Our Place

Bigger Is Better

Episode Transcript

Myf: Anyone born from the 1950s to the 90s knows a thing or two about the driving family holiday. Flights anywhere, especially for a family back then, were hugely expensive, so we didn’t just hop on planes like folk do now. Families would pack the car so heavy the tires looked flat and would drive down long highway for torturous hours on end, to a chorus of eye spy with my little eye, 'are we there yet', and tell (insert name) to stop hitting me.

On those long drives, inevitably there would be a stop at a monument of some sort, large in scale, cobbled together with chicken wire, papier mâché and cement in a sometimes not professional manner. Whether it came in the form of a big Koala, Big Prawn or Big Banana, these creations were a bright spot on an otherwise very long journey for kids and parents alike.

Little did we know these big things acted as a beacon for towns to lure in weary travellers. These big things often represented the town’s industry and brought traffic through a place that may have been trying desperately to survive. But these big things embody so much more than just representing the industry or the novelty; they sometimes embodied a town’s struggles and spoke of a very human desire to leave our mark on a place, to be remembered.

This is Our Place – a podcast that aims to explore exactly what is Australian culture today through the designs of our everyday life. If culture is how we tell our stories to each other, and to share our stories with the world, what is that story right now? And how can we use that story to create a new and positive narrative for the future?

I guess you I could suggest that modern iteration of a Big Thing would be the huge old wheat silos that were transformed into murals painted by renowned artists.

This is Shane Wardel, a farmer from Brim, a small town, population of around 170, located in north western Victoria. They were the first town in Victoria to get one of these murals on one of these silos, and it was so successful it started trend that’s seen silo tours now dotted around the country, bringing people to tiny towns, and money, at a time when it’s most needed.

S: Sorry if I'm a bit jittery, but this paddocks a bit rough across here.

M: that's fine. So you're harvesting it right at the moment. You're in a big, big harvester?

S: Yeah, now I'm in the truck actually.

M: Oh, you're in the truck?

S: Coming the truck driving across the state trying to do the load.

Myf: Shane’s not only a farmer, he’s the Chairman of the Brim Active Community Group, which was the local community organisation who facilitated the very first art mural in the town of Brim painted by artist Guido van Helten. Since then, as mentioned, murals have been painted on silos along a 200-kilometre stretch of highway which is now dubbed the Silo Art Trail. It’s had a huge effect on those regional communities, some of which the highway that used to bring in traffic, bypassed long ago.

While these murals are a little more, shall we say “artistic” and creative than perhaps the more humble and more traditional Big Thing like your big banana or your big pineapple, in essence they share similar traits. They capture the spirit of a community represented in enormous scale.

And Shane reckons it’s had a huge impact on Brim, even though there was some resistance initially. Here’s what Shane says went down at the time they were deciding to paint the local silo

S: Well, we've sort of mulled it over a bit for a start and we thought it can’t hurt that somebody might want to have a look at it. And apparently more than a few people want to come and have a look at it and and it worked out so well. But now we were the first really the first silo this side of Australia.

M: But there must have been some naysayers, surely?

S: I was talking to one bloke maybe a year after it’s done probably, and he should, if I told you back then it was gonna cost you, you know, $20,000 or something I mean, or whatever. He said, 'you never get it done'. He said, Now, as I said, if it cost you that, you wouldn't hesitate, just the difference. A lot of people thought it was money not well spent. But in the long run, I tend to be money very well spent. Which is, which is very good. And if we hadn't done ours, there probably wouldn’t be other ones around too.

M: I wanted your thoughts to, you know, has it changed locals perspective about the value of art? Do you think?

S: Yeah, we think so. I think it is, it's made people realise arts very good for tourism. There's a lot of people out there who are interested in art and don't realise, like when they come and have a look at the size, which is art on a large scale. You don't realise how good it is until you see it, so I think that has changed a lot of people's perspective about art. Perhaps not some art, but that sort of art things you can recognise and understand.

Myf: That first Big Mural in Brim has clearly had a huge impact on the local community. It brought newcomers and art lovers into the town, with all the financial benefits that brings, but from what I can gather, it also changed some of the locals’ ideas about art and the value of art.

But back to the original Big Things, those big koalas and pineapples and which I wouldn’t necessarily categorise as art but they were made by an artful hand and with a massive dose of good intentions. There are still hundreds that dot roads all across the country. Some are loved and well maintained, others are now in a state of disrepair.

