It is nearly midday in Patchewollock, a tiny Victorian town 400kms north-west of Melbourne, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle towing a caravan pulls into a small service lane. Unlike most of the dusty cars in the area, it bears little trace of the dust storms of the previous day.
Retirees John and Louise aren’t stopping to survey the town’s wheatbelt history; instead, they’re on a self-guided tour of unique bush art – painted grain silos, to be precise – billed as “Australia’s largest outdoor gallery”.
“Take a look at it,” says John between puffs of his cigarette.
The silo that looms over the NSW couple, displaying a 15-metre-high rendering of local sheep farmer Nick ‘Noodle’ Hulland, is one of what will eventually be six such artworks decorating the sprawling Yarriambiack Shire.
“I’ve seen [the painted silos] on the caravan and camp trailer forums online,” says Louise. “I didn’t realise we were nearby until we were in Harrow and one of the other caravan people said, ‘You’ve gotta go there!’
“The artwork is amazing. I’ve taken close-ups and the pictures are so expressive they tell a story. Whoever thought it up was a genius.”
Across the road, the manager of the Patchewollock General Store, Julia Barnard, is beaming as she attends both locals and a steady stream of tourists.
“[The council] are reliant on a hell of a lot of grants to do anything else above and beyond their normal business. They’ve got people who all they do is look for grants and create money for little projects to keep communities involved in things.” — Patchewollock publican Greg Wallace
“We never used to have phone signals, so people only used to come into the town to ask, ‘Where am I going?’ ” she says.
“Now, in one day, you get seven to eight cars coming through. People even risked the dust storm yesterday to come through and have a look [at the art].”
But despite the universal interest, and obvious delight of the locals, the future of the Silo Art Trail is by no means assured. The Yarriambiack Council, which backed the project conceived by Fitzroy street art agency Juddy Roller early last year, has no concrete plan for supporting it long term.
While Yarriambiack Mayor Graeme Massey is keen to preserve the current works for as long as possible, Juddy Roller’s founder, Shaun Hossack, has a more ambitious goal: to refresh the silos with new designs over time.
Mr Hossack says replacing artwork is a common practice of street art, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been invested in this particular project.
“Street art is by its very nature ephemeral,” he notes. “We hope to get a good 10 years out of these works. Hopefully, a return on investment can be demonstrated and we can return to paint over the silos with a new set of artworks.”
But the Mayor, perhaps used to a more permanent country landscape, says that when the first silos were completed in Brim, about 100km south of Patchewollock, he imagined they would last “a few decades.”
“We’ve got advertising signs and brick buildings in Warracknabeal that have been there for nearly 100 years and are still readable,” Mr Massey says, wryly. “Given the technology, I mean, I’m no paint expert, but we thought it would be a while before anything would have to be done.”
The recently-elected Mayor made clear that he was happy with the work of Juddy Roller, and understood the need for some ongoing maintenance, but funding an entirely new set of artworks might be a stretch for the shire and its 7000 residents.
“If Juddy Roller is thinking of sprucing things up, we’ll certainly go along with that,” Mr Massey says.
The street art agency specialises in developing large-scale outdoor projects and Mr Hossack says he saw the silo art initiative as a way of drawing attention to the “uniquely Australian” rural communities of Victoria’s wheatbelt, while helping to prop up its struggling townships.
“Up until now, we’ve worked in mostly urban areas and we were looking for something that would set us apart,” Mr Hossack explains. “We thought about what sort of buildings and objects reside in the regional areas and came up with the idea of silos.”
The Fitzroy-based businessman and artist initially found funding hard to come by, but interest developed quickly. Artist Guido Van Helten, who painted the Brim silos in December 2015, and Juddy Roller had worked “pretty much pro-bono” together with the Brim Active Community Group.
The local committee had got in contact with Juddy Roller through agribusiness giant GrainCorp, which ended up providing five of the six grain silos for the artistic endeavour.
Mr Hossack says that after completing the first silo, he had enthused to the shire’s cultural advisor, ‘You should own this, you should be the founders of this program.’
