The slogan for the town of Marfa is: “Tough to get to, tougher still to explain, but once you get here, you get it.” Marfa’s slogan proves true. The trek down Highway 90 is long and desolate. Be sure to not run out of gas on this adventurous drive through the plains of West Texas. There are stretches of 321 km (200 mi) between cities, as you pass scenic ghost towns and tumble weeds on the open road. The nearest airport is in El Paso, 305 km (190 mi) west.
When you arrive in the small town of Marfa ― located between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park ― you might wonder how this patch of rough, dry terrain became a thriving art community. Who put this place on the map for artists to flock to?
The answer: In 1972, New York City minimalist artist Donald Judd moved into the old railroad water stop in Marfa, forever changing the town’s identity. Marfa was used as a German prisoner of war camp in the 1940’s. Today, Marfa still has the rough and tumble look of a classic Texas town, but the presence of artists and art hounds gives the town a cosmopolitan aura.
Judd purchased dozens of the buildings used to house German POW’s and filled them with his art, as well as pieces from other artists he admired. After Judd’s death in 1994, the grieving city of Marfa made his dream live on. His works are visited and appreciated at the Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation. Put it on you list of places to see when visiting Marfa, Texas.
My Marfa experience was nothing short of inspiring. I immediately wanted to pick up a paintbrush, or try my hand at sculpture. I spent mornings sipping coffee at the quaint restaurant Squeeze, planning out which galleries and art tours to see.
First, I began with the Chinati Foundation, where I took a two-hour tour that included Judd’s work. After lunch at The Cafeteria, I headed to the Indie / Jacobs Gallery, Exhibitions 2d, Ayn Foundation, and New Star Grocery and Art Museum. If you let it, gallery hopping will fill up most of your day when visiting Marfa, Texas.
There are also plenty of eccentric shops around town. I suggest going to the homemade Marfa Soap Store, or Wrong, for gifts. The Cobra Rock Boot Company creates phenomenal custom boots, Freda has great jewelry from local designers, and Garza has phenomenal furniture.
Be aware that shops, restaurants, and basically everything in town doesn’t operate on an official schedule; it’s a more autonomous way of life than most are used to. You’ll most likely see signs that say, “Out to Lunch”, on doors, or “Back in 5 mins.” Embrace it, grab a coffee, and check out a different gallery or store until the proprietors return.
A 30-minute road trip takes you to the neighboring, smaller town of Valentine, where you can to visit the Prada store and an art sculpture called Prada Marfa ― a permanent installation by artists Elmgreen & Dragset. Unfortunately, the sculpture has been vandalized several times.
The Grilled Cheese Parlor is a must do when visiting Marfa, Texas. Television sets from the 1950’s and 1960’s line the walls, all of them airing a black and white video of a man with a mustache, staring at you while you order your grilled cheese through a window in back. The staff bring out your delicious comfort food on a grass tray.
Another great eatery is Cochineal’s, which has an impressive menu, to say the least. After dinner, I went to the Lost Horse Saloon. The owner, Ty, is an intriguing character and authentic looking cowboy, with an eye patch. Dog’s roam around the bar and ask for water, as patiently as patrons.
I chatted with a couple from New York that I met earlier at the Chinati Foundation. I also met locals playing pool and asked them questions concerning how they feel about Marfa’s artist commune lifestyle. Everyone seems to be enjoying the ride. It’s a laid-back melting pot community nestled into the Wild West, filled with modern art.
If you’re driving to Marfa at night, you may see the Marfa Lights. These famous, strange, unexplained mystery lights are said to be seen 14 km (9 mi) east of town on Highway 90.
The first recorded sighting in July, 1957, was covered in Coronet Magazine. Reports describe the lights as brightly glowing, basketball-sized spheres, hovering above the ground or high in the air. The colors are described as white, yellow, orange, red, and, occasionally, blue and green. The lights may be the closest thing to an UFO you ever see.
The Marfa Ballroom also offers nocturnal entertainment. Sadly, no bands played at the establishment during my stay, although past concert goers at the ballroom told me about major musical talents that have graced the stage. Visiting Marfa, Texas, in summer will give you a better chance of seeing entertainment at the ballroom and venues such as Planet Marfa ― an outdoor bar with a tipi that hibernates in winter.