Marfa: The Miracle Town In The Chihuahua Desert

MK Bateman
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On my journeys I tend to seek out destinations that are unique, open minded and have an inclusive attitude. Standing somewhere and thinking to myself: “How could this place have ever happened?” is one of the things I enjoy most about travelling.  It’s the randomness of things that become memorable and only seem to happen when we travel outside the usual or familiar spots.  And what could be more random than a town of in the middle of the high desert of far West Texas, filled with minimalist art? The tiny town of Marfa is exactly that.

Marfa, Texas is as off the beaten path as you can get.  It’s in the middle of the high plains of the Chihuahua Desert, two and a half hours from the nearest airport.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Giant (shot in Marfa, by the way), you’ll remember the scene where Elizabeth Taylor’s character finally arrives in Texas and opens the curtain in her train car to see…nothing but endless sky. That’s West Texas.  Or more recently, Jill Soloway’s pilot on Amazon Prime, I Love Dick starring Kevin Bacon was shot in Marfa. Marfa is a place rich with texture, a true picture of the American dream (cowboy boots and jeans), tumbleweeds rolling by the scruffy desert, dreamy early morning light, jaw dropping sunsets.

Modern day Marfa is like nowhere else on Earth – with incredible art installations, an open and accepting culture, the unexplained phenomena called The Marfa Lights, eclectic lodgings, historic architecture, and delicious food.

Marfa was founded in the end of the 1800’s as a waterstop, where steam trains would take on water to continue their journey. For most of its history, it was an insular society consisting of Hispanics and Anglo Cattle Ranchers who had co-existed for generations. It was all very small, rural and closed off from the rest of the world. By the mid 20th Century, most of the cattle industry had bottomed out and many of the buildings in downtown were sitting open and vacant.  It looked like Marfa’s fate would be the same as many other towns in that area.  

Then, in the 1970’s something miraculous occurred: the leading international exponent of minimalism, Donald Judd, arrived in town. He moved to Marfa from New York City and bought up many of the vacant buildings in town. As Marfa resident and Executive Director of the Marfa Chamber of Commerce, Kaki Scott describes it, “Here was this man, an Anglo like we’d never seen before in his black turtleneck, arriving in town with an entourage consisting mostly of beautiful women.  It was certainly a culture clash.”

Donald Judd may have seemed a fish out of water, but he was actually a visionary.  He saw the big open buildings as an opportunity to house a permanent collection of large-scale minimalist sculptures.  Judd bought what has become known as the Block, right in the center of Marfa.  The complex had originally been two large armament buildings left over from a military base.  It became his living space, his studio, and his workspace.  He also bought an old adobe-style motor court in the middle of town and used the materials to build a huge wall around the Block, where he had frequent bonfires.

Of course, the Block happens to be right across the highway from the Catholic Church, so (as you might guess) some of the people at the church became convinced that he was a devil worshipper.  “When he came out from NYC, he really bore the brunt of changes,“ Scott explains, “When he moved out here, Marfa was pretty desolate.”  He was given a hard time in the community because he was so different.  Eventually, the new wore off of him and he became a member of the community.  Judd lived In Marfa for the next 20 years, until his death in 1994.

After he passed away, lots of people started to flood into town, filling the empty spaces with galleries, restaurants, theaters and cafes. Since the culture clash had already occurred, Marfa developed a reputation as open and accommodating to all types of people. “If a guy who is worshipping Satan can call this home, then anyone can be accepted,” Scott adds jokingly.

Kaki Scott remembers when the first openly gay couple came to town in the 1990’s and bought her parents home. One of them was a painter, who gifted a painting to her father after they bought the house.  “At first the painting looks like it may be a landscape, but the more you look at it, you realize it’s a horse’s ass,” she laughs. “My dad thought that was so clever and so charming that it’s still sitting on his desk.”  Even as a child, she remembers Marfa as a place to come and be part of the community, no matter who you were. “Marfa had a gradual introduction to lifestyles other than what they were accustomed to and it made for a softer landing,” she adds.  Today, “the artsy fartsies” are just as much a part of the community as everyone else.