Lucky for me, I’ve found someone else with a rather niche obsession for these big things, and that is Amy Clark, who is a senior lecturer in History and the History Discipline leader at the University of the Sunshine Coast. She specialises in architecture, popular culture and identity politics. I’m not sure how Big Things fit into that field of study, but we’re about to find out.

M: Amy Clark as a as a university scholar it seems like an odd choice to be interested in Big Things. Why? Why? What piqued your interest in Big Things around Australia?

A: You know, I'll Um, I'll happily confess that I did it initially to piss some people off.

M: I love that. Tell me more?

A: Well, so I I'm a, I'm an architectural historian by training. And architectural historians are very serious, boring people. And I do not consider myself to be like that. And we have an annual conference that all architectural historians of Australia and New Zealand attend. And a couple of years ago in Canberra, the conference theme was 'quotation', which I just thought, like Honest to God, academics are not helping themselves sell them being cool, because that is the most boring thing that you could possibly have. So I just thought, you know, everyone else is going to talk about Frank Lloyd Wright and nonsense, and I'm just going to stick it to them all. And I'm going to show up and talk about real world quotations of small things writ large on the side of the road. So, you know, pineapple, banana, whatever, as big, big architectural forms. And I genuinely like, was the whole time I was putting it together was like laughing to myself thinking, like, these idiots are gonna hate this. So I'm gonna get. And I, I showed up and gave it and everyone loved it. Everyone was super into it. And all these people that I previously thought were really grumpy, horrible people were like, yeah, this is amazing. Like, this is like, are you writing a book about this? And?

Well, it actually really made me take a step back and look at my own perspective of this, like I I was sort of the hipster making fun of it. And then I realized that actually, it's quite a serious topic, that that people genuinely are invested in and could see merit in and I thought, okay, maybe this, maybe this is something that I should invest a bit more time in.

But it wasn't actually until I wrote a piece called for The Conversation that got picked up by ABC news online about Big Things that went strangely viral. Like, the New York Times and Washington Post were like, sharing it and stuff.

M: Incredible.

A: Yeah, but it was just it that it was it that that was the real moment for me where I thought, okay, I'm actually going to have to put aside all of the stuff that I'm actually an expert in and become an expert in big things.

M: Well, you're a woman after my own heart, because I love Big Things. And and probably, for all the right and all the wrong reasons. It's it's a lot to do with nostalgia for me. And I imagine that for everybody else, as well, we grew up going on family holidays, driving long drives, because no one could afford to fly anywhere. And many towns, as a way to get you to enter their town and spend some money or take some photos or use the loos, they would have a big thing that represented perhaps the industry of their town or something else that was significant historically. And that really taps into that nostalgia of Australia at a time when we were sort of growing and learning about ourselves. Would you agree?

A: Oh 100% and I think this is where my joking love of this topic turned into an a genuine obsession, and it's now it is now a life, it'll be a lifelong passion for me, because I've come to realize that.

M: Join the club.

A: Yeah, it is a very fun topic. But it is also this beautiful reflection of how people have felt and how they still feel about themselves, particularly in more rural areas around Australia that we don't tend to have as many of them in the big cities in Australia. And I mean, I remember growing up, seeing them as well, and thinking they were amazing. And this topic, coming back to this topic, as a grown up, has really opened my eyes to the sort of everyday beauty of these objects as well, which I think maybe as an academic, I'd sort of trained myself not to see because I wasn't wanting to say these are serious things. And, you know, I think the everyday person hasn't had that bashed out of them. And so they still appreciate these objects, as genuine works of art, which, you know, I think people would laugh at me saying, but many of them are incredibly beautiful.

And even the ones that aren't there is this odd attraction that I think we have to them when they're rundown, or they look a little bit sloppy, you know, a little bit thrown together. That in itself is really amazing. You know, I think like, I don't know, whether it's Australia at the Australian sort of underdog, we just really appreciate that these things have been put together by a community and they've stood by them, regardless of how silly they look, or I don't, I don't know what it is. But there's just something about them now that really compels me to want to know more about each and every one of them.

And I think most people feel the same way.

Far from thrown together were the huge murals on the silos in regional Victoria that our farmer Shane Wardel was talking about earlier. Their creation took much painstaking planning long before they were painted. Jesse Holmes has been instrumental in the process and has been involved in getting murals painted on silos all over the State.

J: My name is Jessie Holmes, and I'm the CEO at Yarriambiak Shire Council.

M: And Jesse, how long have you been in the area?

J: So yeah, I'm born and bred across the Wimmera Malley. So I grew up in Dimboola, and then spent some time away for university and then came back to Horsham, Birchip, and now I’m back in Horsham, so I've never really left the area.

