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Weekender: Marfa Light

This quirky art mecca offers creative escape
Written by Charles Lohrmann.

Marfa Book Company owner Tim Johnson operates his store as a creative crossroads, sponsoring events that feature arts, public affairs, and film screenings. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Even though Marfa’s population is small (2,400), the ideas are grand in this Big-Bend-region hideout, and like other “art towns,” Marfa can be mystifying for the newcomer. But don’t be intimidated! Even if you’re baffled by rumors of the latest behind-the-scenes art-world coup, you can get to know Marfa’s quirky personality on your own schedule. There are weekends, such as during the annual film festival in May or Chinati Open House in October, when the crowds can overwhelm the town. But there are quieter times when you might want to just bicycle around town and enjoy the leisurely pace of a West Texas village.

If you don't have an agenda when you arrive in Marfa for the weekend, a good place to ask a couple of questions is the Marfa Book Company. MBC owner Tim Johnson, who took over the bookstore a little more than three years ago (but worked there for years before), holds to a belief that the bookstore (on Highland Avenue, the town’s main street) serves as a community hub and creative crossroads. As such, the MBC frequently hosts films and gallery events along with presentations by artists and writers. Stop here for a quick glimpse into what’s happening at the moment. And, of course, browse the excellent inventory, including sections on art, regional  travel,  history, and literature.

“Our philosophy is that, in today’s world, a bookstore needs to be more of a cultural center,” Johnson explains. “I’m always happy to let people know what’s going on in the different realms of Marfa, whether it’s James McMurtry playing at Padre’s, a punk band playing a backyard show, an art event in a non-traditional space, or something else unexpected. I draw a ton of maps for people to find out-of-the-way places.”

Johnson’s on-the-spot suggestions can be all the more important because of the rate at which both people and places change in Marfa: Galleries and restaurants seem to come and go, or keep odd hours that can change unexpectedly.

As a contrast to the ephemeral nature of life and commerce in Marfa, one of the institutions that keeps the town afloat, creatively speaking, is the Chinati Foundation. Established more than 30 years ago by Donald Judd, the foundation occupies the site of Fort D.A. Russell, a former military base first established in 1911. Judd remodeled some of the military buildings to create exhibit space for his own work and that of other artists he admired.

 I’d planned a tour of the Chinati site (an essential experience of the world according to Donald Judd), but before driving over, I decided to take in the view of Marfa from the top floor of the Presidio County Courthouse. From that vantage, it’s possible to see the edge of town and the open country beyond. With the panorama of the Chinati and Davis mountains in the different distances, the view offers a sense of perspective about your place on the planet. And, the view emphasizes how compact a settlement on the high desert plains can make itself.

Dining in Marfa offers unexpected pleasures, from a spicy burrito for breakfast (or lunch) at the sometimes boisterous Carmen’s or a sumptuous, multi-course fine dining experience at Cochineal or Maiya’s. Given the seasonal variations of the town’s commercial attitude, always double-check hours of operation and devise a workable Plan B. One morning, I was surprised when Carmen’s was closed, but that gave me the excuse to indulge in Swiss chocolate and a croissant at squeeze-marfa near the courthouse.

Marfa lodging includes curious choices as well. For the retro-minimalist-desert experience, seek out the now-stationary trailers at El Cosmico. For local history and classic Southwestern architecture, the Hotel Paisano is the easy choice. Even if you don’t stay in the Paisano, visit the shops in the lobby and see the room dedicated to the 1956 film Giant. James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and other stars slept at the Paisano while filming nearby.

And it’s hard to resist seeking a glimpse of the Marfa Lights. The lights, which appear like erratic headlights in the mountainous nightscape, are attributed to many sources, but it’s the anticipation that counts, and it is a ritual to be observed.

Whether you decide to track down all the alternative-space exhibits or simply wander around this high-desert oasis, expect a mysterious response to the landscape and a  new appreciation for eccentricity.

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