Note: This is a Preview article; until Saturday, January 30th, access to MARFA is restricted to members of the [Valium] group and invited guests of Vally Lavender.
Up in the high desert lands of the Trans-Pecos (and more specifically within the the Chihuahuan Desert) sits the town of Marfa. It’s not a particularly big place – the 2010 census put its population at around 1,900-2,100 – but it is a place of romance and mystery. Founded in the early 1880’s, even the town’s name has an air of romance about it.
“Marfa” is the Russian form of “Martha”, leading to the hypothesis the town is named for a character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. However, this is apocryphal – the town is actually named after Marfa Strogoff from Jules Verne‘s novel Michael Strogoff.
The town started as a watering point for trains travelling the Southern Pacific Railroad and for most of its life, never grew particularly large. It reached its zenith in the period between 1920 and the end of World War 2 – the former decade marking the start of a period of rapid growth that included the establishment of military training facilities through the war years.
Following the closure of those facilities in 1945, the town gradually shrank both in the number of residents and its actual size: by 2010 it was said to cover just 4.1 square kilometres. It did, however, enjoy a period of movie making popularity in the 1950s with various western films made in and around the town – most notably Giant (released in 1956), starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean – the film being the last Dean made before his death in a car accident.
In the last two decades Marfa has again become a popular location for films – notably There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men both filmed in 2006 – and for television, even featuring in an episode of The Simpsons (Mad About the Toy). However, the town has perhaps become most famous for two things: the growing arts community within its borders, and the mysterious Marfa Lights.
And now it has a further claim to fame, being the inspiration for the latest ValiumSL region design – MARFA – instigated by Vally Lavender, who sent me an invitation to visit the region ahead of its Group opening on January 22nd, 2021.
The work of Vally, together with Fred Hamilton (frecoi), Lotus Mastroianni and Sofie Janic, MARFA captures several iconic elements of its west Texas namesake – the railway line, the surrounding desert prairie, a homage to the Presidio County Courthouse that dominates the centre of the town, the aforementioned arts community – as well as the general feel of “small town USA”.
Arts first came to Marfa in the 1971 when Minimalist artist Donald Judd relocated from New York to the town. Initially he displayed his work in two large hangers, but over the ensuing years he expanded his presence in and around the town, indoors and out. Following his death in 1994, two foundations took over the work of maintaining Judd’s legacy, with one of them – the Chinati Foundation – now occupying 30 buildings in the town and providing space for 13 artists in residence.
Chinati was also responsible in launching an open-house arts event that attracted – and still attracts – people from across the USA and around the world to visit it as a centre for contemporary arts, with more artists moving to the town in recent years to establish workshops and galleries. The town has also seen a writers-in-residence programme launched, together with a new theatre company, with pop art installations such as Prada Marfa being established within driving distances of the town.
This arts influence is fully reflected in MARFA, with reproductions of Prada Marfa (artistically relocated to the edge of the town) and Judd’s unmistakable concrete “boxes”, while a trailer park that offers a bit of a nod towards Ready Player One sits as the venue for music and performance arts. I was a little disappointed the town’s high water tower was not presented, but this was countered by the presence of the large cut-out of James Dean, part of a display at Marfa celebrating the town’s connection with Giant.
Alongside the trailer park sits the MARFA observatory. Based on the Marfa Lights Viewing Platform, it allows visitors to the region a vantage point from which to witness the digital version of the mysterious Marfa Lights which routinely appear to the south / south-west of the town, attributed to everything from UFOs to ghosts or spirits – although science suggests they are the result of odd atmospheric reflections of vehicle lights or the light of camp fires. Legend has them dating back to at least the time of the town’s founding, although the first actual published record of the phenomenon wasn’t made until 1957 (the references to the 1880s only appeared in print in 1985).
You might just see mysterious orbs of light suddenly appear above desert foliage. These balls of light may remain stationary as they pulse on and off with intensity varying from dim to almost blinding brilliance. Then again, these ghostly lights may dart across the desert … or perform splits and mergers. Light colours are usually yellow-orange but other hues, including green, blue and red are also seen. Marfa Mystery Lights (MLs) usually fly above desert vegetation but below background mesas.
Marfa resident James Bunnell
Rich in photographic opportunities and offering several opportunities to appreciate art (including the Empty Chair Gallery), MARFA additionally offers a number of small rentals for those who fancy they’d like to experience life in the town.
Open access from Saturday, January 30th at 11:00 SLT.
- MARFA (ValuimSL, rated Moderate)