Making Art in the Middle of Nowhere

Zigzag Black

As long as we lived in Texas, we left with an ache in our hearts for never having made the time to visit one spot way out west in the Trans Pecos Desert: Marfa.

Marfa is a sort of legendary place, known for its artistic history and prevailing mystery, or more recently for Beyonce’s tour of the region. Begun on the abandoned ground of a retired Army base that closed in 1945, Marfa became the place it is today because of the artist named Donald Judd, who defined American minimalism in the 60’s and 70’s. His legacy lives on in the Chinati and Judd Foundations, as well as in the residual spirit of artistic ingenuity that draw a steady stream of diversely curious visitors, and even a few new residents. It just feels like a place to make things, quietly and deliberately without any approval necessary from a world that feels a million miles away.

With a population of only around 2,000 people, it’s a quiet place. The unhurried streets are lined with crackling paint and dusty commercial spaces, many of which lie dormant. Others have been repurposed as galleries, workshops and studios, like Cast + Crew, Shop Freda, Mano Mercantile, and Cobra Rock Boot Company. The shops themselves are evidence that despite its sleepy exterior, Marfa’s creative pulse is alive and well.

Our trip would not have been complete without several of the town’s best known landmarks, like the Prada Marfa concept store, a design conceived in 2005 by Berlin based artists Elmgreen & Dragset, complete with rows of solitary right foot heels from 2005 Fall Collection, and handbags missing their bottoms. It’s bizarre to say the least, but indisputably magnetic. It sits alone in what feels like the literal middle of nowhere, its misplaced pomp and frills glowing like a light box as the desert sun fades day after day.

Another of these magnetic sites to see is El Cosmico, a kooky mix of vintage trailers, teepees, and starlit yurts. We arrived late to check into our tented canvas room for the night, and walked the grounds with a complete sense of wonderment. Not only for the setting, but the quiet, the way our laughter cut through the night softened by the warm air swirling gently past us. The stars popped out of the emergent blackness like specks on an infinitely blank canvas – a call to imagine in silence. The next morning I showered basically outside alongside Texas-sized spiders and a few shy neighbors, while commending myself for the immersion of the senses I had allowed. How I had somehow relaxed enough to let the place cast its spell over me.

Perhaps our experience of Marfa was entirely typical: the same landmarks, the same photos, the same sort of helicopter review. But what we loved about Marfa – what made it real to us – was the experience of its people. Our tour guide at the Chinati Museum. The guys who served us falafel from a food truck window. The concierge at El Cosmico. The taco lady who called our Spanish speaking friend her son. It was a close encounter with an entirely different kind of life, one driven by a slower pace, a gentler kind of ambition. For the most part, you don’t land in Marfa by accident. You choose it, and then it chooses you. We were privileged to witness its enchanting power, and hope to back under its spell again soon.