Standing Tall: Fort Dodge Grain Terminal Murals
An Australian muralist transforms agricultural landmark into high art.
By Des Keller | Photos By Hope Thier
Locals say they had become so familiar they were almost invisible—as much as 110-foot-tall silos can be. Now, thanks to an artist commissioned by the city of Fort Dodge, Iowa, the old Fort Dodge Grain Terminal has become more than just an overlooked relic of the area’s vital agricultural history.
During the last three months of 2018, the imposing structure on the Des Moines River was transformed into the canvas for what’s thought to be Iowa’s largest mural. Guido van Helten, a 32-year-old Australian mural artist, came to town and spent nine weeks covering the entire surface of the silos with giant photorealistic portraits.
The results are striking. Seven people stand 10 stories tall, holding pottery artifacts in a nod to the 170-year-old city’s early stoneware industry. The artist photographed area residents as his models, then referenced those photos as he created the portraits in brown hues he mixed to match the silos’ natural coloring.
About his first such project in Brim, Victoria, Australia, van Helten says, “It turned into a bit of a concept, where I try to capture the small town, the industry that surrounds it and the farming that is connected to it.” In addition to Fort Dodge and multiple projects in Australia and elsewhere, van Helten has now completed U.S. projects in Faulkton, South Dakota; Nashville, Tennessee; Fort Smith, Arkansas; and Jacksonville, Florida.
“This was our first big public art endeavor,” says Carissa Harvey, Fort Dodge’s strategic planner and a member of the local public art coalition. “We felt like this could be a key for our community, but I don’t think we expected it to generate the interest it has.” The city, using grants and donations, commissioned the work for some $132,000.
The Fort Dodge work, according to van Helten, has been one of his most challenging. It is the first where he designed the mural to follow the multiple curves of the structure, 360 degrees around. In addition, he worked for weeks in a cold and windy Iowa winter, most of the time high atop a lift truck.
You can see many of van Helten’s projects at his website, guidovanhelten.com, as well as on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube (search for Guido van Helten).
Author’s Note: While Guido van Helten’s depictions of people are meant to be representative, not specific, one of the men in the Fort Dodge mural is based on my godfather, 96-year-old Dick Whitcome. He flew an FM-2 Wildcat in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then for years after was the manager of one of the city’s gypsum mining/drywall manufacturing plants.