M: What brings you back to the area all the time?

J: The landscape, the people, the community. Its home,rReally.

M: Yeah. Well, I grew up in Donald in central Victoria. So at least it was one of the places where I lived. So I know the area well, and I hate to tell you, we used to call Birchip 'birdshit', do you do that? 'Cause we played against them in the footy.

J: Not much has changed! Um, so my mom was born in Watchem and my dad in St Arnauds. So yeah, it's sort of um, yeah, it's a bit of a once you’re from the area it is, the legacy stays and the, the antagonism between the clubs until they merge is usually quite heightened, and then they merge and it's sort of solidarity against everybody else after that!

M: Sports. The winner in the end, isn't it? It is, um, Jesse, so you live. Where do you live Jesse?

J: Yeah, so I live in Horsham.

M: Which is slapback in the centre of the silo art trail and the very first town to get an art piece on the silo was the town called Brim. Tell us about the town of Brim.

J: It's a small community, so the population of Brim would probably be about 170 people in the community and surrounds, and has a very well regarded caravan park, which is a great place to say if you're travelling through. So you, So you come in and to the communities are to the left of the highway, and the silos are to the right, so yeah, so they're, they're quite, they're quite large, okay, it's kind of like hard to give some kind of scale because there's so big, but yeah, they're they're large, kind of large, concrete, circular cylinders. And they're like a faded yellow, because they’ve obviously been in the sun for so long.

I'm trying to just even think of what the the size might be plus.

M: A couple of stories, wouldn't it?

J: Yeah, it would, it would be Yeah, the equivalent of probably eight to 10 stories high,

M: I said a couple, that's a lot, that's huge, and they’re very imposing and they've been there as a sign of, I guess, the the, the agriculture in the economy represents very much what the town was about, didn't it?

J: All and the whole entire Wimmera Malley landscape. So you know, we still continue to produce, you know, an extraordinary amount of grain that gets, you know, used locally or exported and, and whilst maybe the silos aren't used the way that they used to be because things are containerized and moved on trucks and trains and, and storage is happening on farm they’re still scattered across the landscape.

And it's, it's kind of odd, because they’ve been there so long, they're part of the landscape, even though they're not natural, but they look naturally, they're when you're in the landscape, because you're just so used to seeing them every so often as you go along where the old, you know, original kind of surveying, and that took place for towns, you know, the next railway got another set of silos, and then the next railway stop got another set of silos.

So when you're in the landscape, and you're living in the community, you kind of don't even notice them, you become a little bit immune to them in the sense of, you know, you see them so often you're like, Oh, yeah, there are silos at that crossing, or you know, or that location, but you can't really kind of recollect them. It's almost like if you've been on a tour of England, and all the churches start to look the same after a while.

M: Love that comparison that they're like the town's churches. It's such a beautiful idea. It'd be getting people to come and stop in your town which is, I guess, originally what the the Big Things like the Big Pineapple and the Big Prawn would do in in those days. Although In a rather different way. It's kind of it's, it's the not kitsch version of this, isn't it?

J: Well, there is kind of, you know, those big concepts and like I remember, you know, as a family, horrific drive to Queensland, to go and stay on the coast in the car going with my brothers and stopping along those things. No, those Bigs are often, you know, significant community, not just from a tourism attraction perspective, but they signify something significant for the community as well, you know, that it's a large, you know, crayfish area, or it's a large pineapple area, or whatever it might be. And, and I think the solo art trail does that as well. There's the recognition of the agricultural element, you know, there's this new layer around the value of art and what art can do to reflect cultural significance. But there's also this, you know, third layer around the actual works that are on the, on the silos, you know, signify important cultural elements as well.

So, you know, whether it's the silos at Rup with Julia Brockovich were around the recognition that sport plays in local communities, which we joked about at the start, and, you know.

M: It’s huge.

J: yeah, and, you know, Sheep Hills with Adnate is the is the story of Aboriginal Australia's. And, you know, that was in conjunction with Barengi Gadjin Land Council, which is the responsible Aboriginal group for this area with the Wotjobaluk Peoples. So I think that there's, you know, there's a storytelling around the significance that, that big things have always been able to tell that are culturally significant, if not direct, literal translations, and still have really, you know, deep significance in relation to the area itself.

M: Oh, I love it. How does all How did the community of Brim, which was the first community to do the silo art? Tell me about the artwork and how the locals responded to that?

