Australia's largest open-air art gallery is so vast that you'll need a car and a map to explore it. Deep in Victoria's farming country, the Silo Art Trail consists of grain silos adorned with epic portraits, spread across a distance of more than 125 miles.
Four hours' drive from Victoria's capital, Melbourne, these old grain silos are a fitting canvas for artwork representing the triumphs and challenges of life in the back of beyond. Standing sentinel over tiny rural communities, the painted silos offer a fascinating insight into small-town Victoria. It's a thoroughly unique Australian road trip.
Rupanyup: embarking on Australia's Silo Art Trail
Local sporting heroes on the Rupanyup silo by Julia Volchkova © Nicole Reed
The traffic begins to pick up speed as I drive out of Melbourne. Before long, a lone pie shop and gas station appear – the sum of a town. Crows pick at wallaby carcasses by the side of the road. The sky hangs heavy and velvet, like a theatre curtain.
My first stop is Rupanyup, home to the southernmost work in the Silo Art Trail. A black-and-white mural of two local sporting heroes is emblazoned across a huge grain silo. Painted by Russian artist Julia Volchkova in 2017, each figure has an enigmatic gaze.
There's not a great deal for them to gaze upon in Rupanyup, with a population of 344. Boasting ideal soil conditions in which to grow chickpeas and lentils, Rupanyup bills itself as 'A town with pulse'. When I ask a local in the general store if there's a good place in town to stay the night, he replies with a familiar Aussie refrain – "Yeah, nah" – and urges me to drive on.
Sheep Hills and Brim: portraits of a tight-knit community
Indigenous people by Adnate © Nicole Reed
Some 30km beyond Rupanyup is Sheep Hills, a remote trading post that became a township when the railway arrived in 1886. Tucked away from the main road is the Silo Art Trail's most dazzling piece of work, a violet-flecked group portrait of generations of local indigenous people.
Forty minutes further north, past Warracknabeal (claim to fame: birthplace of Nick Cave) is Brim (claim to fame: a million-dollar bale of fine wool). The township's name comes from the aboriginal word for 'spring', and it's also the source of the trail, the place where the first artwork sprang up. A local community group had become concerned that their decommissioned silo, which dates to 1938, was becoming an eyesore, so they were seeking a way to beautify the space.
"Their thinking was a nice garden in front of it," explains Shaun Hossack, originator of the Silo Art Trail concept. "But we took that a whole lot further with the now famous Brim artwork by Guido Van Helten."
Renowned street artist Van Helten covered the silo with a sepia portrait of generations of Brim locals, which blends harmoniously with the dun-brown landscape. Thanks to solar lighting, it's also the only silo you can view at night.
"We wanted to create work about people, for the people," elaborates Shaun. "Farming is tough sometimes and we wanted to reflect the strong character of the people that engage with this form of work as a living."
Rosebery: harsh landscapes, hardy communities
Farmers and livestock by Kaff-eine in Rosebery © Nicole Reed
Country grit and determination also emanate from an artwork 23km north, in Rosebery, depicting a man and a woman with their livestock. The woman has a confident stance, and meets the viewer's gaze.
"I wanted to reflect what I saw happening in the area," explains the artist Kaff-eine. "Female farmers, even very young ones, were confidently and passionately taking the reins in family farms and running the enterprises on their own."
Meanwhile, the male figure is in a relaxed pose, almost nuzzling his horse.
"I wanted to paint the type of outback masculinity that I feel should be championed," he continues. "The generous, secure masculinity which allows for gentleness, genuine relationships, quiet and introspection."
There's a lot of life in this pocket-sized township (population 100), largely thanks to the multipurpose cafe, gallery and venue known as Mallee Sunsets, which occupies a timber church built in 1920. Maxine Mitchell has owned this building for almost two decades, having rescued it from dereliction. She chuckles as we discuss the impending 20-year anniversary of Mallee Sunsets.
"I'm hoping to make it to 2020," Maxine laughs. Will she be popping some champagne?
"I'll have a sausage sizzle," she replies. Spoken like a true Aussie.
Lascelles and Patchewollock: the end of the road
Artist Fintan McGee's Patchewollock mural © Nicole Reed
My car's fuel gauge is dipping lower as I drive out of Rosebery, but I pay it no mind. My trusty online map has flagged up a number of fuel outposts, so I speed ahead to Lascelles and its double-barrelled silo. Melbourne street artist Rone sought out people who had lived their whole lives in Lascelles, and found inspiration in the merry-faced Geoff and Merrilyn Horman. Their faces, bleached by the sun, now smile gently down on Lascelles.
30 miles further on, Patchewollock takes its name from aboriginal word 'wallah' meaning 'porcupine grass' – something like tumbleweed, somewhat fitting for this lonely place. Standing tall in technicolour is artist Fintan McGee's mural, a portrait of a local farmer with hay-coloured hair set against a periwinkle-blue sky.
I pull up by Patchewollock's sole fuel outfit and general store, where a hand-written sign urges me to call one of two mobile phone numbers. No-one's around. As I ponder a long night in Patchewollock, a lady rushes to my aid, advising that I'll likely make it to the town of Speed, just 12 miles away.
"I'll follow you with my jerry-can," she says, eager to help a stranger whose car is at risk of clapping out on a dusty country road.
The presence of my jerry-can-toting guardian angel acts as a talisman and I reach the Speed petrol station without issue. As she pulls away, she calls out, "Watch out for the emus". The buzz of the petrol pump at my hand, I ponder at how much, in this unforgiving landscape, one is totally reliant on human kindness.
My car kicks up a flare of ochre-coloured dust as I begin the drive back south. The road slices through clusters of silver gum trees, passing a few silos that are unadorned: they seem like blank canvases. With so many stories out here in Victoria's countryside, it can't be long before they, too, are given tales to tell.
Top image: Brim locals by artist Van Helten © Nicole Reed