When I announced my intentions to go to Parkes, most people had the same response.
Parkes is nearly 500km west of Newcastle, famous for its Elvis festival and The Dish. Jared’s cousin lives there and his 40th coincided with the start of our trip, an explanation that satisfied the question of Why Parkes?
My friend Licia, however, had a different reaction.
“You have to go to Utes in the Paddock!”
A ute, short for ‘utility vehicle,’ is what we’d call a pickup truck in the US. I immediately pictured a bunch of pickups scattered in a field like grazing cows and gave Licia a blank look.
“It’s really cool,” she insisted, and went on to explain the concept: a series of utes painted by Australian artists, displayed behind barbed wire in a field somewhere off the highway between Parkes and Condobolin.
(2019 Update: Utes in the Paddock is being relocated to Condobolin)
I started mentioning it to Australians in order to gauge their reactions, and it seemed that no one had heard of Utes in the Paddock. A hidden Australian treasure! We had to go.
Instead of heading to Mudgee after Parkes, a city I have been oddly obsessed with for 18 months, we went 70km further west on Henry Parkes Way towards Condobolin. There, in a village called Ootha, was a promising brown sign.
Utes in the Paddock 3km
And sure enough, 3km down a dirt road, there it was.
Utes in the Paddock is on land owned by Burrawang West Station, a commercial sheep farm. According to the signposted information, the inspiration for Utes in the Paddock can be traced back to Route 66 in the US. The station owner, a man named Graham Pickles, came across Cadillac Ranch, an outdoor art installation near Amarillo, Texas, and wondered if a similar concept would work in Australia.
Pickles got in touch with Australian artist John Murray, who came on board with the first ute in June 2008, titled ‘Circle Work.’ I love the description on the sign in front of the utework:
True to the native bird’s typically silly behaviour, these young galahs are enjoying the great Australian tradition of doing circle work (doing donuts). The sculptured galah on top represents the fun police towing away the ute.
The gallery was originally slated to showcase ten utes, painted by respected Australian artists and sculptors to reflect outback life. The project became so popular that local businesses and residents started donating utes while artists volunteered their time, bringing the total number of utes to 20. All are Holdens, a classic Australian car manufacturer.
It did feel like being in an art gallery; each ute has a name and a placard about its history, creator, and significance. To my absolute delight, many of the names incorporated ‘ute’ in the title.
My favorite – Emute, a ute painted with bug-eyed emus (HOW GOOD IS THAT).
The gallery has been embraced as a community project and is maintained through the non-profit ‘Utes in the Paddock Headlights Ltd.’ The group organizes events, maintains the website and supplies ute-related souvenirs to vendors in the surrounding towns of Condobolin, Parkes, and Forbes. Profits go to support mental health services in central NSW.
While Jared and I strolled the gallery, a couple in a caravan pulled up. The back window was covered in about 20 handprints with names written next to them, presumably the couple’s grandkids. The man had a grizzled beard and wore a leather jacket.
“I’ve been following this for 5 years,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m finally here in person. It’s just as good as I’d hoped.”
**2019 Update: Utes in the Paddock is being relocated to Condobolin**
Utes in the Paddock is located 30km east of Condobolin on Henry Parkes Way in central NSW. There was a website: www.utesinthepaddock.com.au, however it appears to be out of commission. Google claims that the installation is permanently closed, but as of June 2016 it was very much open. Admission is free.