Tag Archives: Marfa

Visiting Marfa, Texas

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It’s 428 miles from Austin to Marfa. And although there are eight (inhabited) towns on, or at least near, the route, that still gives plenty of time staring at sand to think about why you’re bothering to go in the first place. For a little Texas town, it punches well above its weight. It’s a small, hot, dusty town (pop. of 2000 peppered across a few small blocks) with an airport for private jets and a lot of big names hiding out eating tacos.

It was artist, Donald Judd, who started it all in 1971 when, tired of the New York art world he came to to this desert town for its whistling, tumbleweed space, and rented a house. His big, clean, simple (if not minimalist) works and installations are preserved in Marfa by the Chinati Foundation and in some way by the Judd Foundation, and are the original draw. There are other foundations too, and artists inspired to do big conceptual things of their own. There are also plenty of filmmakers and screenwriters and actors.

Anyway, to the untutored eye Marfa could look like a scrapyard, given the rusting cars, industrial pipes, corrugated iron, baked empty earth lots, scrub and weed pushing on through adobe buildings, just-there electrical substation, railway tracks and sidings, abandoned trailers, faded signs and what-nots. There are plenty of towns like this down here that aren’t artsy; they’re just poor.  In fact, Valentine, the next town west, has most of the same stuff lying around in it, but it’s not the Chosen One.

Musing in the parking lot of El Cosmico – the super-cool, urban hipster, pricy airstream trailer and teepee retreat – I wonder whether this isn’t all a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes? It has a ‘Creative Lab’ and  ‘Amphitheatre’, but off-brochure there’s not much to distinguish this site from the Tumble In RV Park on the others side of town where you can pitch a tent on the scrub for $15, or to be honest, from some of the yards you pass on the way, where old cars and RVs sit abandoned in the sun. Or am I just telling myself that because they’re full? The fact is that despite feeling suckered in by the term ‘vintage’ and the nice retro signage, I do find it all weirdly beautiful – and clearly so does everyone else rolling up in the hope of a cancellation.

That confusion applies to Marfa as a whole. One part of me says let’s be honest, if people really want to go somewhere to get away from it all, there are a hell of a lot of places to choose from in Texas. That might have been Marfa when they filmed Giant and James Dean was down to earth and flirty friends with all the local girls and Liz and Rock hung out at the Paisano, but today’s town is too popular to be free and cheap and lawless. There’s something a little tense and self-consciously special here, that makes me feel like a voyeur and a fan rather than a relaxed escapee.

Then there’s the Marfa Lights. Even the bloke some hundred or so miles away who gave us the gas to prevent us from running out of fuel on the I-10 and ending up as two piles of bleached bones, even he asked if we were going to see the Marfa Lights. Everyone talks about them – there’s an observatory, maps – the lot. These aren’t the aurora borealis. They’re a bit like headlights, although to be fair they come from a place without roads and were spotted by a rancher, Robert Reed Ellison in 1883. So remain sceptical? Or abandon yourself to awe and wonderment? There’s a lot of thinking on both sides. Personally, I’d have gone for wonder, but for Mr Sceptic, back in the car with the radio on.

The other part of me though is loving it; admiring telegraph poles, cactus, empty buildings. Confusing. Fact is some things about Marfa are indisputably lovely, like so many of the buildings – Ballroom Marfa, the old National Bank, the Contemporary gallery and Pizza Foundation, the Courthouse and the Thunderbird motel, and random private homes. Plus, there’s the 50’s – 60s style signage, the never-to-be-forgotten art – Judd’s, and others, with Prada Marfa one of the biggest, funniest and the best, and perfect encapsulation of Marfa’s cool weirdness.

BTW Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl (wanton youth, small-town Texas), shot in Marfa, won Best Picture at the Rome Film Festival.

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Prada Marfa

PRADA MARFA: a site specific, permanent land art project by artists Elmgreen & Dragset was commissioned by Art Production Fund and Ballroom Marfa back in 2005. Modeled after a Prada boutique, the structure includes luxury goods from the Fall 2005 collection. However, in true conceptual artsy fashion, the door doesn’t open and nothing is for sale. The building is located in the middle of nowhere, 36 miles west of Marfa. Yes, that’s 36, not, as the helpful receptionist at El Cosmico suggested,  ’20 miles towards the sun’.

