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Silo art paints portrait of pride in tiny country towns

Silo art celebrates St James as the birthplace of grocery chain Coles and its wheat farming history. Photo: Kathy Beattie

By Stephanie Gardiner

St James has one pub, one playground, one pay phone and one major intersection.

Dotted with red brick buildings, the pretty village sits on the plains of northern Victoria, its disused wheat silos a towering symbol of a rich grain-growing history.

Until recent years, passers-by could blink and miss the town of 123 people.

Few knew the blip on the map was the birthplace of supermarket giant Coles, where the the father of its founder GJ Coles opened his first general store in 1882.

“That’s our one claim to fame,” said Kathy Beattie, who has lived in the region for 60 years.

Ravaged by drought in 2018, the community clubbed together to bring their history to life through murals on the silos, which sit across the road from the St James Hotel.

“At that time, people were struggling,” Mrs Beattie said.

“We could not believe the generosity of people, it got the whole area really involved and excited.”

The four murals, which depict GJ Coles and scenes of early wheat production, have put the town on the tourist map while boosting small businesses and bonding the locals.

“It was something the community had done together probably for the first time in a lot of years,” said Mrs Beattie, who is on the region’s silo art trail committee.

The St James murals and those in neighbouring towns are among many on the Australian Silo Art Trail, stretching 8500km from Northam in WA to Three Moon in Queensland.

Some are privately owned, while GrainCorp donates the use of its unused storage sites for the community-driven artworks.

Every February, the agricultural giant opens applications for new silo mural projects.

Weary of stories about rural decline, farming towns see it as a way to control their destinies.

“These towns are often off the beaten track, they’re not on the way to big towns, they often don’t get the same kind of traffic that bigger regional centres would get,” GrainCorp’s Jess Simons said.

“They want to get out there and tell their story: little towns wanting a big voice.”

Artist Tim Bowtell felt the weight of that responsibility when he painted the St James silos in 2019, his first work on such a large scale.

“I had to put down my ego as an artist and be totally open to what they wanted,” Bowtell said.

“I saw how the community reacted, how visitors reacted and watched their interaction.

“It was like they gained a self-confidence about their town and that became important for me to understand.”

Bowtell, who overcame a fear of heights to paint several silos across rural Victoria, said the change in spirits can be instantaneous.

“I love that it’s low-tech in a high-tech world, that people are pulled outdoors,” he said.

“People come and spot for me, to make sure I’m okay and hang around, then other community members come down.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I’ve met more people in these three weeks than I have in the last nine years’.”

 

For many communities, being part of the trail represents more than a boost in pride.

Colbinabbin, west of St James, has brought its century-old wine and picnic event back to life, hosting it at the foot of its bright locomotive-themed murals.

Tourist donations from the site of the St James silos have helped fund restoration of a historic jail.

For Thallon, on the NSW-Queensland border, the transformation has been remarkable.

The outback town was in despair in 2012, when it was facing the prospect of losing its post office.

After artists Joel Fergie and Travis Vinson painted a magnificent sunset mural in 2017, Thallon’s silos were featured on an Australia Post stamp.

“That was a nice symbol of the turnaround,” said Leanne Brosnan, who co-ordinated the project.

The murals, along with an enormous statue of a hairy-nosed wombat named William, bring in thousands of extra visitors every year.

The once crumbling general store has become a buzzing coffee shop, new streetscape projects are under way and the internationally acclaimed Pub Choir performed in the shadow of the silos in October.

“It’s enlivened the community,” Ms Brosnan said.

“People just feel anything is possible now.”

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Ian Meikle, editor

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