J: Yeah, it was, it was really interesting. So the four people that are depicted on the silos are locals. So there's, you know, they like to remain anonymous, obviously, the locals know who they are. But, you know, it's, it's the, it's supposed to show the kind of multi-generational impact of farming across the community. And there's three males and one female on that, as well, and, you know, some younger and older representations of demographics, as well, as it's, you know, the detail is, is incredible, but it's also it captures, you know, the, the attire like the, you know, the clothing, the hat, just the sun, the unrelenting kind of Malley heat that, that happens as well, across the area.

So it's, uh, you know, the significance is supposed to be around strength and resilience of the local farming community, and I think it really does that, I think it really shows, you know, they've all got this, like, little wry smile on their face as they're going about their business. And it's, you know, it's really around that there's, you know, there's absolutely the economic pressure that comes from farming.

And, you know, there's, you know, there's this kind of whole impact around, you know, not just changing climates, but changing agriculture techniques, and, you know, the fact that as generations take on farming, it's really, you know, really is in your blood eventually.

It's that energy around that as well. And I think, it really does well to capture that succinctly and beautifully, really.

M: But, also too, you know, growing up in those towns, the towns people get to experience art, in a way that that, you know, I can't, I couldn't have imagined in, in my small town, I think it's just wonderful because I mean, art can really help you understand the world, or at least change your perspective, or encourage you to look at, look at things differently. And I love that.

J: So do I! And when you go through the communities, and you speak to them, and they look, they're looking at opportunities to bring people and encourage people to attend the different experiences, then they get to, you know, they get to show off their towns and the things that they're proud of, and they should have the opportunity to do that, because they should be proud of what they've achieved.

M: And it's it's a great area, all of it where you've, you've established the silos and it's a wonderful thing. I love it. I'm a huge fan. I'm going to do it one day. I haven't done it yet.

J: Oh, my goodness, shame on you.

M: I know. I know. Well, you know, I could have done it this year, but…

J: Yeah, well, we welcome you at any time.

Myf: So the next time you drive through a small town that has some sort of Big Thing, whether it be mural painted on a silo or a big brown potato, I want you to stop, and take a look, of course, but I’d also love you to have a think about what this monument really says about that town. I can guarantee you that the big thing says that the town is proud, that they’re resilient, that their industry or the area means a lot to their identity, and they want to share that with you. And most important of all, that and they want you to engage with them. As the world becomes more and more polarised everyday, surely this is the kind of thing we all need?

I also feel Australia’s love affair with the Big Thing won’t ever disappear, because whatever form they might take, they all have the same sort of spirit behind them: To take a wild idea that seems absolutely nuts on paper and run with it… to the adoration of those travelling through who need an excuse to stop for a cuppa and to stretch the legs. And you know what, I’m not surprised that our academic Amy Clarke the big things are here for the long haul...

A: I think that they are really trying to tap into something similar to what Big Things are doing, which is turning something unremarkable about a community and transforming it into something beautiful, and often the art is representing, you know, a local industry or a local motif, although not always I mean, we've had, we have seen, you know, depictions of Jacinda Adern, for example, was painted on one, I think, last year or the year before, right after the Christchurch massacre.

And so they, they are these beautifully big canvases, if you will, that allow the community to express something, you know, whether it is their local identity, or whether it's something that the local artist feels is necessary to communicate at that moment in time.

M: I think it's safe to say we love a big thing here in Australia, don't we?

A: Yeah. And, you know, I think there might have been a moment in time where we had a little bit of a cringe about it. That cultural cringe that we had about many things, perhaps about being Australian. I certainly remember having a moment of like shudering when people when I lived in the UK, and people would ask me about Crocodile Dundee, for example. I think we've all we've all had that experience. But I, I actually think that in the last few years, and perhaps actually with, with the bushfires last year, and then with COVID, this year, I think there has been some sort of psychological shift, where we've started to look more closely at who we are as Australians.

And I think, perhaps we're starting to appreciate these Big Things anew as things to be really proud of, and and to love just for the sake of loving them, regardless of whether they're good or bad. As artworks. I think there's something quite beautiful about the way Australians have embraced these as, as things to be excited about, which I just love.

M: Well, Amy, thank you so much for your expertise. I've loved chatting to you about Big Things. It's one of my favorite, favorite things. So, thank you.

A: Oh, look, anytime you want to talk Big Things. I can talk for hours.

M: You’re brilliant. I love it! I can't believe I found you just by doing a little Google search. And oh, here's a lady after my own heart it’s great.

A: There's not too many of us out there. I’m not the only one. But you know, I'm owning it.