McKinney, Texas, has his portrait painted on a silo. : NPR

Joey Barr/Town of McKinney

I’ve always loved silos. Exotic, for this Manhattanite. But the artist Guido van Helten is obsessed with them. He made canvases of them for giant murals in Iowa, Arkansas, Finland, Jordan, Denmark and his native Australia. He often turns to old abandoned silos in small towns. The last – in McKinney, Texas – once stored grain. Now, the silo’s eight canisters introduce passers-by (and locals) to the spirit and people of the place.

Van Helten begins by interviewing and photographing the inhabitants. “I meet people, I try to get some character out of the place.” He sorts through hundreds of black and white photos, “to see which ones will suit the space.” And then he chooses maybe 20 images, and combines parts of them, to paint them on a silo 90 feet high.

The photos of his project spark thoughts about silos. These are landmarks. They represent custody, sustenance, security. They store the future. And by painting some with strong, evocative imagery, he made them literal signs of home.

Van Helten’s Texas mural shows several McKinneyans at a municipal Juneteenth celebration. “People interact,” he says, “and move and walk. It shows layers.”

Town of McKinney
Town of McKinney

A major figure is an attractive young African American woman, one arm behind her back, looking over her shoulder at the viewers. It’s a casual look. She is comfortable where she stands.

The muralist has themes for his siled art: social housing, education, desegregation. For McKinney, the theme is “Community”. The city is changing. Its population has grown from 35,000 to 210,000 in just a few years. Mainly Republican, with a lot of civic pride. It’s about 30 miles from Dallas off Highway 5 – once the main way to go north or south. Mayor George Fuller and other city leaders believe the silos could bring McKinney’s white, black and Hispanic population together. And attract tourists. “We saw this as a tremendous opportunity,” says the mayor.

McKinney’s economy is diverse: it includes Raytheon, a large copper wire company, hospitals, technology. Plus a proud production history. Once upon a time there was a flour mill, a cotton mill. “We were lollipop capital,” Mayor Fuller proudly points out. “We were the blue jeans capital of the world at one time.” No more mayor pride. “We did it all here in McKinney, Texas.”

In the historic city center you will now find many owner-operated businesses and restaurants, as well as a focus on the arts. Galleries. The musicians. And now the truly breathtaking painted silos by Guido van Helten – a tribute to the place’s past and a powerful new act of artistic preservation.

Almost done, except for one question this reporter just asked.

“Do you make a good bourbon?”

“Yes, we do! We also make good beer.”

Looks like they really did it all in McKinney, Texas.


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