Locals bring artists to town to capture the vibrance of the small agricultural community of Faulkton, S.D.
Across America, small rural agricultural towns are losing young people at a rapid rate. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent population estimates, rural populations have declined for six consecutive years, dropping by 21,000 people in 2016 alone.
This population decline can be attributed, in part, to a shifting geography to urban areas where jobs, schools, retailers and other opportunities are abundant. What’s more, fewer young people are staying involved in production agriculture, which has impacted farming and ranching communities.
That’s the challenge of small towns in South Dakota and the surrounding areas. What’s the best way to retain young talent, support local businesses and economies, keep schools open and revitalize the agricultural community?
Unfortunately, that question isn’t always easy to answer, and many once-thriving rural communities have become ghost towns as a result.
For the community members of Faulkton, S.D., that familiar fate is not an option. The small South Dakota town — population 740 — is constantly seeking ways to remain relevant in today’s rapidly-changing societal shift to urban areas.
And while agriculture and hunting are primary economic drivers for Faulkton, a focus on the arts has helped maintain community vibrancy throughout the years.
“The Faulkton Area Arts Council (FAAC) has always focused on keeping art education in our school,” said Crystal Kopecky, who manages the social media account for the FAAC. “For more than 40 years, the FAAC has organized numerous art-related events each year including one-act plays and bringing in artists who work with our students.”
Of the many projects the FAAC has spearheaded over the years, two murals completed in town during the summer of 2018 may prove to be the most memorable.
The local grain elevator — owned by Agtegra — was the location for the first mural, painted by world renowned Australian artist, Guido Van Helten. Brought to town by David Hedt, best known around town as “Aussie Dave,” a local businessman who grew up in Australia not far from the town of Brim, Victoria, Australia, home of van Helten’s first major art project, a realistic portrait painted on the side of a silo.
“Aussie Dave introduced our community to van Helten, and we all thought that our elevator in town would be a great medium for him to paint on,” said Stacy Hadrick, a Faulkton area beef producer. “Once the project got rolling, none of us knew exactly what Guido would be painting or what the finished project would look like. It really created a lot of buzz and excitement throughout the summer as he worked.”
On July 27, van Helton began his work, painting 10 hours each day on the large structure in the center of town. Interested viewers could watch his progress on a live feed posted on the Faulkton Area Economic Development website. He completed his work on Labor Day weekend.
The painting wraps around three sides of the 110-foot elevator and is considered to be the third largest art structure in South Dakota, behind Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.
“Until people come see the elevator, I don’t think they realize the magnitude of this project,” said Kopecky, who documented van Helten’s work with photographs, which will be compiled into a book and released later this fall.
Kopecky said the price of this massive mural was $77,000, with $20,000 coming from grants from the South Dakota Farm Bureau, Grow South Dakota and the South Dakota Arts Council. Additional funding has come from private donations from the community, and the project is still seeking support. Interested donors can gift dollars here: http://www.faulktonsd.com/our-community/elevator-mural-project
So what does the mural depict? That was the hot topic of discussion as Van Helten painted on the structure, but the final work revealed a boy and a girl passing cowboy hats to one another. These sizable portraits are lifelike, with every wrinkle in the shirt, tendril of hair and chubby, youthful cheeks captured. From afar, the felt cowboy hats even look a bit fuzzy, making the life-like image really come to life.
“It’s crazy, but the paintings are so lifelike that they almost seem to move throughout the day as the sun shifts on the elevator,” said Kopecky. “I’m not sure if that was Guido’s intention or not, but the paintings are almost alive. It’s incredible!”
What inspired van Helten for this mural? He says he bases his paintings on the local industries and community members. In Faulkton’s case — agriculture played a large role in Van Helton’s final masterpiece.
“There is some symbolism in the moving of the hats,” said van Helten, in an interview with Twenty Acre Farms, with many perceiving it as the next generation of agriculturalists taking the lead in the community. “The concept involves everything about the elevator, the small town, the industries that surround it and the farming that connects it. In the use of different people, it doesn’t matter who it is, but these monuments represent community. You can see this elevator from every part in town, and I want people to drive through here in ten years and say ‘this is special.’
There are three viewing stations throughout town for tourists to enjoy this monumental piece of art.
A second, smaller mural was painted on the outside of the Faulk County Museum this summer. Titled, “The Last Wild Buffalo Hunt,” the mural depicts the final wild buffalo being shot in Faulk County by a man on horseback in 1883.
Painted by Nigerian artists, Jonathan Imafidor and Dotun Popoola, the colorful mural joins several other murals spread across town, including one in the “carousel building,” a few in the courthouse and another on the side of the quilt shop.
Imafidor and Popoola were introduced to South Dakota by artist John Lopez, and they had recently completed a project in Lemmon before heading to Faulkton.
“The work that we do revolves around humans, animal and nature,” said Imafidor, in an interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting. “What I’ve discovered is the virtues that you find around here — the way people love animals, love nature and love family — those are the things I grew up with and are part of me.”
The mural captures the “spirit” of the buffalo. Popoola describes how they depicted this in the mural.
“We wanted to create three tiers — one of the living buffalo, one of the dead and the sacred ones, as well,” he said. “A lot of people are losing touch with history and things that have happened in the past. With this, it can inform and educate the young ones and the community about the history.”
“The response to this has been incredible,” said Kopecky. “We celebrated the mural with a ribbon cutting in early October, and on Nov. 17, we are hosting a red carpet event at the movie theater where the community can watch a 30-minute video that features drone footage and interviews from the elevator project. We’ll sell tickets to the viewing, and the two local bars will serve drinks and appetizers. It’s just another way the arts are supporting the local community and area businesses.”
“Faulkton is right along Highway 212, and it’s often the route people take to get from the Twin Cities to Yellowstone National Park,” said Hadrick. “It’s our hope that more travelers will stop in Faulkton to enjoy the beautiful art and great businesses we have in town.”
With all of the buzz surrounding the murals, people are flocking to the town, and local entrepreneurs are reaping the benefits. Carrie Dieter recently opened up a boutique hub called, “The Shops,” which invites local businesses to display their products, which range from woodworking to home decor to clothes and jewelry.
“The murals have definitely had a positive impact on the local economy,” said Dieter. “The amount of traffic that we get to The Shops because of the mural is incredible. Saturdays are generally just people from out of town who are coming to see the mural.”
“The positive buzz around town while it was being painted was wonderful,” added Shauna Remily, owner of R Duo Designs, a custom woodworking business in Faulktaon. “Now that it is completed, I think everyone is excited to see the economic impact it will have. It was great to see our community come together and make this happen. The mural on the elevator as well as the other murals around town only add to the wonderful list of things Faulkton has to offer. The people who live here have a lot of pride for our small community.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News