By Barbara Rodriguez
Mention the far-flung West Texas town of Marfa and most folks reference the mysterious lights that sometimes dance not far outside the city limits. But the Marfa lights that have me returning time and again are the sweeping shafts of sunlight that transform almost everything into something grander, more significant. It’s that hero light that brings me back to the windswept, high-desert landscape made famous in the film classic Giant.
It’s the light that draws artists, too; and where there are artists, there are galleries. Beyond the late Donald Judd’s world-famous Chinati Foundation, Marfa (population 2,424) now has more galleries than convenience stores, each with its own vision and artistic wattage. Passing through not long ago with my 10-year-old son, Elliott, I decided to stop into a few. Children and galleries are not an easy mix, but, like learning to swim, art appreciation is a gradual process; opening a young person’s eyes to art creates a survival skill of a different sort.
On the drive, the rumpy javelina and diving hawks we glimpsed had drawn his full attention, but I wonder how he’ll react when the viewing is more static.
The Paisano’s dark rafters and cool Mexican tile beg a siesta, but the hotel’s shops offer baby steps into gallery hopping. T-shirts and books segue into art any kid could love—a wall of tableaus by Carlos Moseley, a Hill Country artist inspired by river rocks, flint, fossils, and driftwood. Asked to find a favorite, he chooses “Bow-legged Bill,” a tiny, stone composition of a mustachioed cowpoke. When he begins asking prices, I know he’s hooked.
Steps away, Greasewood Gallery’s more traditional space—a canted sea of Mexican tile floors—summons. Today, the gallery’s silvered beams float above the canvases of David Loren Bass, who renders local landmarks in highly textured paint as prickly and craggy as the featured landscapes. Elliott is drawn to the bright palette of a splendid salute to the hoodoo (the vertical pikes of basalt that are a signature of the Davis Mountains). When he tells me that the painter’s technique has “a sort of Van Gogh punchiness,” I think we’re on the right track.
The success of this art lesson may, however, prove expensive. Across the hall at a shop chockablock with art books and supplies, Elliott announces that he needs to “stock up,” as he is now inspired to begin sketching. It is an argument I buy into—literally.
The next morning we start with what I think of as the most child-friendly sort of art—folk art and “outsider” works—at Yard Dog, the new, Marfa branch of the popular Austin gallery. I thought the idea of art executed with mud mixed with Pepsi or viewed with 3-D glasses would be a draw, but Elliott was not impressed by the more whimsical pieces at Yard Dog, and the extreme visions of some artists—raw, intriguing, and compelling to me—had him bolting for the exit. His strong reaction, I explain to him, means the art has touched him—and not all such touches are gentle.
The next day dawns bright. Over break-fast at The Brown Recluse (for sale at press time), Elliott says he has come to the conclusion that “art can be anything that makes you think in a new way.”
From the February 2009 issue.
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