“In the middle of a bone-dry desert, arises one of the most artistic communities in America.”
The tiny West Texas border town of Marfa is 200 miles from anywhere. Perhaps best known as the location of the 1956 James Dean movie, Giant, it was the backdrop of the now iconic photo of James Dean sprawled across an old Model T with his ankles propped up lazily against the windshield. It appears to be the epitome of the flat (read as boring) Texas plains, but in the past decade or so, a new crowd of folks have discovered Marfa. Artists, poets, writers, and filmmakers have began flocking to the town and at times, Marfa appears to be a mirage. In the middle of a bone-dry desert, arises one of the most artistic communities in America.
Marfa, Texas was founded in 1883 and at the time of its establishment, it registered no population on that year’s US Census. Marfa’s population peaked to 5,000 residents in the 1940s, when both cattle ranching was profitable and the US government built the Army barrack, Fort D.A. Russell, in the area. Both drawing factors crumbled as time passed, and the town now is home to a meager population of 1,981, a number that consists mostly of bohemian eccentrics.
Located near Big Bend National Park and situated on a high plateau of the Chihuahuan Desert, Marfa, Texas is surrounded by three mountain ranges. This rugged backdrop is part of the newfound appeal of the town and one artistic team that has been drawn to the look is the Coen brothers. Their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was partially filmed there. The locale also appealed to directer Paul Thomas Anderson who filmed his sprawling epic, There Will Be Blood, almost entirely at McGuire Ranch, at desolate outpost of the town.
The cinematic appeal of Marfa has caused the community to host an annual Marfa Film festival. Now in its fourth year, the film festival is unlike others in that it’s not a competition. There are no first place prizes, and really no winners at all. Instead, the Marfa Film Festival was designed as a retreat, showing remarkable cinematic work in a location that is far away from the chaotic and competitive environments that can be found on the film festival circuit. There are screenings out on the prairie at night, and the festival shows more than 50 features, shorts, music videos, and experimental works.
While the appeal of Marfa seems like something new in the visual art world, Marfa can trace its artistic roots back to the 70s when acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd left New York City to escape the art scene he had come to disdain. Supposedly, he was drawn to the Texas desert town because it was unfrequented and underdeveloped – the opposite of his Manhattan home. Judd acquired Marfa’s entire uninhibited Army base (including its two aircraft hangers) that he continued to fill with art until his death in 1994. Judd led many followers to Marfa, and his heritage there includes the nonprofit foundation, the Chinati Foundation.
Named after the nearby Chinati Mountains, the Chinati Foundation is arguably the heart of Marfa. This collection of buildings was originally meant to exhibit the work of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and John Chamberlain, but has since expanded to include dozens of other artists. Installation was always one of Donald Judd’s founding principles as an artist, and everyone showing at the Chinati Foundation has a designated building on the museum ground, still located on Judd’s original Army base.
Then there’s the fake Prada store. It sits on the outskirts of town and has come to symbolize the town of Marfa. It looks like a boutique, with luxury goods from the fall 2005 Prada collection lining the windows. Yet the doors will never open for commerce, this is a permanent land art project by Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset (designer Miuccia Prada approves—she even picked the shoes herself).
Another interesting occurrence that attracts the fringe element to this secluded enclave, is the Marfa Lights, the Texan version of the Aurora Borealis. Often called “ghost lights” many (including us) like to attribute them to paranormal phenomenon. Though the cause has never been conclusively proven, disappointingly, research suggests that the majority of the mysterious nocturnal lights are likely reflections of car headlights, campfires, or satellites on the floating West Texas dust. Even so, UFO enthusiasts and ghost hunters alike come from all over the world to witness the elusive and luminous Marfa Lights.
Today, even with the many festivals and events happening in Marfa, its unique art installations and numerous art galleries, and its famous residents and visitors, the town remains a little too rebellious and rough-around-the-edges to become completely hip. It still harbors its rugged cowboy past and it seems Marfa never tried to reinvent or market itself. Its cool, eccentric appeal just happened organically, and now, it’s sort of like a way smaller Brooklyn, dropped in the middle of dusty West Texas town with only one traffic light. To us, that sounds pretty awesome.