Sunday, March 15, 2009

Desert Town

For those who think of Gosford as a cultural desert, here is how Marfa made culture in the desert.
From last weeks Chicago Tribune.

Marfa makes an art out of quirky.
Josh Noel | Tribune reporter
March 8, 2009
MARFA, Texas—Much like mornings and evenings in this high-desert town, afternoons are sleepy and not much happens. About lunchtime, that makes a faded silver lunch truck blasting tinny 1970s FM hits the town's cultural, social and culinary center. Parked in a gravel lot along Marfa's quiet main drag, the Food Shark offers an unlikely bounty of fast food: homemade falafel, mole-rubbed pork tacos, fresh veggie panini, triple-chocolate espresso cookies baked that morning. The biggest surprise, however, comes in your change. It's a $2 bill. That little scrap of currency is what makes Food Shark unlike so many lunch trucks and Marfa unlike so many towns of 1,887. "I figure when someone is walking around and they look in their wallet and they see that, they'll think of us," said Adam Bork, 38, an artist and musician who started Food Shark with his girlfriend two years ago.
And there you have Marfa, deep in the mountain desert belly of West Texas and three hours from a major airport. It is always performing, always surprising, always subtly weird. Marfa is so subtly weird that it is missing the one thing any self-respecting West Texas town really needs—a dive bar. But it does have a gourmet grocery store, a National Public Radio affiliate, nine art galleries, three contemporary art museums and the most lasting work by the father of minimalism, Donald Judd, planted in the desert at the edge of town. It has the Marfa Lights, an unexplained band of colored orbs that float above the horizon to the east. James Dean's third (and last) major film, "Giant," was shot here, as was " No Country for Old Men," which landed the president of The Marfa National Bank a tiny but memorable role: the gullible hick who gets a cattle gun in the forehead on the side of a highway. In short, Marfa is a strange and strangely charmed town that shouldn't exist. Chip Love, a warm, chatty 51-year-old, was offered the "No Country" role after a friend who knew Joel and Ethan Coen asked him to chauffeur the filmmakers while they scouted locations. He's not sure why they cast him, but he's content that his film career apparently started and ended with a movie that won the Academy Award for best picture last year. "That's the thing about this town," Love said. "You can always be in the right place at the right time. Or even the wrong place at the right time." But the other thing about Marfa is that it's still a blown-out desert town. It's tough to tell which faded stucco buildings are shuttered forever and which aren't. Stand in the middle of town in the middle of the day and you'll see a truck roll by, then maybe another. Then nothing. Then a bicycle, then a car, then more nothing. Most memorable is the wind. It blows through clean and strong and brings the smell of rain from 100 miles away even if the rain itself never shows. For decades, this was a ranching town, pure and simple.

That changed when Judd moved to Marfa in 1973. He was tired of how predictably his art was being shown in New York, so he looked west to integrate his life and his work into a stark landscape. He investigated Baja California and Tucson, Ariz., but settled in Marfa because it was "most practical," a guide told me during a visit to Judd's home, a former military storage complex that doubles as a museum. "He didn't say much more about it than that," the guide said. Judd, who died in 1994, later installed 100 aluminum boxes—each the exact same size but with the space divided differently inside—in an abandoned military garage at the edge of town. He replaced the garage's sliding doors with floor-to-ceiling glass, which makes the desert a backdrop for his silvery boxes and allows golden western light to dance through them. He invited several fellow artists to also install work on the grounds, the whole of which is now a contemporary art museum called the Chinati Foundation. It draws art lovers from around the world. Judd arrived when Melissa Livingston, 41, was growing up in Marfa, her father running a hardware store that is still open. Today she is a desk clerk at the Thunderbird Hotel, a blissfully spare, hip place where guests can check out a manual typewriter or Stack-o-Matic record player—with albums—for their rooms. At first Judd was just "some New York artist," Livingston recalled, but then he built those boxes, which confused a fair number of locals. Tourism picked up, then came the artists and then the galleries. The transition from ranching town to ranching/art town (ranching still comes first) has brought more strangers and makes Livingston less eager to let her children run free. But the growth has been good. "I'm sure some people were resentful at the changes, but the artists have fit in," Livingston said. "At gallery openings, you'll see all types. Some of the ranching types, they like it, and sometimes they're like, 'Hmmm.' " Judd didn't just bring status and art to Marfa; he started a pattern of the art-minded moving to this little Western outpost—or at least buying second homes. What has resulted is a strange little place where you can pass a storefront in the darkened downtown on a Wednesday night and find Julie Speed, whose work sells for as much as $40,000, dragging chalk across an easel. She streaks a few lines, hops back to evaluate, bobs to the music, leaps forward, then does it again. It could be a front-row seat for her next masterwork. One day I drove the dirt roads just out of town to find some locals who were here before the art. The door I randomly knocked on, however, belonged to Vilis Inde, 50, and Tom Jacobs, 52, a gay couple who moved from Minneapolis four years ago to do what people do in Marfa—open a gallery. Their inde/jacobs gallery is housed in an old stucco building near downtown, but a replacement, designed by a Swedish architect, is under construction up the street. It will be one of the few new commercial buildings in town, but there's a creeping feeling more construction will follow—and soon. Inde and Jacobs, who have lived in New York and Chicago, respectively, said they're quite at home in what might be West Texas' most open-minded town. Inde said he "snuck into Texas by coming to Marfa." "I don't consider myself a Texan at all," he said. "Our friends and our conversations are what keep us here. Our lives are interesting. That's the whole point of this place." Most nights there's something going on in Marfa. As in one thing: a reading at the Marfa Book Co., a gallery opening, someone playing music in some living room. The trick is finding it. Locals have their networks. Which is why there's a simple recommendation for making your way in Marfa: Talk to people. Walk up to strangers and say, "Hi, I'm (insert your name) from (insert your hometown). I'm in Marfa for a few days, and it seems cool. Any suggestions about where to eat or what to check out?" You will meet nice people who are proud of where they live. It was the energy of those people that sold me on a town that, frankly, doesn't look like much when you arrive. And the energy shows itself in subtle ways: Europeans crossing the street with the latest New Yorker under their arms, shockingly memorable food, big ideas. Marfa's real reward came from the distance between what you'd expect from a West Texas town of 1,887 and what you get.

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