Marfa, Texas: A Surprising Art Mecca

A small town with big fans

By Amanda Ramirez

Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


Marfa lights

In spite of its small size, Marfa is a huge tourist destination for a phenomenon known as the "Marfa Lights", or "the Marfa ghost lights." The lights are described as white, red, orange or yellow basketball-sized spheres that float and dance approximately 5 feet above the ground.

The origin of the lights has never been explained, but scientists have theorized the site as a mirage, traffic on the highway, swamp gas and even ghosts. Since the 1800s, there have been reports of the strange spheres of light east of the town on Route 67.

Presidio County, where Marfa is located, built a viewing station 90 miles from Marfa for tourists to see the lights near the site of an old air base on Route 67.

According to City-data.com, the Marfa Lights Festival is held over Labor Day weekend every year. For information and tickets, contact the Marfa Chapter of Commerce: 800-650-9696

"No service for 80 miles," reads the green sun-glittered signs. To get to Marfa, Texas, people must want to get there. People must drive miles and miles to seemingly nowhere. People do not just stumble upon this town of 2,000 residents. Why would anyone care to end up in a city like Marfa? It is small, out of the way, and does not have a single McDonalds. Nevertheless, don't let this stop you from the many amazing things Marfa has to offer.

What makes Marfa different from any other small town is the character it amasses. Marfa is a town known for its richness in art, culture and design. Dozens of galleries are found within walking distance of one another.

Marfa is a town in far West Texas, located 30 minutes from Alpine, Texas, and is close to Big Bend National Park. The name, Marfa, comes from the Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, which the wife of the president of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad was reading at the time. Marfa was founded as a railroad water stop in the 1920s and soon became home to the Marfa Army Airfield during World War II. The airfield was used as a training ground and base to many in the United States Army.

Marfa is a dense tourist area. Some of its most profound sites include the Texas town square, which displays classical architecture of historic Marfa buildings, the Chinati Foundation, an indoor and outdoor modern art gallery displaying many works from the famous artist Donald Judd, and the Marfa lights, which are mysterious and colorful lights that can be seen in a clear Marfa sky. The town has a lot to offer to those who are interested and open to view culture, art, and mystery from a town in the middle of nowhere.

Upon driving into Marfa, the town gives the impression of quiet and simple remoteness. It is a Sunday afternoon and few people are out. Everyone is keeping to themselves and a calm is blanketing the town. A resident at a local gas station leads the way to one of the most well-known art galleries in Marfa, the Chinati Foundation. The Chinati Foundation used to be part of a Marfa military base. The foundation is set into a series of small rectangular and U-shaped buildings. The buildings used to be barracks for the military men, and now house art installations and pieces for people to take pleasure in. These art pieces include a series of 12 light installations by Donald Judd, provoking a sort of rainbow spectrum. Art pieces on the foundation also embrace illustrations by soldiers, abstract line drawings by Ingolfur Arnarsson, abstract paintings by John Wesley, sculptures by Roni Horn, and hundreds more.

Visitor of the Chinati Foundation, Albert Martinez, from El Paso, Texas, says he had never indulged in art much "My brother is much more of the art connoisseur," Martinez said laughing at his brother standing next to him.

John Wesley, Permanent collection, the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by Florian Holzherr, 2001, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation. © John Wesley, New York

John Wesley, Permanent collection, the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by Florian Holzherr, 2001, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation. © John Wesley, New York

"I just came along for the ride. I'd never been to Marfa, but must say I am pleasantly surprised at how dense such a small town can be. A first time visitor may arrive thinking they're about to have a terrible time, but will probably leave in bewilderment. That's the kind of place this town is. It's sort of amazing."

