In Victoria’s Wimmera and Mallee regions, a silo in a clump of mallee or casuarina, the strange and delightfully untidy trees indigenous to this area, is always the first sign of human habitation. There mightn’t be a town, there mightn’t be a house, but over that horizon there will be a shed, a road and a railway line.
They stopped bagging grain round here in the 1930s and built two types of silos suitable for bulk handling. They were the same except the ‘Williamstown’ had a flat concrete roof and the ‘Geelong’ (you just cannot keep a good town down!) had a peaked iron roof. Both were about 35m high.
These industrial farming days grain is often stored on the farm in portable metal silos. When it is consolidated for transport it is stored in long heaps under giant plastic tarpaulins almost the same colour as the Mallee skies.
Near where I spent some time growing up there is a marvellous variation: the Murtoa Stick Shed.Built in 1941, it is 300 metres long, 80 metres wide, 20 metres high at the ridge with the roof angle following that of loose grain. Unused now, at its peak (1989-90) it stored, right up to the roof, more than 100,000 tonnes of wheat. It’s called the Stick Shed because the roof is held up by 560 undressed mountain ash poles. What a feat of rustic building. Not to be missed.
We passed the Stick Shed on our way to Rupanyup, our first port-of-call, because we were on a tour of Silo Art.
In the brochure and on the website it says:
The Silo Art Trail is Australia’s largest outdoor gallery. The trail stretches over 200 kilometres, linking Brim with neighbouring towns Lascelles, Patchewollock, Rosebery, Rupanyup and Sheep Hills.
Providing an insight into the true spirit of the Wimmera Mallee, the trail recognises and celebrates the region’s people through a series of large-scale mural portraits painted onto grain silos, many of which date back to the 1930s.
The project saw a team of renowned artists from Australia and across the world visit the region, meet the locals and transform each grain silo into an epic work of art; each one telling a unique story about the host town.
The Silo Art Trail was conceived in 2016 after the success of the first silo artwork in Brim. What started as a small community project by the Brim Active Community Group, GrainCorp, Juddy Roller and artist, Guido van Helten resulted in widespread international media attention and an influx of visitors to the region and the idea for a trail was born.
What does a town with pulse look like?
They have been bigger and more demographically muscular in the past — before tarred roads, before the car and the truck, before industrial scale farming. When Patchewollock shopped in Patchewollock. Now instead of Patchewollock shopping in Patche, Patche (if there’s anyone at home) shops in Rainbow, Rainbow in Warrack, Warrack in Horsham, Horsham in Ballarat and Ballarat is already commuting to Melbourne, so … might as well.
The Silo Project was one idea to arrest the effects of the cosmic attraction to The BIGGER. One good idea. There was traffic the day we followed the trail. Tag-alongs of Greyish Nomads have found it.
Number One. There it is. Great.
Rupanyup’s silo art is the work of Russian mural artist, Julia Volchkova, who turned her attention to the town’s youth and their great love of team sport. The work vividly captures the spirit of community and provides an accurate insight into rural youth culture. [nah nah nah. Too much. You’ve let the received vocab run away with you.]
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.
We were a bit worried about the surface. The original paint is rusting off in patches, but it was like that when she painted them. A little bit Sochi 2014, but so much skill. At least they are not looking down.
Up the road through Minyip to Sheep Hills. From nowhere I remembered that Max Wright came from Sheep Hills. I once saw him kick 11 goals for Warracknabeal against Horsham. I thought he was too shy and good-looking to be much of a footballer. He had a narrow face with a gently aquiline nose under a tidy shock of auburn curls. But year after year Warrack’s success was built on Max Wright’s slender shoulders. He had the gift.
Because there are no longer any sheep at Sheep Hills — they’ve gone south with climate change (there have never been any hills there) – and because of Max, a photo taken out the car window in Warracknabeal’s main street.
Sheep Hills main street. Look at that sky. Utterly seductive.
Number Two. Sheep Hills.
Throughout his career, Melbourne-based artist, Adnate has used his work to tell the stories of Indigenous people and their native lands, particularly the stories of Aboriginal Australians. In 2016, Adnate developed a friendship with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council in north-west Victoria and found his inspiration for this mural.
