Do you drive past or through small country towns and wonder what on earth sustains them? What keeps them ticking over? Why are they here? A lot of country towns in Australia are doing it tough – thanks to drought; debt; lack of employment opportunities; or simply by being bypassed by the highway. Benalla, in north east Victoria, suffered the highway bypass many years ago and became too easily forgotten by many motorists roaring up and down the Hume Highway (or Freeway as it is now called).
Once upon a time the town was known for its beautiful rose garden, but now, through the initiative of some creative locals, it has seized the mantle as the self proclaimed Street Art Capital of Australia. In 2015 this group of locals got together, and with the help of generous sponsorship from local businesses and residents, created The Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival. The idea was simple and drew inspiration from towns such as Georgetown in Penang – let’s invite street artists to the town, give them a wall, some paint, accomodation and food and let them loose over a weekend. And the result in that first year was 14 murals created by some of the world’s most renowned street artists. Despite some initial resistance from residents, the street art idea has taken root and the Wall to Wall Festival has become an annual event. But, it is not just confined to street art. Not to be left out, some of the old wheat silos in the region have also been used as large scale canvases. So, in short, there is now plenty to see in the little town of Benalla, providing a real reason to detour off the Hume Freeway.
We launch our latest adventure with lunch at Fowles Winery at Avenel (corner of Hume Freeway and Lambing Gully Rd). Fowles is a routine coffee stop stop for us when making the 5 hour trip up to Mt Hotham, but it has been a while since we have eaten there. The menu offers plenty to choose from, and it was all yummy, and delightfully washed down with a glass of Fowles wine. The winery is undergoing expansion works so the front looks a little barren, but someone in the landscaping department obviously has grand plans as there is now a monumental wooden archway dissecting the carpark. It will be interesting to follow its progress over the years.
From there it is on to Benalla, but we don’t stop in the town. Rather, we are on the hunt for the newly painted silos. First up is the tiny hamlet of Goorambat (population 347, some 20km beyond Benalla), and the painted silo of the Melbourne street artist Jimmy Beattie, known as Dvate. Dvate’s passion is for endangered species, so his chosen subject is a portrait of Milli, an Australian Barking Owl he met at Healesville Sanctuary. The Barking Owl is the most threatened owl in Victoria but Northeast Victoria remains a stronghold for this endangered species, so the silo seemed like a fitting place to put this image.
But little Goorambat doesn’t just boast a Dvate artwork on its silo. It also has a beautiful Adnate mural, entitled Sophia and painted during the 2017 Wall to Wall Festival, in its tiny Uniting Church. The Adnate mural has helped create an amazingly beautiful space, both physically and spiritually, in this humble chapel.
Then it is on to the even smaller town of Devenish and the silos painted by Cam Scale. Cam took as his inspiration the town’s connection to WW1, when one in six of this small community signed up to serve. Of the 50 that went overseas, seven did not return. The town wanted something to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war, but also hoped for a memorial that might draw tourists to this somewhat down at heel little town. The community raised $20,000 to fund the painting of the silo, and are thrilled with the result.
There is yet another painted silo a further 23km up the road at the town of Tungamah, but we didn’t find that out until the next day so shall have to leave that for another time. Apparently the Tungamah mural is particularly noteworthy for the fact that the artist, Sobrane, painted the mural freehand, working from a one page sketch (more typically, works of this scale are done using either projection of the image onto the surface, or using grid markings to guide the artist’s hand).
We return to Benalla and arrive at our Airbnb as the cold evening air is beginning to take hold. We are relieved to discover that our host has already turned on the heater, which has taken the chill from the air. We have decided to dine in as we were reluctant to leave the warmth, and we are very lucky in that decision as we discover the next day that the town’s main restaurant, Georgina’s, is closed due to a fire suffered some 5 weeks earlier. Instead, we enjoy a fireside feast of our own making, complete with a bottle of sparkling and a bottle of The Inception Cabernet from Fowles Wines.
Our beds are comfy and we awake to a crisp but bright sunny day, which is fortuitous as we have booked ourselves into a Street Art walking tour, starting at 10.30am. After a get me started coffee at Rustik Café, we meet our tour guide, Lindsay from Visit Benalla (visitbenalla.com.au), at the appointed time and place. The place is beside the Benalla Ceramic Mural, and Lindsay tells us a little of its history. The mural was commenced in 1983 but was not completed until 2010. While local artist Judy Lorraine had a big hand in its creation, there are tiles made by residents and school children, as well as people such as the famous cartoonist Leunig. A bakers oven once stood on the spot, and this too has been captured within the mural. Overall, one can’t help thinking of the whimsical work of the celebrated Catalonian artist , Antoni Gaudi. It certainly rewards time taken to explore its nooks and spiralling crannies.
Lindsay was one of the founding members of the Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival committee, so is well placed to introduce us to the key pieces around town, and to let us into the tales behind both the art works and how the Festival came to be. It is quite fascinating to hear the inside gossip; to hear more about the artists and their way of working; and to learn which murals find favour with the locals and which don’t. We spend a very enjoyable 2 hours wandering the town and admiring the walls.
At the end we are in need of sustenance so head back to Rustik Café for lunch and a much needed sit down, before crossing over the bridge to look inside the charming Benalla Art Gallery, a small gem of a regional gallery sitting beside the banks of Lake Benalla .
The Gallery has its own café, a small shop and two gallery spaces. The first has an exhibition of works from the collection, entitled Ornament and Subject. One beautifully intricate work particularly takes our fancy (but I forgot to take note of the artist, many apologies to him or her).
The other room is showing works by Peter Waples-Crowe and Megan Evans, entitled Squatters and Savages. The works are clever and visually arresting reflections on the impact of colonisers on our Indigenous people. I found it quite moving.
We finish off our Benalla visit with a quick look around NEA, the North East Artisans store on Bridge Street East. We haven’t seen all Benalla has to offer – the artworks in the nearby Winton Wetlands will have to wait until our next visit – but it is time to climb into the car and make the 2.5 hour trip back to Melbourne. But before I go I take another look at one of my favourite civic buildings – the old Benalla Shire offices, built in 1958 and designed by architects AK Lines, MacFarlane and Marshall, which has thankfully been recognised for the modernist gem it is and beautifully restored and placed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in this town that could take on and own the identity of street art capital of Victoria.