Hello, little Marfa, town of the West Texas plains. Set amid a vast desert grassland and ringed by distant mountains, Marfa is home to just 1,765 souls living in candy-coloured adobe houses. A single red blinking light handles all the local traffic. Turkey vultures circle in the enormity of sky. At one end of Marfa, sun-worn ranchers at Mando’s Restaurant tuck into heaping plates of enchiladas, their horses dozing in trailers outside, while across town, a series of concrete artworks by the late American artist Donald Judd loom in a stalwart, kilometre-long row.
Situated in Texas’ Presidio County, Marfa is only 100km from Mexico and a three-hour drive from the nearest big city or commercial airport. And yet, more and more, this small community in the big lonesome has grabbed the attention of a global audience entranced by the town’s equal measure of cowboys and high art in an austere, untameable landscape. “Marfa isn’t like anyplace else,” says Jenny Moore, the director of the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum in town that Judd founded in 1986. Her brown eyes widen as she speaks further about the town: “I’ve never been somewhere that is so far away and so small in population and yet the world comes here on a regular basis.”
You might be aware of Marfa. Beyoncé posted exuberant photos from her Marfa vacation in 2012; the recent Amazon series I Love Dickstarring Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn was set here; in 2016, the New York Times deemed it among the 52 locations on earth that people should visit; and countless tourists have ventured just over 55km northwest to visit Prada Marfa, a cheeky faux Prada store created by Berlin-based artists Elmgreen & Dragset.
But the place wasn’t always this sophisticated. Marfa began in the 1880s, when a railroad running through the area needed to name a water stop. The surveyor’s wife plucked the name from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – or so the story goes – and Marfa was born. Primarily a cattle-ranching community, it also included a military fort and for a while the place brimmed with soldiers, shops, bars, restaurants, cowpunchers and hotels. When the military left at the end of World War II, some of Marfa’s abundant liveliness went with it. Then a crippling drought took hold and the economy sank into a long, slow decline.
Judd arrived in Marfa in the 1970s, when the town was quiet and poor. Weary of the New York art scene, and disdainful of being labelled a Minimalist, Judd settled here after a search for a place of beauty and isolation where he could live and work without distraction. He likewise had an audacious and unprecedented vision in mind and saw Marfa as a place where he could bring his plans to life.
With the help of the New York-based Dia Art Foundation, Judd purchased 138ha of Marfa’s former military fort and created the Chinati Foundation – a museum that allowed him to dictate the context he so valued. “Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again,” Judd wrote in the Chinati Foundation’s catalogue. “Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be.”
The Chinati Foundation contains works by 13 artists, which are installed permanently and intended to be there always. Much of this work is large-scale, placed with thoughtfulness toward the interplay of art, landscape and architecture. Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminumshimmer like liquid in the streaming afternoon light. A giant horseshoe by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen frames a section of sky. Roni Horn’s copper pieces gleam impassively in an old dining hall. In the museum’s expansive fields, knee-high yellow grass sways in the breeze and clouds build up overhead like silvery cities. Surrounded by such beauty, what else is possible?
Quite a lot, it turns out. An unexpected trend developed after Judd’s death in 1994. Attracted by the landscape, the art and the community’s congenial residents – most of whom are Hispanic – people from distant cities began moving to Marfa. New businesses opened alongside those that had existed for decades: restaurants, food trucks, a boot shop, a bookstore and health clinics. Art gallerists, furniture designers, writers, painters and hoteliers joined the resident feed-store owners, ranchers, Border Patrol agents and teachers.
Over time, additional cultural organisations evolved alongside the Chinati Foundation, such as the annual Marfa Film Festival, which began in 2007, and arts non-profit Ballroom Marfa, which was founded in 2013. These organisations now draw wide-ranging audiences for art shows, music events and movies throughout the year. Hundreds of people descend upon the town for the annual Chinati Weekend every October; last fall’s event involved an exhilarating performance of “Scales” by Solange Knowles set in the same field as Judd’s concrete works. “The breadth of culture is amazing,” says Ann Marie Nafziger, Marfa’s mayor. A practising artist herself, Nafziger is tall and her curly dark hair is struck with strands of silver. “In any given week, you can see a Tejano band, an art opening or a Richard Maxwell play. We’re unique.”