GrainCorp’s Sheep Hills silos were built in 1938. Adnate’s depiction of Wergaia Elder, Uncle Ron Marks, and Wotjobaluk Elder, Aunty Regina Hood, alongside two young children, Savannah Marks and Curtly McDonald celebrates the richness of the area’s Indigenous culture.
The night sky represents elements of local dreaming and the overall image signifies the important exchange of wisdom, knowledge and customs from Elders to the next generation.
Adnate spent four weeks with the community in late 2016 to conceive and complete the mural. He says that he sought to shine a spotlight on the area’s young Indigenous people and highlight the strong ancestral connection that they share with their Elders.
The only attempt at full colour.
We weren’t sure about this one initially. The splashes of colour on the smaller silos either side may be surplus to requirements. However the way the star whorl and the face paint bounce off each other is most convincing. In their reflections the eyes have lovely and telling details. It won us over and if we were in competitive mode this might be equal best.
Off to Warrack for some petrol and to follow the Henty Highway north.There is a view that you can’t or, really, shouldn’t take photos like this. They only hint at the whole feeling of epic spaciousness or for that matter the death cage match between the tidy monoculture, not yet exposed to summer, and the fabulous mess of the indigenous remnants (at left). And also, they say, too much sky. Too bad.
Number Three. Brim. The Original, and compelling.
Guido van Helten’s iconic Brim mural was the first silo artwork to appear in Victoria, and soon infused the town’s community with newfound energy and optimism. After gaining widespread local and international attention, Brim’s silo art success shone a spotlight on the Wimmera Mallee region and inspired the establishment of the Silo Art Trail.
Completed in early 2016, with limited financial resources, van Helten’s mural depicts an anonymous, multi-generational quartet of female and male farmers. Rendered across these four 1939-built GrainCorp silos, van Helten’s subjects bear expressions that exemplify the strength and resilience of the local farming community.
By rendering the figures as both central and peripheral, present and absent, the work explores shifting notions of community identity at a time when rural populations face both immense economic pressure and the tangible consequences of climate change.
Using the documentary style of humanist street photography as studies, the translucent aerosol technique conjures a sense of ghostliness. The resulting characters are profoundly connected to their chosen place, infusing the landscape with a comforting, familiar presence.
This is the first one we saw and why we went. The sun was a bit northerly as we arrived. An hour or two later the shadows would have been more kind. Despite an indication of problems with perspective — why have them all looking down and tucked away under hats and sunglasses? — it’s still a very fine piece of work. Better in the flesh.
An idea of the challenge involved.
Through Beulah where my family once lived during a drought of epic proportions. That must have been more than 80 years ago. At left is the church where my father was the minister.
Even though the cafe closed in August, Beulah looked like it was going okay. Not that we saw a single person anywhere. At exactly that time the Southern Mallee Giants (at home in Beulah) were playing the Horsham Demons in the Wimmera Football League’s grand final. That would be the football team of a town of 207 (albeit with a terrific oval and clubrooms, most impressive) playing the football team (actually one of) of a town of 17,900. Horsham won, but only by nine points. An honourable loss. (The boys will come back harder next year, &c &c.)
Through Beulah towards Hopetoun.
Number Four. Roseberry.
Before commencing work in Rosebery, Melbourne artist, Kaff-eine spent time in the Mallee assisting fellow artist Rone on his Lascelles silo project. During this time, Kaff-eine travelled to neighbouring towns, discovering the natural environment and acquainting herself with local business owners, families, farmers and children – all with the view to developing a concept for these GrainCorp silos which date back to 1939.
Completed in late 2017, Kaff-eine’s artwork depicts themes that she says embody the region’s past, present and future.
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 portrays a quiet moment between dear friends. The contemporary horseman appears in Akubra hat, Bogs boots and oilskin vest – common attire for Mallee farmers. Both man and horse are relaxed and facing downward, indicating their mutual trust, love and genuine connection.
First go. I think maybe next time she will choose a different angle for the photo to work from for the guy on the right. You have no choice but to look up at the mural, from below, but the perspective from which it is rendered looks down, from above. That might be one of the reasons his legs go a bit wonky. It’s also a reminder of just how hard it would be to pull one of these off successfully.
