianswinetours.com.au
Stay: For a novel stay inside converted grain bins, try the Mallee Bush Retreat in Hopetoun, Victoria. See hopetounvictoria.com.au/accommodation