Marfa's Time Warp

by Larry Burnett

The Chinati Foundation exterior. Photo: Charlie Cano

The mysterious little desert town of Marfa, with its "ghost lights" and vast emptiness, continues to draw travelers looking for adventure, inspiration, and art. It's the same as it ever was — retro and futuristic. Larry Burnett tries to find the beginning.

MARFA, Texas – To understand what has happened in Marfa, Texas, you must understand what has not happened. Unlike so many other pioneer towns whose carcasses have been chewed up, spit-out, bandaged and boarded, Marfa's story is remarkable for its complete reinvention of itself. Part ghost town and part artist colony, a visit to Marfa is a trip back in time.

Town matriarch Wanda Pierce put it best when she told me, "It's the last frontier of Texas." In fact, it may be one of the last frontiers of the United States. She would know. Wanda and her husband, Eddie Pierce, moved to Marfa in 1946 to improve her husband's asthma condition — a trip speckled with 60 miles of unpaved roads. The region is wonderfully dry and high (it sits a mile above sea level) with virtually no humidity. Over the next half-century, the Pierces managed to start many of the town's businesses, including the Thunderbird Hotel, one of the key components in Marfa's revival over 40 years later.

What makes Wanda proud is that Marfa's character has remained unchanged despite an influx of newcomers. The only national chains within city limits are an Exxon and an old Dairy Queen, but even these are far enough away to not spoil the town's ghostly appeal. And that ghostliness, along with the accompanying silence, is why its reputation as a thriving arts community is so surprising. It's certainly not apparent when approaching the one-stoplight and picture-postcard town center. I half expected tumbleweeds to start rolling through.

But listen and look closely, and you start realizing something is happening here. It's the people — men with long beards, women with that vintage tinge. These are the new Marfanians, transplants from nearby Austin and Santa Fe and as far afield as Brooklyn. They are pioneers staking their claim — selling curious goods, making world-class art, preparing locally inspired cuisine.

The town's destination as an arts center began when New York artist Donald Judd discovered an abandoned army fort  that had been decommissioned in 1946 on the edge of town. It was 1971, and Marfa's economy was dying. Judd, with the assistance of New York's Dia Art Foundation, began buying the Army facilities in 1979 and formed The Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum, in 1986. The collection features permanent installations by Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin, among others, and now occupies more than ten buildings in town. It was Chinati's expansion and the fact that many notable motion pictures have been filmed here — Giant (with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean), No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood — that have earned Marfa its reputation as a cultural capital.

What's most interesting about Marfa is how the residents have a knack for cleverly reimagining things. Army barracks, built in 1911, are now major contemporary art museums. Old school buses have been transformed into makeshift dining rooms. Food Shark is a '70s-era food truck that serves fantastic gourmet fare. Former western-wear stores showcase creations from internationally known artists. It's a reincarnation on a grand scale, a lesson in both preservation and perseverance.

As I met the locals, I recognized a few distinct populations: those that arrived within the past ten years, the old-timers whose families have ties to Marfa's days as a cattle boomtown, and the Mexican-Americans prevalent throughout the Southwest portion of this country. It's an interesting mix, considering the town has just over 2,000 residents.

The newbies want to create an oasis away from the America they fled, and it's no surprise why they picked Marfa. It's in the middle of nowhere — the nearest major airport is a three-hour drive. To get here you must drive through vast, primitive landscape. It's the perfect place for a new settlement. To their credit, they've kept Marfa together, and wonderfully scrambled time for the rest of us. 


See our list of Marfa Essentials.

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