Guido van Helten transforms OK Foods grain towers into works of art

Story by John Lovett:

Guido van Helten’s stunning portraits at OK Foods’ grain towers in Fort Smith have transformed three mundane agricultural buildings into artistic monuments that celebrate diversity across the ages.

Painted over the course of two weeks in September, prior and during The Unexpected Project: 2016, the triptych sponsored by OK Foods prominently feature a company legend, Gene “Beck” Beckham, and two other locals: Kristina Jones and Edward Paradela.

Beckham was associated and worked with OK Foods for more than 70 years, beginning in the 1940s when it was still OK Feeds. The landmark grain towers, which OK Foods calls “finished feed load out towers,” were constructed in the 1960s.

A telling sense of pride exudes from Beckham’s expression in the 100-foot-tall mural.

“I was proud of it,” Beckham said of the mural. “It was something different. Something way late in my life that I’ve enjoyed.”

Beckham described OK Foods as a “home” to him, where he has been for most of his life.

“Only time I was gone was in the service, and then right back to work,” Beckham said. He started out sewing sacks and then unloaded train cars of grain with a shovel. He also worked in maintenance and managed the mill for about 40 years.

“Had a lot of boys that worked for me. Hired a lot of boys,” he said.

Spanning the generational gaps from one feed tower to the next for the OK Foods triptych murals are a young African-American woman, Jones, and an Apache man, Paradela.

Where it belongs

Van Helton, who had already gone on to his next project by Thursday, says in a documentary film by fellow Australian Selina Miles that he only travels to certain places to paint, whether it is a town in northern Iceland to paint a portrait on a ferry or to a nuclear ruin at Chernobyl, Russia. Although he may not know exactly where he will be traveling to next, he always aims to capture a feeling from the people and the places in his portraits.

“Before I create a work I really want to learn about the people who live there,” van Helton says in the documentary. “I want to really try and develop a work that speaks to them and it belongs there even though I don’t belong there.”

Ruth Corbin and Denise Tobin of Fort Smith caught on to van Helton’s work on the towers early, stopping by to watch the artist work when he started Aug. 30. They returned regularly to watch his progress and were back Thursday, parked across the street from the mill at Mason’s Automotive Collision Center, 401 Wheeler Ave., admiring the finished portraits.

“It’s great from the community,” Tobin said. “The festival, both last year and this year, got a lot of people out seeing the town.”

The business neighbors also approve.

Rod Stufflebeam and Niles Johnson at Rod’s Paint & Metal, 423 Wheeler Ave., both agreed the murals “improved the scenery” and increased foot traffic. Johnson said he watched van Helton use spray paint and a roller to develop the intricate folds of clothing facial features of his subjects. Rudimentary tools are coupled with more high tech ones, like a cellphone, to create these masterpieces.

Van Helton can be seen in the documentary using his phone to zoom in on a section of the image he is painting. His spatial reasoning brings it all together in a surprisingly proportional work of art.

Jordan Johnson, a spokesman for OK Foods, said OK Foods CEO Trent Goins was “inspired” by the impact of the first Unexpected Project in 2015 and wanted to supply three of the tallest structures in downtown for an artist in the 2016 event.

“As a lifelong resident of Fort Smith, I am really excited about the cultural progress being made in our downtown area,” Goins said in an email. “Over the years, I have been inspired by the art, murals and sculptures associated with The Unexpected Project, which is literally transforming our downtown area.”

Goins went on to say that the historic feed mill is “one of the tallest yet unassuming structures in downtown” and was “a perfect way for OK Foods to contribute to the artistic and cultural growth in the area through The Unexpected Project.”

Goins also said the company was delighted that one of the murals is Beckham, the longest-serving employee in OK Foods history.

“Gene spent over 40 years working at this feed mill alone and he embodies the spirit of many of our employees, both past and present, and I’m thankful he allowed the talented artist, Guido van Helten, to paint his likeness,” Goins said. “While our feed mill has stood as an economic contributor to the area for the last 50-plus years, it can now shine as a cultural inspiration that celebrates our community’s past, present and future.”

64.6 Downtown, a nonprofit group that organizes the mural festival, has expressed optimism that there will be another festival in 2017. 64.6 Downtown Executive Director John McIntosh said the OK Foods murals were van Helton’s first “non-commercial” murals in the United States. He painted a mural on a turkey farmer’s barn in Crawford, Texas last year.

Van Helton’s works from around the world can be seen at and on his Facebook page.