With the project gaining momentum, Juddy Roller tapped a state government Creative Victoria grant, while the Yarriambiack Council secured drought community funding from the Commonwealth, together raising $450,000.
Four of the works have been completed: silos at Patchewollock, Sheep Hills and Rupanyup (both south-east of Warracknabeal) followed the first effort at Brim.
“The buzz in the towns, and the tourists that are coming through, is really obvious to people. For every publican and corner store that gets an extra 10 customers per day, [that] is a huge impact.” — Shaun Hossack, street art agency Juddy Roller
Mr Hossack points to his own personal background growing up in the similarly-rural Benalla, north of Melbourne, as having helped drive his interest in the bush project.
“It’s really important to me to try to enhance the lives of young people who don’t have as many options as those who live in urban environments,” he says. “We wanted to bring something exciting and inspiring to them.”
Mayor Massey is more hesitant about the impact of youth-driven initiatives in the area, acknowledging that rural communities generally have difficulty in holding on to their young people.
“With changing technologies in farming and commercial areas there are fewer jobs than there were 20 or 30 years ago,” he laments. “We still get some staying here but not as many as when I first came out in the 1970s. That’s just the nature of change.”
Mr Hossack says that, with two silos to be completed at Lascelle and Roseberry later this year, there are clear economic benefits for the region.
“The buzz in the towns, and the tourists that are coming through, is really obvious to people,” he says. “For every publican and corner store that gets an extra 10 customers per day, [that] is a huge impact.”
Business owners and managers in Patchewollock and Brim approached by The Citizen echo the view.
Greg Wallace, who owns the Patchewollock Hotel and neighbouring Patche Sunset Retreat, says summertime is normally a flat time for his businesses, but it had been helped by the presence of the silo art.
“It’s changed the whole structure of how we run [the businesses],” he says. “We open up earlier in the day and are open for lunches on Saturdays and Sundays, which we’d never do before because there used to be no one around.
“Last Saturday, I did 15 meals and they were all for people coming to look at the silos.”
Leonie Atkin, who works at the general store in Brim, also points to the silos as a business booster. Thousands of people had passed through Brim over the previous 15 months, she reckons, with the store now selling Silo Art Trail souvenirs, including coffee mugs and postcards.
“All the money goes back into the town,” says Mrs Atkin, who is also a secretary of the Brim Active Community Group. “We use local businesses [from Warracknabeal] to make our souvenirs. It brings locals in, so everyone gets a little bit of money.”
There are spin-offs for the shire more generally. Mayor Massey says that towns without silos are also benefitting from the increased tourism.
“We’ve had people stay at the caravan parks in Warracknabeal and Hopetoun, and use it as a base to not just look at the silos but to go and look at the surrounding towns as well,” he says.
While locals appreciated the Silo Art Trail, Patchewollock publican Greg Wallace understands how precious resources are for the sorts of initiatives that help keep morale and interest up.
“[The council] are reliant on a hell of a lot of grants to do anything else above and beyond their normal business,” he says, half in admiration, half in exasperation. “They’ve got people who all they do is look for grants and create money for little projects to keep communities involved in things.”
“All the money goes back into the town. We use local businesses [from Warracknabeal] to make our souvenirs. It brings locals in, so everyone gets a little bit of money.” — Leonie Atkin, Brim general store
Federal records bear this out. The council received more than $500,000 in funding from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development for six different community projects, including $200,000 allocated to the Silo Art Trail.
Mr Massey says that the scale of a project like the trail, which will stretch more than 200kms when completed, means it has had to incorporate all kinds of interested parties, not just GrainCorp and Juddy Roller.
“There’s groups like VicRoads that have to have input into how the silos are done because of the railways and highways that are adjacent to the land,” he explains. “When it was first suggested at Brim everyone jumped on board. I just don’t think we realised it was going to steamroll us as it has done.
“It’s really taken off and we’re extremely happy with the way that it’s panned out.”
Locals, including Patchewollock’s Ms Barnard, also seem more than satisfied with the project, with visitors coming from far and wide.
“It is good to get people to come out and see what the outback is really like,” she says.