Whilst most grain silos are traditionally used to house hundreds of tonnes of grain, many now house several litres of paint as they have been transformed into rural art galleries and major tourist attractions. The first silos to be painted in NSW was at Weethalle. Natasha Lobban discovers how the large-scale mural is now certainly putting the Central West village on the map.
It could be said that kicking a footy over a huge silo barefoot is an art form. For 25 years, locals and visitors alike have been flocking to the Bland Shire village of Mirrool in the Riverina for its annual ‘silo kick’ to see just that.
Now, just up the road, the Weethalle silos are kicking goals of their own with actual artwork – and it’s a beauty.
Earlier this year, Melbourne-based artist Heesco Khosnaran used 200 litres of Haymes paint and 300 spray paint cans to depict the faces of a shearer and a farmer on the village’s almost-century-old silos.
Now, the whole community is benefitting from the village’s new fame. The local café used to sell about 30 coffees a week – it’s now doing the same number each day. The Weethalle Country Club has even sold out of the 800 stubby holders it had printed.
But no one’s smile is brighter than farmers Paul and Jen Northey, who purchased the silos during the campaign to paint them. Paul is quick to point to the community work and grants that made it happen, but everyone involved says the project is not just a credit to the town, but to the Northey family, including daughters Nicola, Caitlin and Emma.
Paul says he initially wanted a bit more grain storage and took an opportunity to approach GrainCorp to see if they would lease or sell the Weethalle silos. After a lot of negotiations, they eventually bought the silos, with some other community members buying other facilities at the site. It came at an opportune time for the silo painting project as it freed them up of red tape at a point where it was almost deemed not a possibility.
“We jumped at the opportunity to be involved, it’s great for the town,” Paul, who actually also invested more than $10,000 in personal funding towards the project, says.
“It attracts busloads of people and grey nomads in their caravans,” Paul says. “It’s nothing on the weekend to see 30 to 40 people there.”
He’s even been known to show a few curious onlookers around on the inside. It’s a rare opportunity for visitors and he’s as thrilled to share the site as they are to see it.
It was a dream project for talented Mongolian-born artist Heesco, who came to Australia in 1999 when he was 20 to study fine art.
“As soon as I saw it, I’d seen a few done in Victoria, I thought I’d apply for it because I thought it would be good to do something that scale,” he says. He was also keen to get out of the city and bring art to people who would truly appreciate it. “I’m Melbourne-based and it’s good to do something rural. The city can be a bit saturated with art whereas in rural areas it’s kind of relevant. I’m quite happy people are liking it.”
Heesco has painted large canvasses before, but the Weethalle silos were something else, standing at 21 metres high and 30 metres long.
“It was easily the biggest thing I’ve done,” he says. “I’ve done up to four or five storeys tall, but the silos are more like eight storeys.”
He was in Weethalle for about two weeks, with the first three days taken up preparing the “canvas”, which included pressure washing nearly a century of dust and dirt of the silo walls and giving it an undercoat.
“I had to apply paint with a machine to spray on the paint for the bigger areas,” Heesco says. “All the details are done with the spray cans.”
After being shortlisted for the project he drove to Weethalle to see the silos and to soak up the community atmosphere.
“It had to reflect the local community and be relevant to that,” he says. “The local community was shearing and farming, and I wanted to have its long history respected in the artwork.”
The committee didn’t want any local faces to feature on the artwork, so Heesco had to get creative. “I found some images online, the shearer images are from a lady who lives in Adelaide and I got permission to use them,” he says. “The farmer is photoshopped from different images. I mixed it up so it’s a bit of a Frankenstein character.”
The overall tone of the artwork came to Heesco on his visit.
“I was driving around, took some photos, the colour palette came about fairly instantly.”
He really enjoyed himself during the painting process and loved his short stint living in a rural community.
“The locals looked after us pretty well, particularly the Northeys,” Heesco says.
“They’re legends, they’re very nice people there.”
They even helped him out when the boom lift got bogged – all in a day’s work for a silo artist and a community more than happy to band together to create something special whatever it takes.
Paul marvels at the creative talent of Heesco.
“Not many people could do something like this. Unless you stand there and see it you can’t imagine all the details.
“It would be good to get a few other silos painted,” he says.
But it’s not all straight forward. The mammoth task of painting is the easy part.
The Weethalle silos were built in the late 1920s and early 1930s and go 25 feet down into the ground. The silos are on a rail line which was closed 12 or 13 years ago, but many are still on active lines, which can complicate the process.
And despite private ownership, State Rail owns the line right up to the silo, so an application and substation fee had to be paid for the project to go ahead. “It took seven months to negotiate the deal,” Paul says. “Every silo would be all different to negotiate – it’s a long process.”
Bland Shire Council Community Relations Officer Craig Sutton said the Weethalle project started after staff were inspired by the success of the silo art trail in Victoria.
Guido Van Helten created ‘Farmer Quartet’ on the Brim silos in 2015, to many accolades. Tourists flocked to the town and continue to do so.
The success has been replicated across the Wimmera-Mallee, with murals also in Sheep Hills, Patchewollock, Lascelles and Rupanyup already complete, and a new work planned for Rosebery in what is being called a “silo art trail”.
“We thought why can’t we do something like this?” Craig says. “We took it to a cultural advisory committee at council, they were really supportive and embraced it.”
From there, funding of $4,500 was secured from the Country Arts Support Program and West Wyalong Regional Music Group also put $4,500 towards the project.
“I can’t reinforce enough how important the community buy-in and consultation was,” Craig says. “The community has taken real pride in this because they were involved from the onset.”
The Weethalle silos were chosen from the many in the Bland Shire, because it was on a non-operational line, visible from the main street and had safe parking.
A community committee was formed to work on the design and concept that would suit Weethalle.
“Paul and Jenny bought the silos and that was the greatest thing that ever happened,” Craig says. “Not only did they allow us to paint the silos, they put money, time and effort in.”
The silos’ facelift comes at a time when GrainCorp continues to close more silos across the region. “I guess back many years ago, that was a hub in these small communities, around harvest time it was the only time they’d see each other,” Mr Sutton says. “When they close it leaves an enormous void. It’s good to see that they can still bring life and economic benefit to the communities. Our small investment has certainly been returned to the community many times over. On Facebook we reached over a million people when we first put up pictures.”
It’s been a bigger success than the town could have hoped for. “A lot of people had never heard of Weethalle, you could say near West Wyalong or 1.5 hours from Wagga,” Craig says.
Now Weethalle is well-known and people are making to effort to visit. And, the shire is keen to replicate the success, again like the Victorian model.
“We’re having ongoing discussions about doing more silos,” he says. “It’s something we will look at if the right opportunity comes up. Bland Shire is really proud to have the first ones in NSW.”
One unique silo idea that has certainly stood the test of time in the Bland Shire is the Mirrool Silo Kick, where footy fanatics – barefoot if they dare – try to kick a footy up and completely over the village’s silos.
It’s a sight to behold and a key date on the local calendar.
“Mirrool is a really interesting one, it’s definitely the shire’s most iconic silos – that would be an obvious one,” Mr Sutton says.
But it’s on an operational line – an issue that nearly thwarted its 25th annual silo kick in October.
“We had a massive issue with that this year… approval came through with just 48 hours to spare.”
Heesco quips that he would be more than happy to take on painting the Mirrool silos, or other large-scale silo projects in the area.
The project has proven a brush-stroke of genius for Weethalle. Only time will tell if more rural “canvasses” are given the same treatment in future.