McKinney, Texas gets its portrait painted on a silo. Australian artist Guido Van Helten is known for his large-scale murals, often painted on abandoned industrial sites. Now he's telling the stories of McKinney, Texas, on the sides of its grain silos.

A Texas town gets its portrait on a silo

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Rains are flooding parts of this country. Drought is parching others. Farmers in particular are worried. But as summer turns to fall, a century-old silo is bringing pleasure to one Texas town. An Australian street artist covered the silo with a mural that reflects the town and its residents. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg tells the story.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: I've always liked silos, exotic to this Manhattanite. But Guido van Helten is obsessed with them. He's made them canvases for his art in Iowa, India, Iceland, Britain, all abandoned silos in small towns. The latest in McKinney, Texas, stored grain once. Now the silo's big canisters introduce passers-by and locals to the spirit and people of the town. Guido starts by interviewing and photographing residents.

GUIDO VAN HELTEN: I meet people, try and get a bit of character of the place.

STAMBERG: He sorts through his hundreds of black-and-white photos.

VAN HELTEN: Seeing which ones will fit the space.

STAMBERG: And then he picks maybe 19 pictures and combines parts of them to paint on the 90-foot-tall silo. Painted or plain, silos are landmarks, stand for safe-keeping, sustenance, security. They're storing the future. And by painting some with strong, evocative images, they literally become signs of home. Guido's mural shows several McKinneyans at a town celebration of Juneteenth.

VAN HELTEN: People interacting and moving and walking. And it shows layers.

STAMBERG: A major figure is a pretty, young African American woman, an arm behind her back, looking over her shoulder at viewers. It's an unselfconscious look. She's comfortable where she stands. Guido has themes for his silo art - public housing, education, desegregation. For McKinney, the theme is community. The town is changing. It went from 35,000 to 210,000 in just a few years - Republican, with lots of civic pride, some 30 miles from Dallas off Highway 5, once the main way to go north or south. Mayor George Fuller and other town leaders think Guido's silos could bring together the white, Black and Hispanic population and attract tourists.

GEORGE FULLER: We saw this as a tremendous opportunity.


FULLER: I want to welcome everybody that has come out here to celebrate this incredible work of art.

STAMBERG: The mayor opened a silo ribbon-cutting ceremony the other day.


FULLER: This is a day to celebrate.

STAMBERG: McKinney's economy is diverse - Raytheon, a big copper wire company, hospitals, tech, plus a proud history of production.

FULLER: We were the lollipop capital.

STAMBERG: There once was a flour mill, a cotton mill.

FULLER: We were the blue jean capital of the world at one point. We've done it all here in McKinney, Texas.

STAMBERG: The historic downtown has lots of owner-run businesses and restaurants, plus a concentration on the arts - galleries, musicians - and now Guido van Helten's really stunning painted silos, a salute to the place's past and a new and powerful act of artistic preservation.

Do you make a nice bourbon?

FULLER: Yes, we do. We make some great beer, too.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

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