Why Marfa, though? What exactly prompts all that creative energy and vigour? Part of the answer lies in the landscape. The sky and the desert are so open and vast that it encourages people to think in big and open-ended ways. It’s isolated country, and as such, generosity among people abounds. “You have to accommodate yourself to this landscape; it doesn’t accommodate to you,” says Moore. “There aren’t many of us and we have a responsibility to each other.”
Marfa’s smallness works toward its benefit. If you’ve got an opinion on the city’s potholes, it’s easy to drop into a city council meeting and express your views. If you’ve got a pop-up restaurant happening, put out the word and people will come. The senior centre needs volunteers? Tell people when and where, and they’ll show up. Marfa’s realness reminds people that the things they think and do are important. Everywhere you look, someone is doing something, whether it’s hustling as a bartender or organising a dance performance. That spirit of inclusion and contribution is not lost on the arts organisations in town. Nearly all the cultural offerings are free. Everyone is welcome.
The changes in town and its consistent appearances in the press and on social media have brought diversity and more jobs. It’s a lot to adapt to, though, from a minimal tourism presence 20 years ago to the more than 40,000 visitors the Chinati Foundation expects in 2018, roughly a third of whom are international.
Sometimes, Marfa is perceived as being fraught with a divide between lifelong residents and more recent arrivals. But it’s not a place cleaved in half, with art folks on one side and everyone else on the other. It’s one place, with the messy entanglements and crossovers that bind people together. “We’re not binary – new Marfa and old Marfa, artists and non-artists,” says the mayor. “We’re more than that. I’m interested in the overlap, where artists go to high school football games and the football players participate in the art programmes. And we see it happen all the time.”
This is what goes unseen by the wider world. Alongside the sophisticated offerings so often touted in the media, much of the arts programming is localised fare that is quite specific to Marfa. The Chinati Foundation and other cultural organisations partner with Marfa Elementary and Junior/Senior High School on year-round projects and outreach meant to inspire and educate the town’s youth. Ninth graders explore the museum’s poetry by Carl Andre, for instance, then spend weeks with Chinati instructors and their English teacher, putting together a chapbook of their own poems and artwork that’s shared with the public. “It’s our community, too,” says Moore. “We’re in this together.”
On a summery Sunday afternoon, guests at a private residence splash in a pool and chat over watermelon spritzers. This is the annual Caftans & Casseroles fundraising event for Marfa Live Arts, which brings performances and theatre productions to town and sponsors annual workshops between playwrights and Marfa students. Someone calls out, “You have to wear a caftan; they’re hanging over there!” Everyone who isn’t swimming indeed dons flowing caftans and grazes on reimagined casseroles concocted by a local eatery. It is a very Marfa moment – a savvy mashup of the high and low, with a dash of humour thrown in. Artists, school kids, newcomers, wealthy benefactors, ranchers, teachers and volunteers are all mingling together.
“There’s not a student at our school who hasn’t benefitted from the arts scene,” says school superintendent Oscar Aguero, sitting poolside in his purple Marfa Shorthorns baseball cap. “Professional artists, writers and musicians working with our students on a regular basis – our district could never provide that or afford that. Three-quarters of our students live in poverty. The kids are exposed to these artists and realise, ‘I could do this too.’ It gives them hope, and giving our kids hope is huge.”
Recent Marfa High School graduate Crystal Cataño, her ponytail still damp from the pool, talks eagerly with partygoers about starting college the very next day. She plans to be an English major. “It was working with the playwrights every year that got me thinking I could be a writer,” she tells them. “I never thought that was something I could do before.”
The shadows lengthen, and the clouds turn shell pink and then pewter. Guests hang up their borrowed caftans and hug each other goodbye. As an owl’s hoot drifts through the neighbourhood, two departing partygoers pause to listen. “I love where we live,” says one. “I love Marfa.”
Photography by Matthew Johnson
Special thanks to the Chinati Foundation for allowing SilverKris to photograph Monument to the Last Horse, 15 Untitled Works in Concrete and Untitled (Dawn to Dusk)
This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine