Eucalyptus trees, swirling red dust and wide, open roads: Wimmera Mallee is regional Australia at its most quintessential.
From stoic school teachers to farmers with sun-bleached hair, here, a cast of local characters have kept the region alive despite the usual foibles of rural life: drought, bushfire and dwindling populations.
As agricultural researcher Deb Anderson once said, “Wimmera Mallee has been singled out as a poignant case of ‘struggle country’”, a place where harsh conditions are met with spirited sagas of community perseverance.
As farming technology evolved at the turn of the 21st century, hundreds of wheat silos lay dormant; their collapse often signalling the end for many nearby shops, restaurants and pubs that depend on local footfall for survival.
For Brisbane artist Guido van Helten, these silos represented much more than economic decline. He saw the perfect blank canvas, a mass of towering concrete amplified by endless sunburnt plains and cloudless skies.
In early 2016, he fulfilled a long-held dream, transforming a wheat silo in Brim into a soaring open-air mural depicting a quartet of anonymous farmers.
Van Helten’s mural struck a chord. This wasn’t just a case of ‘plonk art’ (where developers affix an arbitrary sculpture to appease council regulations), this was an artwork that was deeply connected to Brim; it was both for and of the people.
Before long, more artists followed suit. Street-art agency Juddy Roller came on-board and GrainCorp volunteered more silos. And so the Silo Art Trail was born.
With six silos stretching 200 kilometres, the roving gallery is now Australia’s largest outdoor art exhibition. Linking the country towns of Brim, Lascelles, Patchewollock, Rosebery, Rupanyup and Sheep Hills, each mural celebrates the enduring spirit of the Wimmera Mallee region’s people, giving flight to otherwise faceless stories.
Just 300 kilometres from Melbourne – the trail invites visitors to hit the tarmac and relish a long-held antipodean pastime: the great Australian road trip.
The first of the pioneer painters, van Helten made a name for himself painting large-scale photo-realist murals from the US to the Ukraine. Travelling from Brisbane (population 2.4 million) to Brim (population 171) at the end of 2015, he spent a month completing his epic art work: four farmers rendered across six silos, rising 30 metres out of the baked earth.
Using the documentary style of humanist street photography, the translucent aerosol technique conjures a sense of ghostliness, the figures appear to be silently ruminating on their collective struggles: from immense economic pressures to the tangible impact of climate change.
Nick “Noodle” Hulland – a local sheep and grain farmer in the tiny wheatbelt town of Patchewollock - was enjoying a beer at the local pub after work, when he happened to cross paths with artist Fintan Magee. The Brisbane artist was on a mission to get acquainted with Patchewollock, and find his muse. The rest, they say, is history.
The two hit it off, and Noodle’s lean, lanky figure is now peers down wistfully from a 35-metre-high canvas of the twin 1939-built GrainCorp silos. Completed in late 2016, the artist’s depiction of the famously reserved Hulland portrays an image of the archetypal Aussie farmer – faded blue “flanny” (flannelette shirt) and all. His solemn expression and squinting gaze speak to the the challenges of life in the Wimmera Mallee.
Long before the wheat silos transformed the Wimmera Mallee landscape, Australia’s Indigenous people lived and thrived off the land – and their connection to it remains sacred.
Melbourne-based artist Adnate devoted his artwork to their stories. He spent four weeks with the community in late 2016 to develop his mural, which sought to celebrate the area’s young Indigenous people and highlight the strong ancestral connection that they share with their Elders.
Plastered over GrainCorp’s Sheep Hills silos, Adnate’s depiction of Wergaia Elder, Uncle Ron Marks, and Wotjobaluk Elder, Aunty Regina Hood, alongside two young children, Savannah Marks and Curtly McDonald shines a light on the area’s sacred Indigenous culture and the imperative to protect it.
For his mural in the quiet town of Lascelles, Melbourne-based artist Rone painted local couple Geoff and Merrilyn Horman. As fourth generation farmers, they are an intrinsic part of the community in Rone and exemplify the no-nonsense, hardworking spirit of the region.
In mid 2017 Rone worked for two weeks to transform the two 1939-built GrainCorp silos. Utilising a muted monochrome palette, he added water to his paint as a blending tool to produce a ghostly, transparent effect – a signature of his distinctive painting style.
Rone says that he wanted the mural to portray his subjects as wise and knowing, nurturing the town’s future with their vast farming experience and longstanding connection to the area.
Accomplished over several weeks and unveiled in early 2017, Russian artist Julia Volchkova’s mural quietly honours the integral role that sport plays in Australian rural populations.
The featured faces are those of Rupanyup residents and local sporting team members, Ebony Baker and Jordan Weidemann. Fresh-faced and dressed in their sports attire (netball and Australian Rules football, respectively), Baker and Weidemann embody a youthful spirit of strength, hope and camaraderie.
Rendered onto a squat pair of conjoined Australian Grain Export steel grain silos, the delicately nuanced monochromatic work is typical of Volchkova’s realist portraiture style.
Completed in late 2017, Melbourne street artist Kaff-eine’s artwork is a tribute to the region’s past, present and future – told through the juxtaposed stories of a female and male farmer.
The silo on the left captures the grit, tenacity and character of the region’s young female farmers, who regularly face drought, fires and other hardships living and working in the Mallee. In her work shirt, jeans and turned-down cowboy boots, the strong young female sheep farmer symbolises the future.
The silo on the right is a portrayal of the past, with the male farmer – pictured wearing an Akubra and sharing a quiet moment with his horse - typifying the traditionally male-dominated industry. It is also expresses the indomitable bond between famers and their animals.