Silo art a tourism boon for outback towns

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Brim silo artwork: the tall tales and colourful characters behind Guido van Helten’s paintings

When a Brisbane artist decided to paint murals on some defunct silos in regional Victoria, he had no idea of the questions they would create.

Guido van Helten has turned the tiny town of Brim, with a population of about 100, into a tourist destination overnight, and social media is cluttered with photos of his work.

People are in awe of the four characters, standing 30 metres tall, on the iconic Australian structures.

But they want answers.

“Who are these people?” “Are they Brim locals?” “What are their stories?”

They are questions repeated over and over again on social media, so ABC Rural tracked the characters down.

You will not, however, find the real stories of those people here, because Guido van Helten requested the mystery be maintained.

“I don’t want this to be about individual people specifically,” he said.

“It’s about this place, it’s about the community and, on a broader scale, the whole Wimmera region.

“If you leave the anonymity to these people and people see whoever they want to see, they can have their own connection to the work.”

What do you see? Mona Lisa moments in Brim

It’s a tall order, asking a journalist to keep a secret, but ABC Rural soon discovered the magic of experiencing the same artwork through different eyes.

“I think they’re assuming she’s a man because of the way she’s dressed. Women going out on farms have got the old flanny and the droopy hat.”

Tourist in Brim, western Victoria

The constant stream of visitors — from Queensland, New South Wales and right across Victoria — shared detailed and often conflicting stories of these Brim silo characters.

None of them really know the four people depicted on the concrete walls, but what a story a painting can tell.

Is the second man from the left in his early twenties or, as one woman guessed, more like 49?

Is there a woman depicted in this work, or is it four men?

Are they a family? Is it a tough year?

The answer is yes, to all and every impression, because the “real” story of this artwork is in the eye of the beholder.

Farming pressures, a drought and an unironed shirt

“He’s probably got the weight of the generations behind him on his shoulders,” one observer said of the man featured on the very left silo.

“He’s doing the tough times, the really tough times, now.”

Perhaps it was the 38-degree heat or the dusty paddocks of Brim, which is struggling through a second year of drought, that gave most people the impression this man was in a bad place.

“I think he’s probably tired, he’s had enough,” one woman said.

“His head’s down, waiting for that rain; it’s a very stressful job, I reckon,” another man said.

It seems brown paint on concrete can reveal even more than a moment — some observers could see this man’s entire life.

“He wants to keep [the farm] going for the next generations, and wants to keep it going for previous generations,” a woman said.

“He’s got that on his shoulders at the moment.”

“And his wife hasn’t ironed his shirt,” another woman added.

‘Where are the women on these silos?’

It is an interesting criticism many have shared on social media, especially since the third character from the left is indeed female.

She is certainly not masculine, but she is also far from typical images of women found in the media.

“I think they’re assuming she’s a man because of the way she’s dressed,” one woman said.

“Women going out on farms have got the old flanny and the droopy hat.”

Some rural folk identified with the female character instantly.

“It reminds me of Nana Thomas,” one young woman said.

“You know those dresses that Nana Thomas used to wear? And she’s got her husband’s hat on and those thick glasses that cut out the sun on the side.”

So what does this Nana Thomas figure do with her days?

“A farmer’s wife, probably retired and living in town now, probably a widow,” one observer thought.

“She works in some sort of shop that sells bits and bobs, like an op-shop even,” another said.

“She makes scones and looks after the men; gets up and makes their brekky in the morning before they get on the tractor,” said a third.

A modern day farmer, truck driver, shearer and father

The singlet and cap being donned by the younger man, second silo from the left, had everyone scratching their heads.

“He doesn’t necessarily look like he’s from a farm, he’s got a cap on,” one person said.

“He’s been away to college and he’s got all the modern sciences and things behind him and he’s come back,” another said.

Many saw a truck driver, but that theory was debunked by one lady because, “he’s got no tatts, the truck drivers often have the tattoos”.

But perhaps his very attire tells a story about the changing nature of farming in Australia.

“The reason they wear a lot of these clothes now, as opposed to the older fellow, is because you’re working mostly inside cabins of tractors or harvesters,” a farmer pointed out.

“Big hats tend to knock everything around.”

A cheeky smile or a wince? A farmer through and through

Not a single person questioned this man’s path in life, who has apparently “lived on the land his whole life”.

