Concrete giants: Arresting figures appear on rural grain silos

Story highlights

  • Australian artist Guido van Helten is famous for turning industrial silos into art
  • His current work depicts five children on a 30-meter-high grain silo

(CNN)The imposing grain silo situated in the small Australian town of Coonalpyn has dominated the region's rural landscape for over 50 years, but has never garnered much attention.

That was, until the arrival of artist Guido van Helten.
    Atop his cherry-picker, van Helten spends his days painting the 30-meter-high, five tower silo. Now he and the silo have become something of an attraction, drawing in curious sightseers and creating a buzz around the once sleepy town.
    "Yeah, admittedly, it's kind of an odd thing to do. Paint giant things on buildings," says van Helten. "They're really interesting surfaces and a lot of them are unused. It's only natural for me to want to try to paint them."
    Van Helten's first silo painting in Brim, Victoria attracted global attention in 2015

    Artistic revival

    Despite the town's location on a major highway between the large cities of Melbourne and Adelaide, the South Australian farming community, which has a population of just 215 people, has seen its fortunes dwindle in recent years.
    In order to reverse the town's decline, the locals and their district council brought in van Helten as part of an arts led project to reinvigorate the area.
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    Local resident Brett Dewhurst has been watching van Helten's progress from the beginning. He owns the recently opened Coonalpyn Silos Cafe and has, arguably, the best viewpoint in town.
    "It's just sensational, I've never seen art like that, it's on a different scale to what you normally see," Dewhurst says.
    "Not long ago there was just nothing to stop for here. The town was just getting slower and slower. Now there's a lot of buzz and a lot of new people coming through to have a look. There were actually people from America in our cafe the other day."

    Working large

    This is not van Helten's first silo project. Back in 2015 the artist made headlines when he painted a decommissioned silo in the Australian country town of Brim, Victoria. The work -- part of a planned 200 kilometer (125 mile) "outdoor art trail" that will eventually run through six small towns in the region's wheatbelt -- attracted international attention and helped revitalize the small community.
    Since then the Australian based artist has traveled internationally painting murals, not only on silos, but also on walls and the sides of buildings in the US, Mexico and across Europe, in countries as diverse as Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Belgium and Iceland.
    "I like the idea of making work where it doesn't previously exist. Then you're bringing something new to a place and you get a lot of interesting reactions," says van Helten. "I'm not focused on making works where it's already saturated."
    Some projects, he says, are about reinvigorating spaces, using art as a way to promote investment in an area, exemplified by his silo projects in Coonalpyn and Brim. Others are used to promote awareness of issues he's passionate about.
    "I want to highlight things that I care about and things that people should know about, like my work in Ukraine and the ongoing war there," says van Helten.
    Likened to giant black and white photographs, his works can take anything from ten days to a month to complete.
    With a background in traditional graffiti painting, van Helten is used to working on unconventional surfaces with larger scales.
    "I enjoy working large because a detail that you would see far away as very precise is actually very loose up close," he says. "There's a lot of texture and a lot of different mark making that goes into it, but when you stand back it comes together."

    Local inspiration

    No mural is ever planned in advance. Instead van Helten likes to arrive in a place and spend time getting to know his surroundings and the people.
    "When I think about a site, I think about where I am, the society, the culture and the people. It's something that I put a lot of importance on...I go with a camera and speak to people. Often the subject matter will just present itself to me."
    Van Helton paints a Native American from the Apache Tribe, in Fort Smith, Arkansas
    In Coonalpyn, van Helten has taken inspiration from the town's school children. It's a conscious decision to look towards the future, in a town with only a small number of young people and an older generation with a predilection for looking to the past.
    "There's a lot of nostalgia in the world right now, for times gone by, that's just not really inclusive of future generations. I want people to think about the next generation and how they are going to live."
    The town's residents are under no illusion van Helten's work will single-handedly turn their community's fortunes around, but there is now a growing sense of optimism about the future.
    "I don't think it will ever get back to the way it used to be," says Dewhurst. "But it should be able to sustain itself, instead of being a ghost town."
    "I hope they make the silos bigger and he comes back and does more paintings."