MANKATO – Guido van Helten pulled his Ford Ranger truck up to the 122-foot-tall concrete silos overlooking this south-central Minnesota city last week and scanned the gray clouds on the horizon.
The pounding rain had stopped, but bone-chilling temperatures and wind gusts of up to 36 mph threatened to keep him from working on the massive mural he was hired to paint on the Ardent Mills silos next to the Minnesota River.
“I think I’m going up,” van Helten said, pulling on a knit cap and gloves.
He secured a harness around himself and hooked it onto an open metal basket lift that he would pilot up the silos where his monumental artwork was just beginning to take shape.
Working close to the concrete silos with a spray gun and a brush, van Helten layered on paint that from afar would look like a photograph.
Van Helten is a 32-year-old Australian who has built an international reputation for his photorealistic murals in his homeland, Europe, Scandinavia and the United States. He immerses himself in a place before settling on a theme that reflects the location and its people. Before deciding on a theme for his Mankato project — one of his largest murals to date — he made two trips to the city to photograph and spend time with its people.
He’s also collaborating with local photographer Sara Hughes, who has captured images illustrating the city’s diversity and inclusive activities. Hughes also is documenting van Helten’s work, which will wrap around the silos so that it’s visible from the city center and from Hwy 169.
While he won’t reveal his final sketch for the project, van Helten said it was influenced by the “Education Day” activities at the Mahkato Wacipi, or Mankato Pow Wow. The annual gathering honors the 38 Dakota warriors hanged in 1862 by the U.S. government at the end of a brief but bloody uprising. The pow wow festival symbolizes reconciliation.
“I don’t want to give away what the mural is but the general theme is this pow wow: It’s very much open to the whole community and it’s very inclusive,” van Helten said. “I hope it’s representative of what makes this town unique and what makes Minnesota unique in comparison to the other murals I’ve done.”
Painting murals on silos has become a kind of subgenre of the street art scene, said van Helten, who got started as an urban tagger in his hometown of Brisbane. After graduating from Southern Cross University with a degree in printmaking, he developed interests in travel and photojournalism, which influenced his murals and their emphasis on regional identity.
Van Helten’s paintings grace silos in Faulkton, S.D., Fort Dodge, Iowa, Nashville, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and a feed mill in Fort Smith, Ark. He says the themes “all speak to the area.”
While agriculture plays a major role in the broader Blue Earth, Nicollet and Le Sueur counties region that Mankato intersects, farming won’t be a strong element in van Helten’s Mankato project, he said.
“I think the silo itself is a monument to that sort of industry. I don’t need to rehash that,” van Helten said. “What I’m trying to show, especially in Mankato now, it’s got a young population and a university here and it’s very diverse. This, I think, is worthy of showing off because it’s really a very cool town. I’m making this for this town. I’m also making this for an audience that is not from here. I want people to look here from the outside.”
The $250,000 project was privately funded. Hughes said all of the parties involved have approved van Helten’s design. She said he expects to complete the painting by the end of the year.