Silo mural brings dairy art to new heights

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

The Luthens family is proud of their dairy heritage and they're proclaiming it in big way – a sky high mural.

The tall, empty stave silo on Skyview Dairy now has another purpose – to draw attention and pay tribute to the dairy industry, thanks to the Luthens family and muralist Tony Stafki.

Located along Highway 7 outside of Hutchinson, Minn., just west of the Twin Cities, the family's dairy operation – known as Skyview Dairy – is drawing major attention from passing motorists. Emblazoned on a 100-foot tall stave silo is a mural that depicts Holsteins grazing on verdant pastures and a large fountain of milk that extends up the entire side of the structure. The bottom is encircled by a host of dairy products.

Melissa Luthens said the family was contemplating the demolition of the old, empty silo with the sale of the adjacent line of blue Harvestore silos slated for dismantling, but they came up with the idea of using the concrete structure as a blank canvas for a mural.

"Our farm is in a unique location and can be seen from Highway 7, the Luce Line Trail and Dakota Trail," she said. "We reached out to Midwest Dairy and they put us in touch with Tony Stafki, who has painted many murals for the John Deere dealerships."

Stafki, who started out in software engineering and painting the interiors of buildings, has been painting murals full-time for the past 13 years. The muralist met with Luthens and began brainstorming several designs linked to the dairy industry before choosing one that would convey the message to people from all walks of life.

The painted 100-foot tall stave silo dwarfs the four Harvestore silos standing next to it at Skyview Dairy in Hutchinson, Minn.

"We wanted the mural to remind people that as dairy farmers, we all love our cows. And no matter the size of the farm or whether we're a first-generation or centennial farm, we all produce the same product that people everywhere have enjoyed for years and for many years to come," Luthens said.

While he has created many murals in his career, including a 10,000-square-foot mural in Shakopee in 2015, Stafki, owner of Walls of Art LLC, says this is the tallest mural he's done and the first silo that he has been asked to paint.

"It was also the most difficult in the sense that I've never been 100 feet up in the air in a lift and dealing with the wind," he said.

Collaborative effort

Before starting the project, Stafki visited the farm and was taken on a tour of the operation that was started by Daryl Luthens in 1969 with just seven cows. Today, the farm is managed by Daryl's son Garrett, who oversees the entire operation, while son Justin runs the cropping and equipment side of the business.

Presently, Skyview Dairy milks 1,400 cows and runs 3,000 acres of cropland.

"(Daryl) definitely had a clear vision, and that vision was embraced by his kids to grow the farm to where it is today," Luthens said.

Stafki says the family gave him a sense of the history of the farm as well as the contribution farms make to consumers. Together, they worked to incorporate all the elements, including a host of dairy products on the bottom and the family's at the top of the silo, a nod to the farm's modest beginnings over a half century ago.

Working from a platform on a boom, artist Tony Stafki laid out the design of the silo freehand before painting with sprayers, brushes and sponges.

"Many painted silos are done in sepia tones, featuring different people on the farm or in the community," he said. "While those are cool, (Melissa) wanted to go in a different direction and make it more fun and feature more farm scenery that can be viewed from every direction. We really worked hand in hand to bring this vision to life."

Large, blank canvas

In past murals, Stafki would often use a projector to beam designs onto the wall. But mapping out a design of this scale required creativity, skill and lots of trial and error, he said.

"I'd get up there in the lift, sketch an outline freehand, come back down and look to see if I got it right," he said. "I quickly came to realize that the design had to be much larger than it seemed while I was up in the lift. I caught on pretty quick; I wouldn't paint anything all the way until I got the scale right."

During the first weeks of the project, Stafki sought feedback from the family, especially when painting the cows.

"I'd ask them 'Are we on the right track?'" he said. "They were very helpful with feedback to make sure everything was accurate and looked the way they wanted it."

The steel bands encircling the stave silo provided a challenge to muralist Tony Stafki.

Stafki said the silo provided an interesting – yet challenging – canvas for his artwork. While the cement stave blocks were "surprisingly smooth," the steel cables holding the blocks in place proved to be time-consuming in the painting process.

"They were spaced about every 6-7 inches for the first 60 feet of the silo, and then about a foot apart for the rest of the way up," Stafki said. "I had to do a lot of planning to make sure some of the details – the eyes of the cattle – fell between the cables."

Prior to applying the first brushstroke, Stafki reached out to his paint supplier to find the right brand of paint that would work well on both cement and metal and be durable against the Minnesota weather.

Stafki chose a professional industrial brand from Sherwin-Williams containing both the primer and the finish coat. He estimates that he used 40-50 gallons of paint in the project.

The artist says he used a sprayer to apply paint on the cables and to fill in large spaces, like the sky and geyser of foamy white milk.

"I'd then go back over it with brushes and sponges and do all the details by hand, which makes it look 3D and artistic," he said.

Muralist Tony Stafki begins adding detail to the large mural on a stave silo commissioned by the Luthens family.

Hazards of the job

Painting murals inside a building in a controlled environment or on the side of a building outdoors now seem like a piece of cake to Stafki, who had to be ever mindful of the changing weather.

"I wanted to avoid being up on the lift in winds greater than 20 miles per hour, so I bought a little digital wind speed reader to keep tabs on that," Stafki said. "I estimate that we had three or four windy days where it wasn't safe to work up in the lift. On those days, I was forced to work on the lower section of the silo 10 feet above the ground."

Stafki says rain also put a damper on the project, which finished on Sept. 21.

"We had about a week's worth of rainy days that caused delays. And adding to that, after it rained, the cables would hold water as well," he said. "Overall, I was glad that I was able to complete it within the projected five-week period. The last week or so I was painting sun up to sundown to finish it."

The Luthens family worked collaboratively with artist Tony Stafki to ensure the accuracy of farm animals.

View for miles

Stafki says this is one of his favorite murals so far, and he's done a lot of them.

"I knew going into it how much of a challenge it would be. But I knew that not only for the family or the surrounding area, if it wasn't tasteful or the cows didn't look like cows, I'd get a lot of feedback," he said. "Just the fact that everyone in the county likes it and there's been so much positive feedback makes me really glad I was able to accomplish what the family wanted."

Luthens says the painted silo has attracted much attention from locals as well as passersby.

"We have been overjoyed by the wonderful appreciation and excitement that the mural is bringing to people. Our road probably sees a couple of dozen cars on it every day just driving to look at it," she said. "We never imagined it would receive this much attention."

Stafki says this silo project isn't a 'one and done' for him and would entertain future silo art.

"I have a feeling I might be doing a few silos every summer for the next few years, but probably not ones reaching 100 feet tall. I did one of the hardest ones first, so anything else someone throws at me will be easy," he said with a laugh. "All in all, it's unique art and it shows farmers reusing these retired silos in an interesting way. There are a lot of possibilities with these as a canvas."

Luthens says her kids think the mural is the "coolest thing ever."

"They asked us why we had it painted, and we just tell them that it's important for farmers to share their story and for people to listen to that story because we all have one," she said. "This mural is a way for the Luthens family to tell ours."