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☞The Marfa Mystique: How a tiny town in the middle of the desert became the trendiest city in Texas

January 14, 2012

This article of mine originally appeared in SUB Magazine.  It is reprinted here with permission…

This is Marfa

Marfa, Texas

I fell in love with Marfa on a college road trip some ten years ago.  Before I even set foot in the tiny west Texas town, I knew I was headed somewhere inherently special.  As an Art History student in San Antonio, Texas I was compelled to take the pilgrimage to the place that American Minimalist Artist Donald Judd had anointed as the town that would inherit his legacy.  Judd, in a remarkable move, built the Chinati Foundation, not in a locus of the Art Universe like New York or Los Angeles, or even in a city that people were familiar with or could easily get to.  Instead in a move deemed by art historians to be both innately egotistical and intrinsically divine, Judd completed his vision in Marfa.

The Chinati Foundation, Marfa Texas

Ballroom Marfa

Those who have not been there must surely ask themselves, why Marfa?  The fact of the matter was that Donald Judd wanted solitude and the specialness that comes with being singular and separated from the clutter of the urban landscape.  He took his own road trip and found abandoned military warehouses, remnants of America’s involvement in WWII.  Large and stark, these buildings were ideal for housing his works which need exactly such spaces to be fully absorbed and understood by the viewer.  Purchasing the buildings with the support of the Dia Art Foundation in NY, Judd displayed his work in a landscape–not a gallery or a museum or some other artificial edifice.  Out in the open with nothing around for miles and miles, his aluminum boxes and concrete cubes formed a kinship with the land.

Marfa, Texas

Since that first journey to pay homage to an artist who forever shaped Contemporary Art, I have been back several times.  Each time veering away from Marfa’s hometown hero, and instead spending time with those that have followed in his footsteps and made Marfa their own palette for creative contemplation and artistic endeavor.

Marfa Texas

“The duality/contrast of Marfa is part of its intrigue,” notes Tex Toler, Director of Tourism for the City of Marfa, who I met after wandering into to the Visitor Center and being instantly greeted by this friendly man in a cowboy hat.  Tex explains, “If Marfa were closer to a major metropolitan area, or especially NOT in Texas–or closer to LA, or NYC, or even Dallas, that contrast would not be that unusual.  Its remoteness, its Western location and history of cattle and cowboys makes the juxtaposition of the minimalist, contemporary, reductive art ethic here even more stark.  I’m reminded of that daily from my vantage point from the visitor center as diesel, dual pickup trucks with authentic cowboys and ranchers pulling long, cattle trailers full of livestock rumble past galleries of modern art, while tattooed, pierced twenty-somethings ride their bikes on the sidewalks.  Or the Swedish or German artists-in-residence at the Chinati Foundation adopt cowboy boots and wide-brimmed cowboy hats with their otherwise goth-themed fashions.”

Tex fell in love with Marfa on his own road trip in high school.  He explains, “Having known of Marfa, fascinated by its architecture and story since my first visit, I’d hoped for years there would be a way to live here with a decent enough paying job to afford living here.  When a friend called me about a job posting, I applied, and here I am!”

Falling in love with the city, and finding a way to make it home was a recurring theme on my trip while talking to the people I encountered, each of whom were infatuated with the tiny town, and virtually none of whom were originally from the city.

Squeeze Restaruant, Marfa, Texas

The patio--Squeeze Marfa

Take Verena Zbinden-Vollenweider, owner of Squeeze Marfa–a tiny Swiss Café located across from the city’s Court House.  Verena was born in Switzerland but moved to Marfa after finding the town to be the perfect spot to retire.  “Marfa is a small town where life is simple and the weather is close to perfect!  I love going to art openings and to readings at the bookstore and I also love the landscape” she tells me while serving up one of her signature dishes, ‘The Flying Dutchman’ as we chat in her bustling Café.  I look around her restaurant, and see hippy artists sipping iced coffees, while a cowboy orders a sandwich at the counter, and I start to understand the duality that Tex had referenced the day before.

The Wrong Art Store, Marfa Texas

Buck Johnston at her Wrong Art Store

There is a definite communal spirit that percolates through the town.  Its occurrence is an anomaly both in its manifestation in modern America, as well as with the population it accounts for.  Tex defined the community dynamic as one where “Cowboys mingle in the local bars, and local ranching families come to the art and performances along with the NYC, European and LA newcomers and visitors.  All dine together at the same restaurants, while celebrities enjoy their meals and conversations largely unmolested by gawkers or autograph seekers.  It’s a ‘chill’, laid back, and casual community.  There are those same twenty-somethings here to either find themselves, lose themselves, or reinvent themselves.  But, just as many 40/50 somethings too—here to escape the rat race, retire early, or finally do what they’ve always wanted to do—write, paint, or just enjoy life in a beautiful, slow-paced, setting, friendly small town atmosphere.”

Adam Bork, Food Shark

“Scenery, people, and only 1 traffic light” are what lured Austin-born Adam Bork, co-owner of Marfa’s beloved mobile eatery Food Shark, to the little city.  “Marfa is great and makes me feel good.  Austin is terrible and makes me feel bad” Adam (who is also an artist, composer and musician) lucidly articulates as he hands me a Kennedy half-dollar in change for my lunch.  Marfa defiantly has the personality of a big city with the heart of a small town. It’s what makes art installations like German artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s, Prada Marfa (2005) sculpture so perfectly poignant and relevant.  The sculpture which looks like a tiny Prada store in the middle of the desert is actually an artwork that will decay over time, eventually becoming a capitalist ruin.  Indeed, on the day I visited the work, bullet holes and graffiti were emblazoned on the sculpture.  Nevertheless, the work is a testament to Marfa’s intrigue and ability to attract major artists and inspire important work today, just as in 1971 when Judd first visited the town.

Marfa Lights

It’s this deft creative energy inherent to Marfa that is hard to beat, and even harder to explain.  Just as the night horizon reveals Marfa’s Mystery Lights (a seemingly mystical occurrence, unique to the town) so too is the prolific visionary force, or, as Tex puts it the, “enigmatic ‘magic’  here, of which both locals and newcomers/visitors always mention.”

Artists in Marfa Texas

Buck Johnston & Campbell Bosworth

“Someone once told us that everyone in Marfa is here for a reason.  Something has called you here.  We believe that.”  Says Buck Johnston as she shows me around her beautiful side project, the Wrong art store one searing hot afternoon.  The little store is filled with the work of her husband, artist Campbell Bosworth.  His works include ceramics, wood carvings, paintings and sculptures with a focus Narco Corridos (a Mexican song tradition about the narcotics trade), the politics of the border, and the ongoing cartel wars.  Buck is the owner of bbgun interactive, a Dallas-based business, which makes a long commute between the two cities a requirement.  When I ask her why she loves Marfa she tells me, “We always say: We moved to a town of 2000 and our world expanded.”  I’m at the end of my trip and I find her words easy to appreciate.  This tiny town in the middle of nowhere is definitely the center of something great.

The Prada Marfa Artwork, Marfa, Texas

One Comment leave one →
  1. Pamela permalink
    January 23, 2012 12:46 pm

    What a crazy, cool place….a well kept secret!

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