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Outside of town, there’s Prada Marfa, a roadside booth showcasing Prada shoes and handbags. It’s a hoax, a comment by artists on Marfa’s international reputation.
Outside of town, there’s Prada Marfa, a roadside booth showcasing Prada shoes and handbags. It’s a hoax, a comment by artists on Marfa’s international reputation.

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Retiree hot spot: Quirky Texas town well-connected to the art world Add to ...

Marfa, Tex., has many rare qualities, “and America eats up those rare qualities,” as part-time Marfa resident and Montreal-born novelist Peter Behrens sees it.

The small town sits in the middle of the West Texas desert, 290 kilometres from the airport in El Paso and 290 kilometres in the other direction from the airport in Midland, Tex. The Mexican border lies one hour down Route 67.

Nearby communities have drifted into boarded-up dereliction. Yet Marfa (official population 2,000 and one blinking traffic light) is a stop on the international art circuit. Artists, art groupies, retirees and culture seekers come from around the world, despite Marfa’s tiny size and remoteness.

Or because of its tiny size and remoteness.

Retirees have purchased second homes there, looking to get away to a quiet, artistic spot in the desert, just as Marfa continually attracts artists searching for something new under the massive desert sky and pristine light. “It became popular, almost mandatory for an artist to get his ticket punched in Marfa,” says Mayor Dan Dunlap.

“We have a lot of artists come, and they’ll set up, and they’ll show for three to six months, and rent space. And then they’ll move on, because we don’t really have a retail market here for art,” he says.

“We’re not close enough to any big city, where people would come in and routinely purchase art. So after they get their Marfa time in, then they’ll move on to a larger town and set up shop. We kind of have a rotating art community,” the mayor says.

Many though, such as Mr. Behrens, who came to Marfa for a writers’ fellowship with the Lannan Foundation, decide to stay, or at least to buy property and spend part of the year there.

Mr. Behrens knew the area from his time white-water rafting on the Rio Grande in his youth. Fast-forward to his present life, and Marfa became a means of escape in a different sense. One winter, while he was home in Maine with his wife, he looked at her and said, “Babe, we need to get out of the winter. How about we go to Texas?”

And “she looked at me, this Maine girl, and said, ‘Texas?!’”

The surprise that Marfa exists in the Texas desert is part of its mystique. During his fellowship, Mr. Behrens sought out other artistically minded families to make the adjustment easier for his wife and son. It worked.

The town’s fame has helped to turn Marfa real estate into a relatively high-priced anomaly, compared with dirt-cheap property prices in nearby towns. Marfa is also surrounded by ranches, so the town is effectively landlocked, further raising prices, the mayor explains. Gentrification is a problem. Even real estate agents describe housing prices as crazy. A dilapidated adobe-style house may sell for $20,000 (U.S.), but a fixed-up single-family home can list for close to $900,000 or more.

Retirees also must contend with the limits of the town’s health services. “We don’t have good medical facilities here like the big cities do,” says Mr. Dunlap. “You can retire out here until the point where your medical requirements are demanding too much travel, and then we lose them. Then they move to big cities where they have actual retirement communities with nearby medical facilities.”

Once a ranchers’ enclave and the neighbouring town to a now-decommissioned army base, Marfa’s art reputation was sparked by the abstract minimalist Donald Judd, who arrived from New York in the 1970s, backed by arts foundation money, turning some of the town into art spaces and a showpiece for his sculptures.

That philanthropic mindset has continued with arts groups such as the Chinati Foundation and Ballroom Marfa, still helping to nurture a vibrant arts community. With that comes many renowned writers, artists and musicians passing through.

“Marfa had become this really fascinating town with the Judd presence, with the art presence and yet really still a salty mix of down home,” Mr. Behrens says. Outside of town, there’s Prada Marfa, a roadside booth showcasing Prada shoes and handbags. It’s a hoax, a comment by artists on Marfa’s international reputation. Beyoncé has been photographed outside it.

On the surface, the town’s image is communal artistic quirkiness. Yet in a Vanity Fair article, writers Sean Wilsey and Daphne Beal paint scenes of Marfa as downtown Manhattan bar life transplanted to West Texas, almost like a desert outpost of Max’s Kansas City. But then on the outer desert roads, it’s still conservative West Texas, they write, where two lone pickups may pass and “the social code is to lift two fingers ever so slightly from the steering wheel. A nod is considered excessive.”

The contrasts can be extreme, wonderfully so, says Katherine Shaughnessy, an artist and the development manager for Ballroom Marfa. She arrived in the town after a year of looking for a place to settle away from big cities, a journey which took her and her husband through central Canada and California.

“As a town, it’s very isolated, extremely isolated, and you can get isolated working in your own studio. But there is a lot of collaboration here. Whether you need food or shelter or an object for whatever you’re working on, materials or whatever, it’s all very collaborative. A strong community,” she says.

Yet outside is open desert. “The desert wants to kill you, every plant and animal and bug,” she says, laughing. “As beautiful as it is, it’s definitely a harsh environment.” Winter is wind season. And while she spoke by phone, she noted that there was a fire in the park.

It’s all part of Marfa’s juxtapositions, and its reinvention every 25 or 30 years.

When prosperous ranchers settled into the area, Marfa became their escape from harsh farm life. Women came into town in their finery. Children were well dressed, and there were fountains in the park, the mayor says. There was also the ugly side of segregation between white ranchers and long-established Mexicans. By mid-last century, the town was heading toward obscurity.

“It was a pretty interesting place all the way through history. But it was never the same place. It kept changing. And today, it has morphed into what it is now. And Lord knows what it will be 10 years from now.” He couldn’t suppress a laugh. Marfa residents can’t help adding a little humour when talking about the town.

The worry now is that Marfa, with its status, will change into something else yet again. “It’s a fragile balance,” says Mr. Behrens, noting the new Saint George boutique hotel opening and the town’s mention in travel articles listing hip destinations.

“But you know what?” he added. “The good thing about Marfa is that it’s really, really hard to get to. It’s like 14 hours from anywhere, a friend of mine said. It really is unless you live in El Paso. You can get to Beijing faster than you can get to Marfa from the East Coast.”

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