In a sea of small towns in West Texas, Marfa is unique. “Marfa is more well-known in New York City, than it is two hours away,” says Scott.  Thanks to Donald Judd’s foresight, Marfa is now a pilgrimage center for art lovers all over the world. “I could not have imagined when I was growing up that on any given Saturday, you can sit in a café and hear someone speaking German and someone else speaking Japanese and know that they all came from the far corners of the Earth to see what’s going on in our town.”   

“The best thing about living in Marfa,” says Scott, “you don’t need to leave this tiny town of 2000 people to see cultures from all around the world.”

What To Do:

Art

  • As a center for minimalist art, Marfa’s downtown is dotted with galleries, artisan shops and modern art installments
  • Since Donald Judd’s death in 1994, two foundations have worked to maintain his legacy:
  • The Chinati Foundation is a museum system that occupies more than 10 buildings at the site and has on permanent exhibit work by artists such as Ingólfur Arnarson, Dan Flavin, and Claes Oldenburg.  Every year the Chinati Foundation holds an open house event where artists, collectors, and enthusiasts from around the world come to visit Marfa’s art.
  • The Judd Foundation offers two different guided visits of properties in downtown Marfa, The Block (La Mansana de Chinati), and The Studios. “What you see when you tour this facility are his slippers where he left them on the day he died, you see the dishes that he used, it’s a very personal look at his life,” says Scott.

Other Art and Cultural Destinations:

  • Building 98 at Fort D.A. Russell is a former Officer’s Club that has been converted to the headquarters for the International Woman’s Foundation. The building contains two rooms of oil-on-plaster murals painted by German prisoners of war, who were interned at the camp between 1943 and 1945.
  • Prada Marfa, a pop culture landmark designed by artists Elmgreen and Dragset to look like a Prada retail store. It’s 36 miles northwest of Marfa.
  • Ballroom Marfa is a multi-use space that shows art films, hosts musical performances, and exhibits art installations.
  • Crowley Theatre is a local theatre that holds cultural events, musical performances and live theatre, including the annual One-Act Plays where the community comes together with teams of writers, set designers and actors and over a 24-hour period creates, designs and performs short plays.

Outdoor Activities:

  • The Big Bend National Park, located about 120 miles from Marfa.  Sites include a desert wildlife reserve, the Santa Elena Canyon, carved by the Rio Grande and Langford Hot Springs with pictographs and the remains of an old bathhouse.
  • Davis Mountain State Park located about 20 miles from Marfa offers miles of trails and beautiful views of the desert sky at night.
  • Marfa Lights: Bizarre and mysterious phenomena have been recorded just outside of Marfa since the 19th century.  Witnesses claim to see random lights dancing on the horizon southeast of town, in an unpopulated and rugged region. The official Marfa Lights Viewing Area is located 9 miles east of town on Highway 90, towards Alpine.  

Where to Eat:

  • Marfa Burritos serves authentic and delicious Mexican fare.  Don’t be shocked to see stars like Matthew McConaughey waiting in line for their renowned food.
  • Mando’s Restaurant serves regional Tex-Mex.  In fact, it claims to have invented Tex Mex cuisine.
  • Jett’s Grille: In the beautiful Paisano Hotel (see below), serves local flair, including mainstays like the pistachio-crusted sirloin steak and the Black Angus Giant Burger.  Lighter far is always available

Where to Stay:

  • El Paisano Hotel is an historic hotel that opened in 1930.  For film lovers, it was the lodging for the cast and crew of the film Giant.  It is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Hotel was recently renovated and features 33 rooms and suites for guests.
  • El Cosmico: This is a hotel that’s a destination onto itself. You can just go there and never go anywhere else. This 21-acre hotel and campground features renovated vintage trailers, safari and scout tents, tepees, yurts and tent campsites.  They have a communal kitchen for use. It also hosts music festivals, free movie nights, and cultural events throughout the year.  As their website notes:  El Cosmico provides temporary liberation from the built world.

How To Get There:

MK Bateman is a writer and recovering urbanite, based in Central Vermont.  He writes about an assortment of subjects, including travel, food, cinema and health. He is currently working on his first novel.

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