For about an hour now, I’ve been driving through the khaki plains and golden pastureland south of Mildura. Every few kilometres or so, I spot silos – clusters of stainlesssteel cylinders set in fields or flanking the edge of the road. Normally, I’d coast right past them but not today; silos are the reason I’m here.
I’m heading to the Silo Art Trail, a touring route in Western Victoria’s Wimmera Mallee region that links six decommissioned agricultural giants, each reimagined as a modern mural. Stretched over 200 kilometres of rolling paddocks and country roads, they form Australia’s largest outdoor gallery. They’re in places city slickers are unlikely to have heard of: Patchewollock, Lascelles, Rosebery, Brim, Sheep Hills and Rupanyup. I admit, before setting off on this trip, I had to look up each town to get my bearings against the more familiar regional centres of Mildura, Horsham and Ararat.
But I did know that silo art was a “thing”. Since the country’s first daubed storage tower was unveiled in Western Australia’s Northam in 2015, the trend has steadily grown. Painted grain silos now exist in farming communities around Australia but Western Victoria is the first to have a dedicated tourist trail (though one is in the works in WA).
The silos here date back to the 1930s and had been out of use for up to 20 years before being repurposed. The idea for the trail began with one artwork – the Brim silo. Shaun Hossack, founder of Melbourne street art agency Juddy Roller, and one of his top artists, Guido van Helten, worked with locals and agricultural company GrainCorp, which owned and donated the silo, to bring the first mural to fruition. In early 2016, Guido’s quartet of farmers was unveiled, prompting calls for more like it. A year later, the six-silo trail was ready.
Image credit: Silo in Rosebery, painted by Kaff-eine; Nicole Reed.
My poor regional geography notwithstanding, I have high hopes as I approach this outdoor art show. I slow down at a series of concrete roadside hulks north of Patchewollock, assuming I’ve reached the start of the trail. “Is this it?” I think. When I finally do reach the Patchewollock crossroads and glance to the right, I realise how ridiculous all my braking has been. I’m still about a kilometre away when I spot the canvas I’ve been looking for – the outline of a sunworn face and the crosshatching of a blue plaid shirt are vivid above the treetops. It looks like Jack’s giant has made it down the beanstalk.
When I reach the base of the silo, the explanatory notes there tell me this is a rendering of local sheep and grain farmer Nick “Noodle” Hulland. It was fashioned by renowned Brisbane-based street artist Fintan Magee, who later tells me that despite the unusual canvas, the piece took him just 13 days to complete. “Painting a cylindrical structure was pretty challenging and the sun and wind made it difficult working in the lift at times,” he says. “I’m also not used to being in such an isolated place – luckily the silo was close to a pub so the local farmers kept me entertained in the evenings.”
For Fintan, it’s been an important undertaking. “Projects like this bridge the cultural divide between regional towns and urban centres. I like working in smaller communities because the people have a different sense of pride and take ownership of the work.”
Image: Adnate’s Sheep Hills portraits, above and top.
A group of septuagenarians ask me to take a photo of them in front of Fintan’s work. They left Horsham early this morning and are following the trail in the opposite direction – south to north – so this is their final stop. I ask them how they’ve found it. “Amazing!”, “Wonderful!” comes the chorus in response before the group troops across the road in the hope of a cuppa from the general store.
It’s a similar story in Lascelles, about 30 minutes’ drive south, where the 30-metre-plus portraits of locals Geoff and Merrilyn Horman, created by Melbourne artist Rone, have a pellucid, gossamer quality that’s both haunting and beautiful. I encounter two blokes, the elder with a thick white beard that city hipsters might envy. “Fantastic, aren’t they?” he says to me. Another traveller tells me that his group of five has “stopped at each town for a cup of coffee or something. We thought if we could spend a bit of money, it’d help out the locals.”
