Art + Nature = Marfa
Travel time from:
Austin – 6.5 hours
Dallas – 7.75 hours
Houston – 8.5 hours
San Antonio – 5.75 hours
Lubbock – 5 hours
El Paso – 3 hours
The unlikely marriage of artsy hipsters and old-time ranchers has produced a quirky offspring.
By Tom Harvey
This is a tale of two cities: Marfa, old and new. Perhaps more correctly, it’s about the integration of old and new into something more diverse, embracing modern times while keeping deep roots in the old soil.
There’s plenty to do now in Marfa for travelers — art, music, great food, places to stay. But to understand the place’s fundamental appeal, it’s important to listen to the old guard as well as the new, and see how the two are blending.
“If you just stuck with people who have been here forever, you’d have very slim pickin’s,” says Aurie West, a Marfa matriarch whose son Hayes runs cattle on the family’s Escondido Ranch nearby. “Some of what’s happened is good and some is not so good, but there have been a lot of lovely people move in. So you have to grow with it.”
Aurie’s daughter Adele grew up on the ranch and now teaches school in Fort Davis. She says her mom is a bit of a social butterfly at age 75, mixing it up in the new Marfa.
“My kids in college say it’s terrible when your grandmother has more of a social life than you do,” Adele laughs.
For one thing, there’s the craft group Aurie joined.
“A knit shop opened up a couple years ago, and they started a craft night,” Aurie West says. “There’s not anybody in that group I’ve known all my life, but it’s a great group. The first year I went [in 2010], there were a whole lot of young Chinati [Foundation] interns. It’s amazing to see knitting and crocheting taking vogue, to see them start and whiz by.”
To be sure, a lot of new things are whizzing by in Marfa these days. The town still has only about 1,900 permanent residents. But it’s attracting all kinds of folks.
This decorated hearse is a downtown fixture.
The week I was there, so was Morley Safer and a 60 Minutes TV crew, shooting a travel story. The week before, the Houston Chronicle ran this item: “Natalie Portman, her husband Benjamin Millepied and their son Aleph were seen in Marfa this past weekend, according to the New York Daily News. Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation Weekend drew many art elites to town and to the restaurant Cochineal, where Portman and her family were forced to wait.”
It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1980s, Marfa was dying. Drought and economic recession took down many a ranching family.
“It was kind of a doldrums. The ranch families and businesses had left, and the art scene had not happened yet. So it was really a sad time; you’d go through town and see very little life,” says John Fowlkes. Fowlkes grew up in Marfa in a ranching family, left to work in a Houston law firm for years, but has returned and is now the county attorney. The Fowlkes family owned the giant Sauceda Ranch, which later became Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Then things started happening. In 1986, renowned New York artist Donald Judd opened the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum. It was joined later by the Judd Foundation, which offers tours of the artist’s former residence, La Mansana de Chinati. Houston attorney Tim Crowley bought buildings and restored them, creating the Marfa Book Company and Crowley Theater.
“It’s probably somewhat true that art, and the people it drew who came or came back, saved Marfa,” Fowlkes says. “For the most part, I think the change has been welcomed. By me, anyway.”
One of those who came back is Mercer Black Declercq, a fourth-generation rancher’s granddaughter.
“I have vivid memories of growing up with no TV, and nobody to play with but my brother,” Declercq told me as we lunched at the Food Shark, a Mediterranean food cart near the railroad tracks that draws an eclectic Austin-type crowd, serving dishes like “Marfalafel.”
“We spent most of our childhood looking for arrowheads in dry creekbeds and riding horses,” she recalls. “We had wild turkeys that we would feed daily. If you teach them to come to you, then when you’re ready to eat them you know where they are.”
But Declercq’s family moved to Austin in 1983 after the ranching recession hit.
“I remember saying I would never go back to Marfa,” she recalls. “There was nothing to do for a 16-year-old out there.”
During a 2003 visit, she discovered her hometown had changed.
“I remember being wowed by this fab bookstore with great coffee and a wine bar,” she recalls. “I asked, ‘What’s happening in Marfa?’” Friends told her that after Judd’s death, the art scene took off.
The courthouse anchors the town.
Indeed, looming large over the improbable rise of a tiny West Texas town as an art mecca is the long shadow of one man: Donald Judd. Why did he choose to relocate here in the 1970s?
Part of the answer is that Judd had a passion for the desert, nurtured by family trips to Baja California.
“He was interested in the connection between art, the way it’s installed in buildings and the landscape it sits in,” says Ann Marie Nafziger, Chinati Foundation director of education.
It’s been said that nature abhors a straight line. Not Donald Judd. He loved clean, geometric precision. Perhaps he liked the way the razor-straight lines of his art contrasted with the wandering chaos of the surrounding high desert grasslands and mountains.
