1 April, 2021 By: Fleur Bainger
Painted across a vast surface of the Wellington Dam in Collie, the biggest dam mural in the world has landed in WA.
Abseiling equipment, suspended platforms and serious grit all played a part – but there’s far more to the story.
You may not expect a world-renowned artist to camp in the bush for four months while he’s creating the biggest dam mural on the planet. Nor might you think he’d dangle from ropes wearing a headlight, painting at 4am.
But Australian paintsmith Guido Van Helten isn’t your typical artist, and nor is the statement piece he coated 8000 square metres of the Wellington Dam wall with.
Reflections, as he’s titled the work, completed in February 2021, isn’t his first mega-mural. The 35-year-old has painted huge, lifelike human images inside a nuclear cooling tower in Chernobyl, coated apartment towers in India’s biggest slum and wore a bullet proof vest while painting a multi-storey building in the Ukraine.
But never before had he tackled a concrete canvas like the one in Wellington National Park, just west of Collie. The 34m-high, 367m-wide wall finished construction in 1960 and forms the second largest dam in Western Australia, after Lake Argyle. It’s fed by the Collie River, which also happens be the source of Van Helten’s inspiration.
How the artist was chosen
Van Helten was selected from a pool of 47 Australian and international applicants, whittled down to six. Unlike the others, he refused to present a mock-up of what he planned to paint.
“Guido was the only one to come back and say, ‘Without talking to the community, seeing the site and getting a feel for place, I can’t give you a concept design. It’s not about me just coming in and painting something’,” says project director of the Collie Mural Trail, Travis Robinson.
The committee chose Van Helten, who then had to isolate in a hotel for a fortnight, after flying in from the United States during COVID-19. He spent the downtime researching and hit the ground running.
“Guido came and spent three weeks talking to individuals in the community, such as members of the Collie Retired Miner’s Association and he had three nights at Roelands Village (a former Aboriginal mission for stolen generation children),” says Robinson.
“He had lots of interest groups vying for their own representation on the wall. Guido met with them all and found what they had in common: use of the waterway and reflections on the Collie River.”
What he came up with is – thankfully - a far cry from what those who birthed the idea originally had in mind. Now retired local member for Collie-Preston, Mick Murray, says the mural brainwave came from our now-Premier, back when he was in opposition.
“About 10 or 12 years ago, myself and Mark McGowan were coming back from the Ferguson Valley and we were at the bottom of the dam. Jokingly - at that stage - Mark McGowan said, ‘That would be a great place to have a mural’. He suggested a photo of me laying across it. It was a light bit of banter, but it stuck in my mind,” says Murray.
Over time, funding was sought, and a steering committee formed, progressively engaging with the community. “We did get some resistance,” says Murray. “People wanted the dam wall left alone, but many of those people have now changed their tune. The arguments about what should be painted on it were many, but I think Guido got it right.”
Designing the mural
Van Helten sorted through countless photographs, stories and pieces of memorabilia before selecting six images to paint in dizzying scale. Looking at the dam wall, on the far left are two of the migrant workers who built the dam, posing as it overflows in the background. Beside them are a couple of local kids playing in the sand; they’re now in their 20s.
The wide, central image is of a handful of Aboriginal children on a picnic day out from Roelands mission; they play in the water with a little girl with blonde pigtails. To the right, a boy handles a fish; he’s now a 20-year-old apprentice at one of the local power stations.
Beside him, a picture of a dad with two kids; the girl to his left, Ashlinn Cain, is now grown up and helped Van Helten on the project. She, and the artist’s friend and fellow artist, Ian McCallum assisted with installing the mural.
The final image on the far right-hand side is of an Aboriginal couple; the original photograph is believed to be from the 1890s.
Travis Robinson says the quality of the finished mural is astounding given the challenges the project faced. Early on, the director was told it simply couldn’t be done.
The first major drama was the lack of stable footings for a scissor lift or cherry picker to raise the artist up. Ideas for using a 250-tonne crane were also shot down. The next hurdle was the shape of the dam wall, which curves both vertically and horizontally.
“Luckily, I found a company in Perth who said they could custom build something,” says Robinson. “If you get the right people, resources and attitude, you can do just about anything.”
The company came up with a pair of 9.5m-wide floating platforms that could rise up and down the concrete surface. They were connected by wires to the top of the dam and could be rolled sideways once vertical sections of the work were completed. It meant Van Helten’s first draft also had to be his final one.
“Usually, mural artists mark out the entire image with chalk first. For this project, that couldn’t be done,” says Robinson. Instead, Van Helten mapped the image on a grid, and used coordinates stored in his phone as a guide.
As the work neared completion, Van Helten clipped into abseiling ropes to move more fluidly for final touch ups. “He spent a week on the abseil using an airless sprayer, which was fed by a hose going into big bucket of paint,” says Robinson.
Complementing the area’s natural beauty was key, so sympathetic colours were specifically mixed on site, for the job – a departure for the artist’s usual black and white palette.
“They blend in with the local granite and the environment. The blue-green jumper worn by one of the girls is the same colour as the moss on front of the wall,” says Robinson.
Not only did the paint need to be durable enough to withstand the dam periodically overflowing, it also had to have a neutral environmental effect so that the river, flowing below, remains unharmed.
Unveiling the mural
The result, best seen up close, is astounding.
Carloads of people have been streaming to the dam and its lookout since the mural has opened, and even before, during its creation. Owners of the Kiosk At The Dam, Diane and Stephen Greville, estimate 5000 people came through on the mural’s opening weekend, and it hasn’t stopped.
On our visit to the 40-seater, there was a queue out the door at 12:30pm and all the sausage rolls and pies – including the layered ‘dam buster pie’ - were sold before we reached the counter.
The pair expect to open a new kiosk with capacity for 260 people and a bigger carpark, later this year. They’ve received a $100,000 grant to make it happen, with the current, heritage-listed kiosk set to house an expanded collection of their for-hire mountain bikes.
“When we took over the kiosk five years ago, we were doing five burgers a day,” says Greville. “Now it’s more than 100.” He says the community loves the mural and the memories it shares. “There was lots of negativity at the beginning, people were worried about change and the influx of visitors. But the now town has enlivened with tourists and the enthusiasm from the locals.”
Exploring the Collie Mural Trail
The Kiosk offers free maps of the full Collie Mural Trail, which has been developed alongside the dam’s mega-mural. The other murals wind throughout the coal mining town, adding flourishes of colour and telling more local stories.
With the $1.5M dam mural project coming under budget, an extra 19 murals were recently added to the trail, totalling 40 works, all done by WA artists.
“To have 40 murals in a town the size of Collie is quite amazing,” says Robinson.
“We’ve had a great mix of creatives involved, from recognised and upcoming, to indigenous and non-indigenous, women and men; we’re proud of the diversity.”
The buzz is feeding into growth for the town, with Dome managing director Nigel Oakley mooted to be working on a new boutique hotel within Collie’s heritage listed railway Roundhouse. There are also plans for a dam wall walk, allowing visitors to walk right across the top of the artwork.
In addition, tens of kilometres of new mountain biking trails are set to open in 2021, extending the region’s new identity as a natural adventure playground.
Owner of Harris River Estate, a winery-brewery-distillery on the outskirts of Collie, Julie Hillier, says it’s a great time for the district.
“What’s really exciting for us, is if people are coming for a day visit, they realise there’s so much to do and they decide to come back. We’re hearing that all around town,” she says. “The mural’s the hook to get you here.”
Eager to see the dam mural up close?
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Image credit: Taj Kempe, Fleur Bainger