Discovering Marfa, Texas: An island in the desert

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Outside of town is a famous permanent art installation by Elmgreen and Dragset called "Prada Marfa." It has become a famous landmark surrounded by controversy.—Danielle Mulcahy

Island artist duo Danielle Mulcahy and Walker Roman hit the road at the beginning of October, armed with a renovated fifth-wheel trailer, all of their possessions, and art-making materials. Their goal is to make art, sell art at different venues and pop-ups, educate about art making, and live more simply, responsibly, and in the present. See more at barnyardsaintsart.com. They last wrote on April 5 from Habitable Spaces, a small, grassroots sustainable farm and artist community in Kingsbury, Texas.

There isn’t a whole lot to find 500 miles west of Austin. Once or twice on our journey, a roadrunner would characteristically dash across the pavement, or even more theatrically, a tumbleweed. Our destination among the vast nothingness was Marfa, Texas — an island in an ocean of desert.

Much as the ocean is the Vineyard’s stoic gatekeeper, imposing 45 minutes of contemplation and observation in the form of a ferry ride, the desert creates a threshold of emptiness, impassible by any means other than a three-hour drive during which both mind and landscape transform from busy and twisting to flat and open.

The magic of this subtle barrier was heightened by our travel at dusk, casting flat blue light on the omnipresent creosote bush, and shrouding Marfa in the mystery of night. Once parked, exhausted, we immediately went to bed. The next morning, eager to experience the new landscape, I stepped outside for my morning coffee, and was frozen in place by uncanny stillness. There was no wind, no sound except a distant croaking raven and nothing but dusty yellow grass stretching to the empty blue sky.

As we wandered into town, we saw Marfa is just like the land surrounding it, empty. The train last stopped in town in the early ’70s, and Marfa never recovered. Every other building is boarded up, the single grocery store only has five aisles, and the only place we tried to get a sandwich for lunch ran out of bread. Through this great lacking, however, Marfa reveals herself. The constant presence of the void and awareness of emptiness creates a rarefied atmosphere where even the most mundane encounter becomes charged with meaning. To put it simply, walking in Marfa is weird. We liked it.

It was precisely this elusive quality that drew the artist Donald Judd to Marfa, where in the early ’90s he bought entire blocks of the town and the retired Air Force base. Before his death, Judd transformed the base into a permanent installation space called the Chinati Foundation for his minimalist sculptures, a pairing that couldn’t be more perfect. Judd’s sculptures resonate with the equally sparse landscape, and each elevates the other. I’ve seen plenty of Judd sculptures before, but never felt them until visiting Marfa. This place was special.

During the short stay, a single topic dominated conversations with our friend Mary Etherington, who moved to Marfa after decades on the Vineyard. Was this what the Island was once like? A mix of cultured bohemians and like-minded one-percenters? Is this the time to invest in Marfa, and hope for an explosive return on investment, like Chilmark real estate before the phone lines? Could Marfa help launch our art careers? The answer, we discovered, was no: This place, like many we’ve visited, is a smaller reflection of America as a whole.

Judd created a minimalist’s paradise in rural Texas, but in doing so also sowed the seeds of its undoing. Putting Marfa on the international art map set the wheels of gentrification in motion. Each year more of the Latino families who maintained the town between booms are forced out by living costs. The hip, art-savvy crowd who first migrated to Judd’s vision are priced out of rentals, as buildings are bought and turned into high-end Airbnbs. Plus there’s talk of building a new airport, for the art collectors to fly into; who else is going to buy the $100,000 Christopher Wool paintings in the new hotel lobby? Here, too, the river between rich and poor is widening.

After three days that seemed strangely divorced from time, we departed for New Mexico, back into the subtle barrier of the Texas flatlands. Traveling West, Border Patrol checkpoints are the single interrupters of the vast emptiness. Some are visible miles over the horizon, with white blimps floating hauntingly in place, tethered to the ground by great Kevlar leads. These eyes-in-the-sky spot any would-be border crosser, and effortlessly dispatch a convoy of armed border agents to intercept before they ever cross the Rio Grande, another river ever widening.