Recently I tried to explain Marfa to my sister but it all depends on the moment in time – whether I describe the original dusty town of cowboys and rancheros in the high desert near the Davis Mountains — or further along the continuum as it has evolved into an art center.
I first encountered Marfa when I was doing location research for my novel WRANGLE, set on a quarter horse ranch near Hempstead, Texas. When lead character Shannon Murphy experiences a family tragedy, she escapes to her uncle’s ranch at the base of the Davis Mountains and finds new adventures in Marfa.
Only . . . I had never been to that part of Texas, and in the name of authenticity, I traveled there; drove the area, talked to locals, toured some of the ranches and wandered Marfa for a couple of days. It struck me as a little town where cowboy and Chicano culture comingled in a simple life.
This was the Marfa that interested me most – but what was less evident was its creative arts history. For instance, the little town had been used by the movie industry more than once (“Giant” was filmed there in 1950) but of course those folks did not stay.
Permanent change began in the 1970s when minimalist artist Donald Judd moved from New York to Marfa. He bought a couple of airplane hangars and some smaller buildings to begin to house his art. Eventually he created the Chinati Foundation that displays several artists in 15 buildings spread over a 340 acre campus.
From this kernel, an art community began to grow and to attract a new crowd – from international artists to a new brand of hippies that rub shoulders with the locals in a peaceful co-existence according to stories in Texas Monthly and reports on 60 Minutes capturing the arts “explosion” of the last 5 years.
Now there is a permanently installed sculpture of a Prada store by Scandanavian artists Elmgreen and Dragset, sitting in an expanse of desert, as well as other art museums in Marfa, nestled among buildings both modern (like the Hotel St. George) and historic (The Hotel Paisano); funky (food trucks) and down-home (little Mexican cafes with home-made tamales).
Marfa’s reputation as a quirky town continues to grow nationally and it is now the site for Amazon’s series “I Love Dick” starring Kevin Bacon. And still . . . somehow . . . Marfa continues to hold on to its simplicity, its high desert personality. I can find great art in almost any big city – it was Marfa’s simple life that called to Shannon Murphy and calls to me now for a return visit.
— Jonnie Martin