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From Austin to Marfa

Texas is big. Luling (A) to Austin to Marfa (C), 473 miles

If I was a nerd I would overlay the route taken by Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas. He didn’t get to Paris, Texas, but he – by which I really mean the great Harry Dean Stanton plus director, Wim Wenders and crew – did travel along Highway 10 from Houston to Fort Stockton, Marathon and onto El Paso. And to my mind there’s no film that catches the vast, flat dustiness and power and scale of southern Texas, like Paris Texas does. Helped of course by Ry Cooder’s plaintive soundtrack.

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On the (Texas) Road

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There’s a well-worn Texan route; a pilgrimage from hipsterville Austin to the far outpost made famous by minimalist artist Donald Judd, Marfa. Hard to credit that the bustling car park of south Austin’s Microtel is in the same country as Prada Marfa, let alone the same state. But Texas is b-i-g. So big, people rush across it in their trucks, breaking the pitifully low speed limits and playing into the hands of state troopers who set speed traps and lurk behind bushes. Speeding tickets are a big revenue generator for small Texas towns – Selma, whose keen as mustard traffic cops raised $10,352,606 for the town’s 4600 inhabitants between 2000-2008 is one of the most notorious, but we have a list of them (although I’ve lost it) and we’re driving west through Texas on Thanksgiving Day.

We’ve only gone a few miles down I-10 before Dave goes funny. It’s Dripping Springs, home to Lance Armstrong, and he starts scanning the pizza places and Mexican restaurant (closed) and parks (empty) just in case he gets a chance to lower the window and shake his fist. “Thanks a lot” he mutters as we leave it all behind, “Thanks for ruining cycling and making your team mates take drugs that cause cancer you tosser . . . “. We put the radio on for a bit.

When US cities have a quirk or a theme they embrace it. There aren’t many of German extraction or descent living in Fredericksburg, but in this little corner of Texas it is forever Deutschland: willkommen to the Marketplatz!  And despite being November and 70 something degrees fahrenheit (we’ve forgotten the old ways and this measure means nothing), for the few minutes we crawl through it, it’s gingerbread Christmas. It’s like Fredericksburg makes it okay to be Christmas because from here on west it’s all Santas and snow in the shimmery heat. Which is just plain weird.

There are vineyards here that look like ranches with massive gates and (lone) stars and American flags, and dry peach and pecan orchards, but also cowboy towns, with cowboys on bucking horses whipping lassoes on the signs for shops, bars and churches. Wild Ride Ministries which I later learn started out as an outreach program by a pastor who tended to the spiritual needs of rodeo riders and ropers, solidified into a bonafide church with land in Harper, and has what is officially the best church sign in the world.

What there aren’t, are many snack snuffling stops because everything’s shut, but next to a barn selling deer attractant there’s a store with a swinging sign ‘hunters welcome’ and a row of long-haired cowboys leaning against the wall in camouflage gear, smoking and squinting into the sun; dogs tacking in the trucks. (“Ask them if they’ve got brioche” I say.)

You basically spend all day on the I-10 getting from Austin to Marfa and you go through, oh, about five towns. The fripperies and nicknack shops drop off the further west you go until for about 6 hours it’s a load of nothing and not even many cactus and absolutely none of those ones that wear sombreros. It’s at this point 80 miles from the next dot on the map that Dave clears his throat as asks whether I think there might be a gas station. This is very annoying as he does have a petrol gauge and I do not have a crystal ball. Anyway I could see for about 10 miles in all directions and there wasn’t, but there was cluster of houses, Sheffield, showing up on the SatNav about 15 miles down a bumpy road to the south. There were three people hanging out in a garden, drinking beer, their kids riding unicycles through the tumbleweed up and down the empty street; the place was otherwise abandoned “What are y’all doing all the way out here” said the man. Turns out they didn’t have any gas either, but he gave us what he had, enough, he said, to get us to I-raan, meaning Iraan, Texas.

Strange, but once you’re so far into the empty plains you’ve forgotten to expect buildings and people, you get your eye in, and the landscape fills up with tones and shadows, mounds and boulders; things that aren’t exactly alive although I did see a haunch and tail of a coyote trotting into a thicket.  And the huge, ever-changing luminous sky provides the drama.

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