“Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it.”
So says the official Visit Marfa tourism website. This is the place that is too cool for Brooklyn & Queen West, a place that is either so far ahead or just so downright bizarre that it’s beyond conceivability. To live here willingly, you gotta be serious about your arts.
The site of Marfa is on a former military base which was officially declared obsolete in October 1946. The base was originally named Camp Marfa and was built in 1911 order to keep an eye on the worsening Mexican Revolution. Interestingly, some of the most iconic and haunting photos of Texan legend James Dean were taken on set in Marfa during filming of his final movie “Giant” in 1956 featuring Elizabeth Taylor.
Despite this place being lost in the wilderness, for years people have experienced and reported the infamous Marfa Lights. Ageing road signs indicate the area in which you can observe the mysterious lights that appear for many miles. Some have written these lights off as merely being distant car headlights while others are adamant something more suspicious is afoot. When asking Marfa’s locals, you’ll hear the well worn stories of UFO’s and Ghosts. These stories have no doubt been embellished over the fog of time but they are enough to provoke thought and imagination. An abandoned entrance at the former wartime air field serves as the observation area where it can give you serious chills as you stare expectantly across the darkened desert.
After the closure of the airbase, this struggling small community rose from the ashes in the 1970s. To house his art on a more permanent basis, minimalist artist Donald Judd decided to purchase two hangars due to the high cost of space in New York. We’ve got this man to thank for provoking the reckless instinct within us, making packing our bags seem all too easy. Similarities can be drawn between Donald Judd’s seemingly random move and that of some artists today. It should sound familiar to those accustomed to tales of artists leaving the East Village in their masses to live and work in cheaper areas around Williamsburg and more recently Bushwick.
Situated on Route 90, the closest major airport is actually two hundred miles away to the north-west in El Paso, New Mexico. It’s a place you’re unlikely to stumble across on a coast to coast road trip, but it’s obviously well worth making the effort when even Beyonce stopped by and paid homage to the deep south’s cultural mecca.
Looking through Judd’s large concrete rectangle structures, they appear to be a precursor to Instagram where the shapes perfectly frame the landscape around it with long shadow effects. They stand solidly and stubbornly against the harsh and hot elements that the desert brings. Perhaps each of these fixtures offered different points of view to scenarios in the artist’s life. He seemed to be in a state of mind where he wanted to bring a piece of his former rigid grid system life in New York with him, and embrace his future by looking forward to the beautiful surrounding landscapes. It was a seventies’ glimpse into the mind’s eye – an artistic selfie before iPhones existed. Sticking with his vision and penchant for squares he has exhibitions of see through glass cubes. He also collaborated with fellow artist Dan Flavin on some luminous square light structures. It’s clear that he wanted you to see the world through his art.
Forty years later, a new generation of artists is here in West Texas. With the sky blackened at night, the lights of the Prada store eerily loom out across the desert, almost challenging anyone to come closer and take a look. Standing alone, this faux store features the classic bags and killer heels that the brand is known for. It’s completely surreal to experience this high end boutique in such isolation, miles from anywhere. Surprisingly it is actually more of a mirage, an art piece created by two artists that are no doubt influenced by Donald Judd’s minimalist rectangular style. For better or for worse, Marfa has now become the home to many cool kids, artists, galleries and pop up shops.
So what the hell does all this mean for the food in Martha? Minimalist portions? Not quite, The Boyz 2 Men Taco Trailer greets you on Saturdays and Sundays with a gritty smile and a sloppy burrito, while The Grilled Cheese Parlour offers simple homestyle favourites – artists need to eat too right? Forget the overpriced gourmet menus or glossy photographs directed by New York food stylists here in West Texas, this is far more real, and suits the area in such a rag-tag haggard way that no filet mignon ever could.
Cowboys and Indians, this is surely a pretty good start for those new to connecting with America’s wild south. Now if you’re feeling really adventurous you can stay overnight in Marfa in any one of the specialised teepees, yurts or even tents. Staying in a tent in the desert is something all of us should experience at least once and it’ll give you a chance to check out one of the gigs being thrown by a band of artists that are largely of the “hot dog dude by day, rock drummer by night” variety. For those who want to feel a little more secure, there are Breaking Bad style RVs where you can at least lock the door. It becomes all the more entertaining to be surrounded by what is essentially a local community, albeit a strange one.
Will the scene stay, will it remain cool? Will it become the next Coachella-style festival location or perhaps return to it’s original ghost town form? What is sure is that Marfa’s days will come and go, but as history has proven us there’s an unexplained magnetic force that keeps bringing us back for more. If you want to experience a forward thinking yet backwards way of life in the desert, this place is for you. Anything is possible here, both the groundbreaking & the downright stupid. But for that, we love Marfa.
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