The power of art: World-renowned muralist adds his mark to South Dakota grain elevator
FAULKTON, S.D — Drivers heading west on U.S. Highway 212 into this north central South Dakota town this summer have found themselves gawking in amazement at the image of the back of a small boy in jeans and a T-shirt on the Agtegra elevator. The image shows every wrinkle of fabric, every strand of hair and the softness of a child's form, as if a giant black-and-white photo had been pasted to the side of the towering structure.
Aussie Dave even has joked about starting a pool on when the first crash will be.
"Aussie Dave" is David Hedt, and folks in Faulkton call him that to differentiate him from other Daves, and also, more pertinently to this tale, because he's from Australia.
The story of the grain elevator mural starts in a Melbourne pub in 1999, when Hedt first learned of Faulkton. He came to work here a few years later, then left, then kept coming back, eventually starting some businesses and making it his home.
In 2016, Hedt's parents came to visit and drove into town against a beautiful sunset.
"My dad said, 'Why don't you call Guido and have him paint something on your elevator,'" Hedt recalls. "And I was like, 'Well that's a crazy idea but why not give it a try?'"
"Guido" is Australian muralist Guido Van Helten. One of his first big projects was a photo-realistic mural on the Brim Silo in Brim, Victoria, Australia, not far from where Hedt's family farms. Brim, a town of about 300, has seen an influx of visitors and a multi-million dollar impact from Van Helten's creation.
And that was the beginning of the grain elevator mural in Faulkton, a project unofficially believed to be the third largest public art piece in South Dakota, after Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, covering three sides of the 110-foot tall structure. But the story of Faulkton is far more than just a mural. It's a tale of history and hope and passion for community, and it illustrates what can happen when the people of a town "believe impossible."
A history of art
Faulkton, S.D., was founded in 1882 as part of Dakota Territory. It became the county seat when the railroads went through, surpassing predecessor LaFoon, the site of the area's last buffalo hunt.
Faulkton's population peaked at 1,051 in 1960. A graduating class then might have had 60 students, says Troy Hadrick, who sits on the Faulkton Area Economic Development Board. By the time Hadrick graduated in 1994, he was in a class of 14.
The 2010 Census put Faulkton at 736 people — the lowest since 1920. But Hadrick says the town has stabilized and maybe even added a few people and new businesses.
Public art has played a part throughout Faulkton's history. More than 100 years ago, the county paid to have an artist put murals in the courthouse, Hadrick says.
In more recent years, high school students painted a mural filled with town landmarks on the side of the quilt shop. Before that, another mural had graced the same spot but since has been moved to the inside of a little building that houses the town's carousel.
The carousel itself is a work of art, too, and an example of the town's giving nature. A man named Bob Ketterling purchased and restored it in 1981, putting it up every summer to give kids free rides. The carousel now belongs to Faulkton, and the town raised money to shelter the ride for year-round use in Ketterling's memory.
"They're always willing to help, no matter what the case may be. You might not be a member of an organization, but if you have a project going, people are just willing to jump in and help," Linda Bartholomew, a member of the Faulkton Area Arts Council and the Faulkton Area Economic Development Board, says of the townspeople.
Hidden behind the carousel building is a depiction of that last buffalo hunt at LaFoon, brought to life by visiting Nigerian artists, Hadrick explains.
With all those pieces of art dotting the landscape, perhaps Hedt's father's suggestion to turn the grain elevator into a giant mural wasn't such a stretch. It's certainly not outside the norm for the people of Faulkton to expect the best for their town, Hadrick says, noting the town's slogan is "We Believe Impossible."
So why wouldn't an artist like Van Helten, who has painted at Chernobyl and on embassies and huge canvases around the world, want to put his mark on Faulkton, too?
Making the mural
Hedt got in contact with Van Helten, who rented a car and drove up from Florida in fall 2016. Van Helten returned last summer to do research, then came back this summer with a plan to make the Faulkton elevator his next canvas.
That's when drivers started hitting the brakes. Since the organizers of the murals don't want people to disrupt business at Agtegra, they're putting up three viewing stations from which people can gawk. Each will have an educational component, focused on the history of the area, the murals themselves and other features of Faulkton.
The project will cost $70,000 to $80,000 when it's all said and done, and much of the money has been raised already through donations, as well as grants from South Dakota Farm Bureau, GROW South Dakota and the South Dakota Arts Council. Organizers believe it will be a bargain in the long run.
Van Helten is creating the murals as a representation of life in Faulkton, and, they seem focused on the youth.
"There's a half dozen kids in town who think it's them," Hedt says.
And the fact that the giant work is on the center of agricultural life in a town that still derives much of its identity and income from the fields and pastures and corrals that surround it? All the better.
"In a lot of small communities, your grain elevator is going to be the tallest building around for miles, and it's the one you can always easily see," says Hadrick. "And so to have an icon of our agricultural industry in the area kind of be the highlight of the mural and kind of bragging, I guess, if you will, about our agricultural roots and how important they are, I think it's certainly very, very fitting that we celebrate it on our grain elevator."
More than murals
Hedt has traveled more than 20 countries on five continents, but Faulkton "felt comfortable, felt like home."
"This place has way more than their fair share of good people," he says.
Bartholomew agrees. She and her husband moved to Faulkton in 1961 so her husband could work in one of the town's pharmacies. They intended to stay a few years. Instead, they eventually bought and ran the town's pharmacies and made their lives in the town.
Hadrick's family settled in Faulkton in 1916, and he's the fourth generation to farm and ranch west of town. In his volunteer work with the economic development board, he tries to think about what will bring his children back to Faulkton when they're grown.
"I hope it's all these little things we've been working on for a lot of years," he says.
The art is part of it. Along with beautifying the town, the murals provide an attraction to draw people off the beaten path. Faulkton this summer has seen an uptick of visitors who changed routes in order to see the murals. The hope is that visitors will fill gas, grab a cup of coffee or hit the local shops.
"We want people to stop here, take a few minutes, stretch their legs, take a look at all the amazing things we have to offer," Hadrick says.
Faulkton, he says, has "more to offer than just the murals." Tourists may enjoy the historic Pickler Mansion, the golf course, the carousel and hunting opportunities.
But for people looking to make a move, Hadrick brings up the town's community-owned, independent hospital, with a nursing home and assisted living center attached, the new regional jail that will draw revenue from other counties, reliable internet service that provides opportunities for telecommuters, the new housing developments and industrial park, and opportunities for new businesses. Hadrick would like to see more dining options, a meat locker and an auto body shop.
The goal, he says, is for the town to become a "mini regional hub" for all the smaller towns in the region.
In the third week in August, Van Helten was working on the third side of the elevator. More murals will follow — the town now sees a canvas on every blank wall.
Hedt says it's not like everything is perfect in Faulkton. But he's proud of what the town has done in respect to its new centerpiece.
"It's not all beer and Skittles all the time, but it's also really enjoyable to see a project like this come together," Hedt says.