The achingly rich, take-your-breath-away desert sunset had followed us from Marathon, to Alpine and into the sleepy, seemingly abandoned streets of Marfa, TX. We arrived on a dark and crystal clear evening, the kind of quiet stillness in the air you would expect in the high desert. It’s all too convenient to dismiss Marfa as yet another desolate West Texas town with only one stoplight and a Dairy Queen, inching its way to extinction. Most would probably just see it as a pit stop and thus another point closer to Big Bend. But for those familiar with its artistic and cultural significance, Marfa is a virutal art oasis in the middle of the desert, drawing art-loving pilgrims and patrons from around the world.
Minimalist Donald Judd (he strongly objected to that term) uprooted from NYC in the late 1970s and from then on, made Marfa his home and artistic community, putting it on the map as a destination and welcoming environment for creatives. Strongly drawn to the relationship between how landscape contributes to art and its reception, he believed that artists should be able to create permanent exhibitions and installations of their art. In his many years in Marfa he founded the superb Chinati Foundation contemporary art museum, in addition to acquiring an army base; in his lifetime, he filled the base with light installations and art, including his most famous concrete boxes.
While out in Marfa, we stayed at the Thunderbird, which we would highly recommend. Stark white walls along with paintings and photographs by local Marfa artists, pecan wood furniture, stained concrete floors, cowhide rugs and bath products by Malin + Goetz (a New York favourite). For the uber cool, there is El Cosmico, a communal outpost comprised of airstream vintage trailers, safari tents and teepees, as conceived by Austin design guru Liz Lambert and her company, Bunkhouse. Liz is responsible for the design of Austin landmarks like Jo’s on South Congress (I love you so much), as well as the Hotel Saint Cecilia and Hotel San Jose.
Thunderbird // Orange honeysuckle vines by the pool //Paisano Hotel housed Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson while filming “Giant” in the Marfa desert
As do most folks who go to Marfa, we desperately wanted to visit the PRADA desert installation, which is actually out towards Valentine, TX. While driving there, a dust storm started kicking up, and tumbleweed began making their way across the fences. Unfamiliar with tumbleweed, we had a hearty chuckle, thinking how adorable they looked hopping down the road. Until finally, there were so many of them (we estimated a couple of hundred) all crossing the road with us oncoming…in short, our minivan being pelted by tumbleweed -we had to turn back. PRADA MARFA derailed by TUMBLEWEEDS. We couldn’t believe we’d driven clear across the state, only to be turned around with only a few miles to go. Created by artists Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa is a permanent sculpture/land art that will be left to be weathered by the elements, broken down by the desert winds and hot sun, only to finally decay away over the years into the dusty Texas soil.
//PRADA Marfa photo courtesy of Wiki
Rusty barbed wire + tumbleweed close ups // Impending tumbleweed dust storm
And finally…there are the Marfa ghost lights. These lights are probably the most famous of the mystery lights in America. There have been many theories to explain the odd phenomenon, from reflections of brush fires to seismic events, copper mining and even the spirits of Cherokee and Catawba warriors slain there in an epic battle more than eight centuries ago. A little ways east of Marfa on Route 67 you will find the McDonald Observatory, the perfect viewing area to spot these eerily unexplained flashes of light. We did see some flashes of light flicker and dance in the distance. Strange, yes. Difficult to explain, absolutely, which I suppose is kind of like Marfa itself: artfully unique and worth braving tumbleweeds for.