Another reason for his relocation to Marfa? Judd needed room. He’d already filled a five-story New York building with art. Marfa had space in spades: plenty of big empty buildings, surrounded by the big wide open.
Today, you’ll see those buildings restored and filled with monumental art. The artillery sheds of former Fort D.A. Russell are filled with Judd’s “100 untitled works in mill aluminum,” row upon row of gleaming rectangles, bounded by floor-to-ceiling glass walls that show the outside landscape all around. In this space, whispers of tour visitors echo like the voices of penitents in Renaissance cathedrals.
Likewise, the cavernous former Marfa Wool and Mohair Building is filled with Judd contemporary John Chamberlain’s “22 variously titled works in painted and chromium-plated steel” (old car bodies crunched into folded shapes, like giant crumpled balls of colored paper).
Art has drawn rafts of newcomers and returnees, who mix with the old-timers. Declercq moved back in 2006 and stays hopping busy as a graphic artist and marketing consultant. She embodies the mix of new and old, and she says her ranching heritage is still part of the scene.
“I think most people who come here come because of a respect for the old,” she says. “They love that there are cowboys around. Just because we have New York-based nonprofit art spaces doesn’t mean that it’s New York. It’s still the country, and people like that.”
Few came from as far away as Verena Zbinden-Vollenweider, who arrived in Marfa from Winterthur, Switzerland.
“I was a Houston refugee wanting a better quality of life without air conditioning,” says Zbinden-Vollenweider, who now runs Squeeze Marfa, a charming little eatery across from the county courthouse. Besides good coffee and breakfast, she sells artisan chocolate, air-shipped from the family business back home, Vollenweider Chocolatier Confiseur. You might say it’s out of this world.
“This may be the only chocolate that’s left planet Earth,” she tells me, showing a photo of Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier floating weightless in the space shuttle, holding a chocolate box. “All four times he went into space, he took my brother’s chocolate.”
For my first night in Marfa, I savored the elegant comfort of the historic Hotel Paisano. Built in 1929, it cemented its iconic place in Marfa history in 1955, when Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson stayed there while making the movie Giant.
But for night No. 2, I wanted something different. I found it at El Cosmico, along with another tale of a ranching daughter who emigrated to the big city, though her heart pulled her back west.
Visitors can stay in travel trailers at El Cosmico.
Liz Lambert grew up in Odessa, but spent a lot of time on the family’s McKnight Ranch north of Marfa. She moved from Manhattan back to Austin in the early 1990s and developed a bevy of hip hotels and coffee shops.
In the mid-2000s, she took her hotelier moxy to Marfa. El Cosmico, per the website, is “part vintage trailer, safari tent and teepee hotel and campground, part creative lab, greenhouse and amphitheatre — a community space that fosters and agitates artistic and intellectual exchange.”
“I look at El Cosmico as sort of an armada in the ocean of desert,” Lambert says. “I think the trailers have a ship-like quality about them that fits so perfectly out there, despite the fact that there’s no real body of water for hundreds of miles. Plus there’s something so nomadic about the place. I think trailers and teepees and yurts fit that feeling of movement and exploration.”
El Cosmico’s trailers are an array of lovingly restored vintage travel trailers from the 1940s and 1950s.
“We like the orphan brands — we don’t do any Airstreams,” Lambert says. “We just like the shapes and interiors of Vagabonds, Mansions and Kozy Coaches.”
If the trailers are too pricey for you at $110 to $150 per night, try a safari tent at $65. If you want the full Cosmico experience, consider going during the annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love in late September.
After all that, I wanted to clear out and see things afresh from a high vantage. I found just the place for night three, one of the finest backpacking and day-hike mountain getaways in Texas. It’s closer to the big cities than either of the Big Bend parks, and you can sip a latté in Marfa the next morning.
Many visitors know and love Davis Mountains State Park’s developed southern portion, which contains Indian Lodge and the eye-popping view from Skyline Drive, drive-in camping and great trails. But few people know that most of the park — about 1,700 of its roughly 2,700 acres — lies north of Texas Highway 118. This is primo mountain wilderness, the beautiful Limpia Canyon Primitive Area, accessed by seven miles of hiking and horseback trails. From Limpia Creek by the highway, the trail ascends 900 feet to a stunning overlook that’s higher than Skyline Drive — from here you can see right over the southern part of the park and behold the Marfa plain and great shadowed folds of mountains in the blue distance.
I’ll let you in on a happy secret: the park is planning 10 miles of new trails for hikers, mountain bikers and horses in the Limpia Canyon area. The Sheep Pen Canyon trail system will abandon all the current old jeep road trails in favor of new singletrack. If all goes as planned, visitors should enjoy new trails and primitive campsites sprinkled throughout this gorgeous wilderness by late 2013.
Old and new, hip and primitive, sociable and isolated, Marfa offers an interesting mix of two diverse worlds.
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