I follow suit, making a pit stop in Hopetoun, between Lascelles and my third silo at Rosebery. The small town has a few cafés, including J & C Wellington Butchers and Cheryl’s Cafe (03 5083 3313) – a convenient two-in-one for anyone self-catering, camping or just after road-trip fare such as warming toasties and creamy flat whites.
The Silo Art Trail website says the whole thing can be tackled in two hours but that would mean no stopping along the way – no cosy cups of coffee beside wood fires in butcher-shop cafés, no pots of ale at local pubs (like the Hopetoun Community Hotel; 03 5083 3070) and no poking about in the backyard art galleries that also line the trail. And so I take my time, cruising past the original opus in Brim and the etched stylings in Rupanyup.
The portraits in Sheep Hills, finished in late 2016, are particularly impactful. The supersaturated rendering by Adnate (renowned for his portrayals of Indigenous Australians) depicts Wergaia Elder Uncle Ron Marks, as well as Wotjobaluk Elder Aunty Regina Hood, with two young children, Curtly McDonald and Savannah Marks, against a brilliant night sky.
The trail is populated with all your regular art viewers: there are the rushers, who barely slow down to take a snap from the car; the cruisers, who spend a few moments gazing but move steadily through; and the scrutinisers, who stand silently before approaching the base to examine it more closely. Regardless, at each stop people chat about their favourites and swap tips about the hotels and camping sites, cappuccinos and pubs they’ve loved along the way.
My own weekend includes a detour to Laharum, about an hour’s drive from Rupanyup, where I swing by the 70-year-old grove at Grampians Olive Co. If you come at lunch, they serve a delicious platter of local salami, cheeses and crusty bread alongside the property’s exceptional olives and oils. I also spend time sampling awardwinning drops at Norton Estate Wines, south-west of Horsham – the Arapiles Run and Rockface shirazes are both worth investing in. And I discover a charming café, Horsham’s Nourish’d Eatery, which serves a zesty smashed avo toast for brekkie.
Image credit: Norton Estate Wines cellar door; Nicole Reed.
Then there’s the knockout dinner I happen upon, also in Horsham, at Baa 3400. Owners Hugh and Nicole Goldson have managed to create a buzzy, convivial feel at this hotel restaurant. “We didn’t want to be another pub; this town has pubs,” Hugh tells me. “We wanted to do cool, casual dining – to be the first cab off the rank for citystyle food here.” I order the salmon rillettes, a smoky dish with a subtle onion-y crunch, served warm and garnished with pea shoots for sweetness. It’s the kind of dish I’d expect at a hip laneway bar.
The next day, I make two more stops: the first at the excellent Horsham Regional Art Gallery, which includes works by the likes of Fred Williams, Rupert Bunny and contemporary photographer Christian Thompson. The second, like the Silo Art Trail, is an outdoor gallery but of a more ancient kind: the Gulgurn Manja Shelter in Grampians National Park features Aboriginal rock art by the Jardwadjali people. Protected from the public by a fence, the small collection of emu tracks and handprints is on a ledge that takes in beautiful views of rugged ochre-tinged rock outcrops, the face of Mount Zero and low, dense bush that gives way to sheep and cropping operations.
It’s here that I realise what these outdoor galleries deliver that an indoor one never can: the whip of a country breeze, the engine sputter of far-off tractors, the flap of birds’ wings and the great Australian landscape with its eucalypts, pastures, livestock and vast blue sky.
Where to stay
This family-run lodge is warm and sophisticated, with large rooms, nourishing home cooking and striking views of the Asses Ears rock formation and Wartook Valley. Located on the edge of the Grampians National Park, it’s ideal for those who want to add a morning hike to the schedule.
Horsham International Hotel
Clean, contemporary and convenient, this 52-room stay in the heart of Horsham puts you in walking distance of the Regional Art Gallery, Wimmera River and Horsham Botanic Gardens. Don’t miss the hotel’s bar and restaurant, Baa 3400.