Australia’s Silo Art Trail is the ultimate road trip, stretching 4,660 miles through a series of country towns. Stops are at painted grain storage towers, or silos also known as grain elevators in the United States.
Silo art transforms these cold, unfriendly but imposing buildings into works of art in terrain where the city meets the country. Artwork is by urban street artists and attracts city folk, but the subject matter and the inspiration is pure country.
How To Save A Country Town
Australia is known for its extreme droughts. The one before the 2019/20 bushfires left the landscape parched and combustible. Dams were dry, crops failed, and farmers walked off the land. Rural schools were closing, and businesses had little trade. To save their towns, residents needed to attract tourists.
Paint It And They Will Come
They came up with the ultimate attraction — murals as tall as 10-story buildings that could be seen from miles away. A few painted silos in the same district provide a trail tourists can follow. People arrive in their cars, caravans, motorhomes, and by the coach-load. Previously, they had whizzed through these blink-and-you’d-miss-them towns, now they stop. They buy coffee, gas, visit the bakery, enjoy a pub meal, and sometimes stay overnight.
The first painted silos were in Northam in 2015, 62 miles northeast of Perth, in the Wheatbelt region. FORM, a cultural organization, commissioned London muralist Phlegm and Atlanta artist HENSE to paint eight 125-feet high silos. The project’s success kicked off the national trend of painted silos in five states. Collectively, these silos form the Australian Silo Art Trail. This interactive map shows how widespread they are.
On my trip, one hotel innkeeper joked, “One day, there will be a trail of unpainted silos because they will be the novelty.”
How To Paint A Silo
The artist spends time in the town chatting with some of the larger-than-life inhabitants. It could be a fourth-generation farmer, a shearer, a water diviner, a local sports star (sport is the lifeblood in country towns), or an indigenous elder. The artist photographs or makes a preliminary sketch of their chosen subject. They transfer this image onto a grid which they superimpose onto the silo. The artist stands on a cherry-picker (hydraulic crane) to reach their towering canvas. Murals can take weeks to complete. Artists use gallons of house paint for the base and often hundreds of aerosol paint cans for the details. Artists often work in extreme weather conditions, harsh sun, or cold winds, but their views of the countryside from on high must be magical.
A Road Less Traveled
I wish I had a dollar for every time one of my fellow Victorians asked me, “Have you seen the Silo Art Trail yet?” But I was too busy traveling overseas. Locked inside my state in 2021 because of COVID restrictions, I started on the 125-mile silo trail from Brim, where Guido van Helten painted the first silo artwork in 2016. His work was a multi-generational quartet of female and male farmers across four silos, each exemplifying the strength and resilience of the local farming community.
As Victoria is one of the smaller states, there are 19 silos in a relatively compact area. Even so, Australia is a big country, and sometimes it was an hour’s drive between silos. The scenery was flat and unrelenting. A single tree was cause for excitement. But slowly, the wonderment of looking out at the Wimmera wheat-growing area grew on me. With little traffic on the road, I was alone with the unbroken horizon. Normally hemmed in by city buildings, it felt like a brush with infinity and a journey back to self.
The photos of the silos hadn’t prepared me for their gargantuan proportions. A train had pulled up underneath Sam Bates’ (Smug’s) artwork at Nullawil Silo. This photo-like realistic mural depicts a young farmer in his checked flannel shirt patting Jimmy, his faithful kelpie sheepdog. The full-size train looks like a child’s train set at their feet.
If art had not called, I would not have stopped. Nullawil has a population of 93! And I would certainly never have stopped at Sheep Hills, where my presence boosted the population to three. But I could not miss out on Adnate’s silo with its depiction of proud indigenous faces and Dreamtime sky,
Artists Of Note
All the silos were in the middle of nowhere but by prominent artists from the world stage such as Russian Julia Volchkov, Smug’s work I’d first seen in Glasgow, Scotland, little realizing his art was in my backyard. Australian street artists such as Guido van Helten, Rone, Fintan Magee, Kaff-eine, and Adnate all have international reputations.
My final stop was the Sea Lake mural by Drapl and The Zookeeper depicting an indigenous girl on a swing, tilting out from a Mallee Eucalyptus, glancing over Lake Tyrrell — Victoria’s largest salt lake. The lake’s shallow basin is renowned for its mirror-like reflective qualities that capture the Wimmera Mallee’s phenomenal sunsets. The artists had replicated this wondrous palette of colors. At twilight, the artwork blends with the sky to form one almighty canvas.
Pubs are where you meet the locals. At Sea Lake, I stayed at The Royal, a hotel the community banded together to reopen after it was closed for 18 months. The new influx of tourists made a community-run pub a viable proposition. Plus, the residents couldn’t bear the thought of a town with no beer! They have put much love into the hotel’s refurbishment.
How Towns Get Their Silos Painted
Locals set up Silo Art Committees to research funding options and write grants. If unsuccessful, they raise the money locally. Having a common goal strengthens their sense of cohesion. Silo art is a towering reminder to locals and tourists alike of what the power of community can achieve.
Silo Art In The United States
The Salina Kanvas Project commissioned Australian artist Guido Van Helten to paint grain elevators in Kansas. Van Helten also completed works across multiple locations in the U.S., including Nashville, Arkansas, Jacksonville, Fort Smith, Fort Dodge, Iowa, Mankato, Minnesota, and Faulkton, South Dakota. He was recently selected to paint a 110-foot grain silo along the Des Moines River in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Find out more here. Many small towns already have colorful murals as a drawcard. But silo art is more imposing. The gigantic murals stop tourists in their tire tracks and beckon them in.
Often, many destinations create unique attractions that eventually generate a lot of attention and draw many tourists. For example: