A towering testament to Mankato’s agricultural economy could rise later this year — if a fundraising campaign finishes up in time.
A local arts group has raised at least $200,000 of the $250,000 needed to bring Australian artist Guido van Helten to town to paint a variation of his striking photorealistic murals on the Ardent Mills silos.
The concrete towers overlook the Minnesota River from downtown Mankato, offering up perhaps the most prominent canvas for an urban muralist in the entire city.
The “silo art project” was the brainchild of the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, a local arts advocacy group.
“For the past six years we’ve been working on variations of a theme with what we could do with the silos,” said Twin Rivers executive director Noelle Lawton.
The search for the right artist ended when someone spotted the work of van Helten, who has remade drab walls and silos into arresting works of art from Sydney, Australia, to South Dakota, Jacksonville, Arkansas and elsewhere.
Lawton said her group’s proposal was welcomed by Ardent Mills, a flour supplier with 40 community flour mills across the U.S. and Canada. The Denver-based company stores wheat in the Mankato silos.
The artist visited Mankato in September and plans to return in June, Lawton said. He researches the local community before painting, but Lawton said she’s not sure how many times he’ll be in town before the mural work is expected to begin sometime this fall.
The fundraising so far has raised about 80 percent of what’s needed, said Kevin Velasquez, an attorney and the chairman heading up the fundraising for van Helten’s work.
“We’re confident we’re going to meet it,” he said.
The group originally hoped to reach its goal by April 1, but with the deadline looming, Velasquez said they’ll be happy to get there a bit late.
Some of the largest donations so far have been matching grants from the larger agricultural firms in town, including Ardent Mills. “In Mankato, we view ourselves as an agricultural epicenter, and this will reflect that,” he said.
A graffiti artist as a kid, van Helten has become known for painting realistic portraits of local people. For a project in Brim, Australia, he painted portraits of four locals onto a collection of six 100-foot-tall silos. It took him about one month to finish, according to an interview with the magazine Instagrafite. For a mural on a set of silos along a river in Jacksonville, Fla., van Helten portrayed two people standing back to back. They were also locals, people he had met at a protest and rally while he was getting to know the city.
A documentary about van Helten’s work, “Portrait of an Artist,” showed him painting a mural on a ship, and in another project he went to Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster that spread radiation across the U.S.S.R. and Europe. Closer to Minnesota, van Helten was in Fort Dodge, Iowa, last year working on a mural on the Fort Dodge grain silo.
A video of that project posted on his Facebook page shows how the mural can be viewed from all sides of the towers, the profile of each character changing slightly from each perspective.
For the Mankato project, it’s not known how many of the silos van Helten will paint or what exactly he’ll put on them.
“There are eight silos available and it really will depend on what the design ends up being,” said Lawton. “These silos represent one of the largest structures in our community. Mankato is really built around agriculture.”