Marfa is a State of Mind

Marfa is a State of Mind

Having grown up the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains and having lived for a spell in Bolinas, I’ve always been drawn to weird far-flung places full of funky characters and distinct landscapes; they feel like home. So when WRNS Studio began offering an annual scholarship with the mission to “encourage and promote inspiration and critical thinking in design and architecture,” I thought — I’m going to Marfa. I was curious about the act of art pilgrimage, and I wanted a taste of Marfa’s secret sauce.

Founded in the 1880’s as a train-stop in the farthest western border corner of Texas, Marfa has become a rite of passage for design lovers curious about Donald Judd’s escape from New York (he needed space) and the making of this place. I’d wanted to visit since friends returned with tall tales of dancing with cowboys and running through concrete boxes under the desert sky.

The mind-clearing road in and out of Marfa: It pretty much looks like this for 200 miles. And there’s a lot of rail. Photos by Bruce Damonte.

Roughly paved, ghost-towny and quietly brimming with artists and tourists, Marfa has been “found.” A quick internet search will land you in the archives of Vanity Fair, Dwell, the New York Times and endless blogs that care about modern architecture and art. Still, it’s a massive trek to get there — with a four hour flight from San Francisco to El Paso, followed by a three hour drive through rolling, empty desert, you’re looking at a solid day of travel on either end — and once you arrive, it kinda feels like you’ve landed on another planet. The Chihuahuan desert plays no small part in this other-worldliness. Situated atop a highland plane called the Marfa Plateau, the town has an earthy palate of variable browns made of dirt, rocks, and adobe, and blues from the low-slung mountains and the endless sky that makes a curve all around you. There’s also a lot of grassland and cacti. With sparse, mostly single-level homes and few visible signs of commerce or humans from the two-lane highway that runs through this one stoplight town, it would be easy to sneeze and miss Marfa. So, in many ways it still feels super off-radar.

My friends and I arrived late on a Tuesday and went straight to bed. On my first morning, I ventured out solo for coffee. Living in a city for the past 20 years, I expected, naively, to find a cappuccino within a two-minute walk. I crossed the interstate (which sounds dramatic given how few cars pass) and happily found a hand-painted wooden sign propped on the street that read “coffee,” but which led me to a dirt lot with an abandoned school bus that recalled a horror film I’d seen too young. There were no obvious stores or restaurants, just houses and a field. My pale skin was starting to tingle. Things were bright and flat. A train rumbled by, making its big steel noise. I wondered quite seriously where I was.

Photos by Bruce Damonte. 

My coffee dependence is real, like I might get a migraine and go fetal in the dust, real, so I asked a man working on the roof of an adobe house what to do. After a few minutes of chitchat (turns out he’d spent a good chunk of his life in San Francisco’s North Beach before moving to Marfa in the late 90’s), he pointed me to single story building of indiscriminate use, and boom! it was like I’d stepped through a magical portal to design-lover land — concrete floor, high ceilings, natural light, beautifully crafted books about design and architecture, all arranged very neatly. A nice man who looks like my dad after too much tequila (wild white hair and a grimace that’s actually friendly) told me I’d find coffee on the other side of the train tracks.

Train whistles and steel grind are the sounds of Marfa, punctuating the desert silence. Being on foot here is about crossing the tracks, which run through the center of town. Did Judd ponder the trains, notice their repetition and symmetry, simple form and use? Images top and bottom, Molly Thomas. Middle: Bruce Damonte.

Disoriented, slightly irritated, I stepped back out into the sun and took a breath. I reminded myself that I was operating under a different set of parameters. I needed to chill and go with the flow. It was in this state of mind that I was joined by my friends who were already in Marfa mode — by this I mean they were unconcerned about any kind of agenda. We found the coffee, but not before stumbling upon a shop and talking to a woman who let us see what she said were Judd sketches hanging on the wall of her studio. And this experience seemed to unfold into others. We might be headed for a sandwich and end up talking to a gallery owner for two hours, who, realizing how into his shop we were, took us into his home to show us more art. It seemed like everything — galleries, restaurants, the Chinati – took place on foot, under the hot sun, meandering past buildings with unclear uses, cutting over dirt that led to diversions of the best kind.

That initial mixed-bag feeling of disorientation, mild discomfort, curiosity and intrigue — experienced on every trip I’ve ever taken, but sharpened by the flat, hot, wide-open landscape — stayed with me throughout the trip. Indeed, it was my first and constant experience of the place. Part of me wanted to dive in, part of me wanted to bail, like every time I’ve ever put pen to paper when an idea first strikes and I free-write out of curiosity and angst. It’s about being open. And being open in Marfa is deeply connected to its canvas-like landscape, terrain at once rugged in the foreground and velvet in the distance, inviting you you fill it with your own stories, and to take in its mysteries, which brings me to Judd’s concrete boxes at the Chinati Foundation.

Judd’s 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-1984 were cast and assembled onsite over a four year period in a field at the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum which Judd founded. Each unit is 2.5 x 2.5 x 5 meters, made of concrete slabs that are 25 centimeters thick. Photos by Bruce Damonte.

“The specific intention of Chinati is to preserve and present to the public permanent large-scale installations by a limited number of artists. The emphasis is on works in which art and the surrounding landscape are inextricably linked.” – Chinati Foundation 

There was, in Marfa, the metaphorical wander of the loose agenda: the quiet, the lack of distraction, the realness of people not face-screening. Like much of Marfa, where circulation is unsanctioned (the desert seems to assert itself over the built environment) and the programming deeply unclear, Judd’s concrete boxes in the grasslands running the perimeter of the Chinati pulled us into their world of play. I’d heard people talk about the big Texan sky. And the nights were a spectacle; stars haven’t twinkled like that since I was a kid staring up at them from a mountain called Ladyface. But it wasn’t until I walked through the concrete boxes that I saw the Marfa sky truly embrace the land in a slow dance. The big sky and the magnificent light hitting a flat golden earth seem to have provided Judd the space he needed to create and define his art, and for his art to craft space.

One of the people I met in Marfa, not an art lover, said he thought the boxes looked like an unfinished building project, like someone laid foundations and ran out of money. Strangely and unspeakably in that moment, their foundational simplicity was exactly what I enjoyed; the box, for me, elicits our innate need for shelter. In constructing shelter, we alter the landscape, the sky. We can bring them together or tear them apart. Or we can respect, celebrate and experience new things in the land and the sky that could only happen in a specific place — if we’re open to it.

Trekking through dirt and grasslands, wandering through the boxes, the art a kind of canvas for my own experience of wonder and confusion, and joy in all of it this is how it felt to be in Marfa as a whole, where the circulation is mostly unclear and the programming is up to you. Photos by Bruce Damonte.

Read “Art Mecca Step 2: Imagine,” here.