FORT DODGE, Iowa – Of all the murals he's painted around the world, Guido van Helten said his most recent, on a grain elevator here in Fort Dodge, Iowa, may be the most challenging.
Iowa's cold temperatures made the long days outside feel even longer. He rigged his lift with heaters to keep him and his hand-mixed paint warm. He snacked on nuts to avoid lunch breaks.
But after weeks of painting, the Australian artist said he's nearly finished. The mural, based on photos the artist took of local residents, is believed to be the largest in Iowa.
"I'm interested in bringing this art form, which is already popular in big cities, to smaller places," he said, "particularly to the Midwest, which isn't looked at as a creative place."
The city commissioned the work for almost $132,000 as part of its Northwest River District Revitalization Plan, paid for by grants and donations. The mural wraps around the 110-foot silo.
"This one's probably the most designed mural I've done, in terms of making it 360 degrees," van Helten said.
Van Helten's fascination with old grain elevators has inspired other projects in Arkansas, Florida, South Dakota and Tennessee.
"A lot of places in the Midwest have these, and they are already sort of monuments to that place's history or its industry," he said. "The architecture is purely functional in its design. So I think it's interesting to use them for a decorative purpose."
Using only a few tones of acrylic and aerosol paints, he transforms the concrete towers to look like portraits of the locals he chooses to honor.
He is "very particular" about getting the paint to match his canvas, hand-mixing four shades of brown in a shed near the silo. The paint is smeared across the front of his work clothes.
Other van Helten murals, similar in style to Fort Dodge, are spread across America, Asia, Europe and his native Australia.
Every large mural he paints is "basically just a whole series of challenges," he said, like withstanding the weather, designing around the silo's curves, and adding small details until he's satisfied.
"This one has had additional challenges, but I believe that making murals is mostly a problem-solving exercise, and that's what drives me to do it."
Follow Shelby Fleig on Twitter: @shelbyfleig