Chinati intern, Allison Feeney, works as a tour guide for the foundation. She grew up in California where she received her B.A. in art. She then traveled to New York to work on her M.A. in Art and Museum Studies, which brought her to receive an internship at the Chinati Foundation. "I love it here," Feeney said. "It's nowhere close to the way art is on either of the coasts. The town is so small, and it feels like every art piece was picked to match the idea that Marfa gives—strength and delicacy." Feeney's job required her to know endless information about Marfa, the Chinati Foundation, and each of the artists displayed.

"Marfa has a wonderful architecture to it," Feeney said while looking towardthe outdoor landscape. "Everything is so flat, but there's a great regal attitude it provides. I really do love this town, not just for the art aspect, but just because the town is completely unique, and this is coming from someone who has lived in both California and New York."

Travelers from all over the world come to see that "regal attitude" that Marfa so perfectly exudes. Upon personal travels to Marfa, people from Canada, New York, Texas, New Mexico, and Russia came hundreds and thousands of miles just to see what this small town was all about.

A second time visitor of the Chinati Foundation was Deanna Duplechain from Austin, Texas. "I came years ago," Duplechain reminisced. "But now I have a family and I really want them to be able to see the beauty this town has. It's so perfect, but there's no way I could ever live here. I enjoy tall downtown buildings too much."

Art in Marfa

Marfa may not have a single traffic light, but it's home to three museums and nine galleries, and bands such as Wilco, Bon Iver, Sonic Youth, and more.

Several movies have been filmed in Marfa, including "No Country for Old Men," "There will be Blood," and the 1956 film featuring James Dean, Dennis Hopper and Elizabeth Taylor, "Giant," was filmed in Marfa.

According to city-data.com, the Chinati Foundation is a 10-building, 340-acre Marfa museum that features large scale, contemporary art exhibits.

The Chinanti Foundation was started by Donald Judd, one of the fathers of minimalism who moved to Marfa from New York in 1973.

One of the most famous pieces of art in the area is a convincing, life-sized, faux Prada store sculpture less than 40 miles outside of the town on a deserted stretch of highway. The artists, American architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, called the work "pop architectural land art."

Art is not the only thing to rave about in Marfa. The town is known for packing a punch in the food department, as well. The Pizza Foundation is a small restaurant that makes each pizza Italian-style and completely from scratch. From the time of ordering to finally enjoying the pizza, a single person will have to wait at least half an hour for the pie to be ready. While waiting, six stylish and unique-looking men talk about what they had enjoyed in the town. Steven Chellvz from Montreal was blown away at how amazing the town really was. "I study art in Montreal and had learned about several of the artists who have their work displayed in Marfa," Chellvz said. "I thought I was crazy spending thousands of dollars to make a trip from Montreal to small town Texas, but now I don't want to leave!"

Another interesting man at the Pizza Foundation was Jeff Mondle from Russia. "I'm a gallery owner in Vancouver," Mondle said while adjusting his tortoise-rimmed glasses. "They're the artists," he said, pointing to his friends at the table. "I just like collecting it. I've bought a couple pieces already and I've only been here six hours. Marfa does not disappoint. We're already talking about making a second trip over the summer vacation and possibly visiting a few of the surrounding towns and cities, like Austin."

Walking around the dirt roads of Marfa there are many things that are characteristically beautiful about the town, from the juxtaposition in architecture of old and new buildings, to the uniqueness of houses. In context Marfa may seem like just any other old, small, pass-through to get somewhere else-sort-of-town, but there is a reason why hundreds and thousands of people come to visit every single day. There's something about Marfa that brings such an appreciation.

Travelers like Michael Vold and his 14-year-old son, Eric, are avid appreciators. "We're from New York City, born and raised," Michael said. "We came down for spring break to see beautiful things. After we've spent a couple days enjoying Marfa we'll travel to Big Bend to go camping. It should be quite the adventure, since we're from such a larger city. I'm thrilled."

Duplechain raved on how unique the town was to her. "There's things here that you don't see every day," she said smiling. "Everything is out of the ordinary and it's hard to not be completely obsessed with it. If I could describe Marfa in one word—funky. It's one funky town."