The old Roseberry Presbyterian church has been made into coffee shop and is now set into 20 year-old garden replete with plentiful local bird life. Excellent cup of tea and a Kooka’s Country Cookie or two. Heartily recommended.
On on on, veering north-east to Lascelles.
Number Five. Lascelles.
This one provided a different challenge: finding the best surfaces on the silo with other buildings too close on one ‘wide’ side and the train tracks on the other. So the couple are separately on the north and south walls. (Note football jumper: it was the day after the Pies had won their Prelim.)
In order to capture the true essence of Lascelles, Melbourne-based artist, Rone knew that he had to learn about the town from those who were deeply connected to it. Here, he depicts local farming couple Geoff and Merrilyn Horman, part of a family that has lived and farmed in the area for four generations.
(At left, the gazanias which were growing everywhere.)
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.
In mid 2017 Rone worked for two weeks to transform the two 1939-built GrainCorp silos. He went to great lengths to paint in the silo’s existing raw concrete tones to produce a work that would integrate sensitively into its environment. Utilising this 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.
All that is true. A wonderful performance.
To get to where we were going we had to turn off at Speed, the location of an ancient Mallee dad joke.I liked it better when it was more declarative, just: Speed. Please slow down. Hilarious.
Turn west at Speed for Patchewollock and while there are still crops as far as the eye can see we’re getting out into the ‘marginal’ country. What a peculiar and limited term that is. The striking Big Desert is not far ahead west, an extraordinarily diverse and complex set of ecosystems. The photo below is actually nearby at Wyperfeld National Park: spinifex, sheoke, mallee and a hundred different ground species.
Back in Patche we have more art, corrugated iron Mallee fowls.
An entree for the main course.
Number Six. Patchewollock.
To prepare for his Patchewollock mural, Brisbane artist, Fintan Magee (family from Northern Ireland, and unsurprisingly something of a specialist in political wall art) booked a room at the local pub to immerse himself in the community and get to know its people. When he met local sheep and grain farmer, Nick “Noodle” Hulland, Magee knew he had found his muse.
Why Hulland? According to Magee, the rugged, lanky local exemplified the no-nonsense, hardworking spirit of the region. Perhaps more importantly though, Noodle had just the right height and leanness to neatly fit onto the narrow, 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. Hulland’s solemn expression, sun-bleached hair and squinting gaze speak to the harshness of the environment and the challenges of life in the Wimmera Mallee.
Commanding face, but what’s he doing with that stick? And things go awry on the right hand side, both arm and shirt. But still an 8.4.
You’d go for the art, but if you add in the drive and a night at the Pot O’ Gold Motel in Rainbow (get it? I did only recently), it’s an absolute 11.
* * * * * *
On the way home we had an unexpected revelation. If you share our fetish for the Australian country motel you will have come across Kooka’s Country Cookies, very often sign of a good motel and a good manager. Aimable in French says it perfectly.
We were coming back down the Sunraysia Way and at Donald there was a sign saying ‘Home’ of said biscuits. We drove through a parade of derelict buildings and went to visit. The derelict buildings were once the Donald Meatworks (abattoirs) employing 200 people. They closed more than 20 years ago with the consequent loss of 200 jobs, an event which would have a huge impact on a community of this size. The Donald community decided to do something about it.
They bought equipment from a factory closure in Melbourne and installed it in the canteen of the meat works and began baking and selling biscuits. They nearly went broke when (and because) managers from Melbourne came up to take over and started selling off the company’s assets leaving it, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt. But the suppliers (mostly local, all Australian) didn’t call in the debts immediately and allowed the company (with locals in charge again) to pay them off over time. Coles and Woolworths wouldn’t take their product until they packaged it differently (on trays rather than in bags), but when they did this they got over the hump.
Today they are exporting to China and countries in south-east Asia as well as selling throughout Australia. And there’s full-time work directly for 25 Donaldians. Hooray!
Kerry Vogel who described herself as the ”accountant/ sales manager’ told me that story.