When I headed out of Melbourne along the A79, I wasn’t expecting to discover anything more than the town that gave birth to the artist and musician, Nick Cave.
The further I headed along the Calder and then the Mallee Highway, I saw there was more to this region than a flat and dry trail punctuated by train tracks and concrete silos.
This is the wheat-belt where times can be hard but determination is always strong.
This is the face on the Patchewollock silo, at the most northern point of the Yarriambiack Council Shire’s Silo Art Trail.
Nick Hulland, or Noodle as he is known in the Mallee, whose wiry yet imposing figure towers above the mallee bush in this sparsely populated town, is a wheat and sheep farmer with a determined gaze.
Noodle, with the physique of a strand of spaghetti, works from dawn to dusk on his wheat and sheep station, yet still finds time to play footy with the local team. “He’s highly regarded around the Mallee”, a local said.
As I drove into Warracknebeal, I noticed a sign quietly announcing it as Nick Cave’s birth place.
The Arts Council and the Yarriambiack Shire Council have recognised the value of the musician’s fame to the quiet town on the wheat-belt. They put the signs up in 2016.
“The most people who visit the town are Cave fans, they come in all ages from 15 to 80 years of age”, the volunteer at the Tourist Centre, said.
Judy Drage, President of the Arts Council, said “Cave was appreciative of the town’s acknowledgement of him and even rang to express his gratitude”.
Unfortunately, Arts Council member Margaret Dart, had missed the call, but was ecstatic when her granddaughter announced during a later visit, that the 89-year-old had three messages from Nick Cave in her voice mail inbox.
Once in the Centre, I was directed to a noticeboard which hung on the back wall displaying the artist’s photo. There were also newspaper articles about Cave and his family.
I read a snippet out of the local paper saying that Cave was born in Warracknebeal in 1957 and that his father was the English teacher at the local school and president of the Warracknebeal Dramatic Society.
His mother had also been a contributor to the local arts community.
Arts council member Margaret Dart, president of the Music Club at the time, told me, Cave’s mother, Dawn, had played violin for the club.
“They were lovely people, who made a valuable contribution to the Arts in the town”, she said.
For others, the jury is still out on the artist. “I don’t know why they bother, he’s been invited to come back but he’s never come”, a local said.
Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds, performed to a crowd of 5,000 revellers in Ballarat during their 2017 Australian Tour.
Warren Ellis, the band’s violinist and Cave’s writing collaborator, was born and grew up in the town.
Cave did not venture onto the Wimmera.
“Don’t forget to sign the Nick Cave visitor’s book, the more signatures, the more likely the council will erect some form of tribute!”, the volunteer at the tourist centre said.
The council has been considering a tribute for some years now. In 2008, Cave offered to erect a large bronze statue of him in the town. The design apparently exists which shows Cave scantily dressed and posed on a rearing stallion.
I made the suggestion of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ tribute in the form of a Warracknebeal four stack silo: “Good seeds on the inside, Bad seeds on the out”. “Yeah we’ll give it some thought” the volunteer said.
Margaret Dart was most enthused. “Great idea, we’ve got some silos on the Minyip approach to the town”, she said.
The Sheep Hills silos’ bold use of colour was striking against the dry landscape.
The imposing six stack mural’s four strong Indigenous faces look out onto Wotjobaluk Land.
“The two children, Savannah Marks and Curtly McDonald, both go to our school”, two women from nearby Horsham said.
They also knew the two elders: Uncle Ron Marks and Aunty Regina Hood, “They are highly respected elders of their communities”.
Uncle Ron, as he is known in the area, is a Wotjubaluk Elder.
I grew up in Dimboola in the Wimmera. This was the time of The Stolen Generation; my mum was constantly on the run dodging the authorities, she brought me up”. Ron said.
Aunty Regina whose sun-soaked yet gentle face appears to emerge from its concrete canvas is also a Wotjobaluk elder.
Aunty Regina is a member of the Goolum Goolum Cooperative which works to improve Indigenous life expectancy.
She also works as a Community Developer in the Horsham Area.
“Tok, as Ron referred to her, is family orientated, she cares about country and our people”. ‘Tok encourages our people to stop smoking and drinking and to exercise; to close the gap in Indigenous life expectancy”, Ron said.
Ron is also a strong advocate for change: “Our mob needs to get its act together and unite. ‘It’s not courses for horses but horses for courses. We need to find the right people to do the right job”. “It’s all about breaking down the Barriers” Ron said.
In contrast to the concrete silos, the faces of the two Rapunyup teenagers, Ebony Baker and Jordan Weideman, are monotone and painted on short, squat metal grain silos.
Jordan is wearing his local Panthers’ Football Club Guernsey. His love of AFL is in his blood. Murray Weiderman, the Collingwood Football team legend, is cousin to Jordan’s grandfather, Noel Wiederman.
Jordan has a strong connection with the Rapunyup area. His great, great grandfather, Charles Henry Weiderman, settled in the area after buying a grain farm after WWI.
Today Jordan lives and works on his father’s nearby farm which his father inherited from Jordan’s grandfather Noel. The farm has seen crop expansion over the years.
In this area, the grain silos that pepper the dry, semi-arid landscape house not only wheat, barley and oats but also pulses including legumes, beans, chickpeas and lentils.
They are suited to the semi-arid soil and dry climate. “The crop rotation provides a profitable and sustainable way of farming”, Sonny Johns, President of the Rapunyup Historical Society, said.
Ebony also has a strong connection with the Mallee. Her heritage goes back five generations; her great, great, great Grandfather, Matthew Baker, was an early settler in the area.
Ebony is also wearing her Panthers’ Club attire; hers is a netball Guernsey.
Russian Artist, Julia Volchkova, simply went to training one afternoon to pick her subjects without any input from the community, Sonny told me.
As I looked up one last time, I wondered if it was strength of character and vitality Volchkova saw in the faces of the two Rapunyup teenagers that afternoon.
‘We’re all mad here’ was written on the door of Boydy’s Café just around from the silos. Judith Heeps, the Cafés proprietor, had her windows decorated by local artist Julia Hill-Smith in the theme of the Alice in Wonderland.
The theme of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is also obvious inside the Café. Judith has a passion for teapots and can boast over 250 vessels of all shapes and sizes.
Judith sells a variety of hot and cold food and drinks. She also bakes and sells her peanut butter and coconut cookies made from lentil flour.
‘We call Rapunyuk a town with Pulse”, “I bake these cookies to show people that you can do more with lentils than a salad”. “Next week I am going to try choc chip also” Judith added.
Judith loves the silo trail which is easy to see by the many posters and newspaper articles she has on display.
“The art trail has saved my business; I have people from all over Australia as well as abroad in here”. “I even had a woman from Singapore who had seen the Master Chef Series in which the silos appeared”. “She just had to see them during her holiday here”, Judith said.
Judith knows the Silo Art trail well. “Don’t forget to visit the bathroom before setting off, there aren’t any toilets at the Sheep Hills Silo”, she warned a customer before leaving the Café.
“Then I had better wait a while; I’ve just taken a fluid tablet”, the woman replied.
As I left the Silo Art Trail and the Wimmera, with a smile on my face and Cave’s latest ballad in my ear, I felt inspired. I had not only learnt a little about Cave the artist, but had also discovered an area whose vision to use grain silos as modern canvases and grow ancient grains from arid soil, is bringing the pulse back into The Wimmera-Mallee.