But his state of mind is open to interpretation.

Most agree it has been a tough life, but is he content or still suffering?

“He looks a little bit concerned, maybe things aren’t as good as they should be,” one woman said.

“He’s got a lot of character about him and a cheeky look on his face,” another said.

“I reckon he likes to go the pub for a drink, just because he looks happy,” said a third.

Age estimates varied from mid-sixties up to 97, but everyone was impressed by the mobile phone hooked on this man’s shirt pocket.

“That amazes me, he’s got the mobile phone,” one observer said.

“Very impressive,” added another.

“The telephone [shows] he’s still keeping an eye on his sons.”

More than paint on concrete, an artist’s impression of Brim

Before even picking up a paint brush, Guido van Helten spent weeks touring Wimmera farms and getting to know the locals.

The city dweller will take his own impression of Brim and its people back to Brisbane.

“These sort of towns, I often drove around, but I would just drive straight past,” he said.

“I’ve often wondered, what’s it like? What are the people like? Who lives here?

“It’s something people in the city don’t know about, they don’t know how it works, they just get their bread and don’t think about it.”

Mr van Helten only spent one month in Brim, but the trip happened to coincide with his birthday, Christmas, and New Year celebrations.

The temperature also remained above 30 degrees, sometimes nearing 40 degrees, but the artist was in his boom lift every day.

“I wanted to originally get this done before Christmas, it was going to be my final thing for the year, but it didn’t turn out that way,” he said.

“I got here and it was huge and demanding, but I couldn’t let that go.

“The extremities really push you to get through it; there was a dust storm, it was windy, I’ve had everything [including] lightning.”

At the end of each day Mr van Helten pulled up a stool at the Brim Hotel, where publican Rodney Holland “gave it to him straight”.

“I don’t treat him as a celebrity, I just treat him like a normal bloke,” Mr Holland said.

“I haven’t been down there to look at it much.”

It has been quite the educational experience for one artist and for the people of Brim.

Mr van Helten’s artwork has completely transformed a town, but perhaps the lasting impression will be the unwashed shirt he wore every day — now hanging proudly in the Brim Hotel.

And when the work was officially complete, Mr Holland and the locals thought it best the artist experience a “cut out” — a drinking session usually held in the shearing shed when shearers finish their last run.

“Everyone kept talking about this term,” Mr van Helten said.

“It’s a party, and we had one.”

Larger than life outback landscape is Queensland’s newest silo artwork

At 30 metres high and taking 500 litres of paint to create, this could be the largest landscape painting in Queensland.

Two artists spent three weeks completing the mural on four silos in Thallon.

Drapl (Travis Vinson) and The Zookeeper (Joel Fergie) are street art veterans, but say the burgeoning silo art scene might soon need its own moniker.

“We’re not really on the street anymore. There’s definitely going to be a new term made for this sort of art,” Mr Vinson said.

“It’s a mural. But it’s in a rural setting.

“I’m thinking rural mural … but that’s a bit hard to say.”

The artists worked with local photographers to create an iconic Thallon image with mustering sheep and birds perched on a gum tree near the river.

“It’s hilarious … but after after being up there painting a landscape scene all day, we go down to the Moonie River and soak up what we’ve been painting,” Mr Fergie said.

The image is a peaceful scene, but Mr Fergie said when he was high up on the lifter and the wind started to blow, it was a less than peaceful feeling.

“I really don’t like heights,” he laughed.

“But when you work on something like this you know the reward at the end is going to outweigh any doubts you have in your mind.

“And I think after three weeks of being up high, I’m starting to get over that fear.”

Western Queensland is known for its spectacular sunsets.

“People said ‘Oh, did you exaggerate the colours of the sky?’ But when you see a sunset out here, you’ll see just how magical they are,” Mr Fergie said.

“Out here the flat land really lights up just like this, and when the clouds are just right we’re hoping to get a perfect shot that will be a continuation of what we’ve been working on straight through into the sunset.”

The painting was finished in the middle of winter, the height of the grey nomad season.

“I reckon there’s at least 50 caravans stopping each day to take photos,” Mr Fergie said.

“It’s really cool, because they’d probably keep driving to the next town if there wasn’t such a beacon of light on the horizon.”

Topics: street-art, regional, thallon-4497

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