This Longhorn’s New Book Looks at How Marfa Came to Be

When minimalist artist Donald Judd moved from New York City to the sleepy desert outpost of Marfa in 1971, he paved the way for the small town’s art scene. Now a popular destination, Marfa brings artists, writers, and tourists alike to West Texas’ Chihuahuan Desert. Visitors peruse many of Judd’s permanent installations and other artists’ creations that belong to the Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation.

When artist and photographer Kathleen Shafer, PhD ’14, spent three months in the town as an intern at the arts space Ballroom Marfa in 2011, she was inspired. But not necessarily just to create art—she wanted to tell Marfa’s story. While completing her PhD in geography at UT, she wrote about Marfa for her dissertation, which she has since turned into a book. In Marfa: The Transformation of a West Texas Town, which hits shelves in October, Shafer explains how the remote town of about 2,000 people has become the artist haven and tourist hotspot it is today. The Alcalde caught up with her before the book’s release to get a look at what it’s all about.

So, tell me about Marfa.

It is a very friendly place. You walk down the street and smile at someone and say hello to a stranger, which, having lived for most of my adult life in cities, you forget that that’s this wonderful part of life.

How would you describe Marfa’s transformation from the 1970s to now?

It’s taken a long time. [Marfa] is not just something that appeared on the map all of a sudden. A lot of people came because of Chinati’s open house weekend, which is something that [Donald] Judd started and that was continued after his death. Someone from Houston or Dallas might have come out and just thought, “Wow, this place is beautiful and everything is really cheap.” And they would tell their friends who told their friends. It definitely was a smaller word-of-mouth thing, and now because of the press, it’s like this snowball effect. There’s always someone writing about Marfa now. People coming here and posting about it on their Twitter feeds, on Instagram, on Facebook has intensified the exploitation of Marfa and made it that much easier to explore all of what’s going on here to the outside world.

What would you say are the pros and cons of Marfa’s transformation?

There is a pretty strong economy here because of the tourist dollar. I think that’s a good thing, ultimately. However, there certainly are people who don’t want all the newcomers, all the visitors, all the tourists. The biggest impact is the rise in property values and tax appraisals. So that’s really an issue. I think there’s a lot of secondhand ownership. People might be paying their taxes, but I feel like there’s not a lot of money leftover to take care of roads which are kind of crumbling in places.

What do you hope people learn from reading your book?

I hope that people get a deeper understanding of what this place is and why this place is something that they may have heard of. I’m guilty of this myself: You travel somewhere and you have, as a tourist, a specific lens that you’re looking through. Tourists come here and they’re interested in very specific things. For example, touring Chinati, touring Judd, going to some of the other galleries. Maybe they’re staying at the new Hotel Saint George, which is a really great space, but it’s different from the rest of Marfa. If you live here and you have a job here and maybe you’re raising kids here, your experience is very different.

What was your favorite part of the research process?

Just having individual conversations with one or two people to hear about their experiences in Marfa and their paths to Marfa. A lot of people came to Marfa for a lot of different reasons. Then there are also the many natives and locals here who were born in [neighboring town] Alpine and have lived here perhaps their whole lives. Their stories were also really great.

What’s your favorite place in Marfa?

I love the patio at Jett’s Grill at the Paisano Hotel. It’s a great space when it’s nice out and maybe there’s a cool breeze. You grab a beer or a margarita. I really love the Saint George. I write about this in the book, but the Marfa Book Company, which used to operate that space, is still there but in a different configuration. When that first opened, it kind of became this community center in some ways. They had for a time a coffee and wine bar, and it was just this meeting place. I think the Saint George, as different and modern as it is, really fits Marfa. It is this space where anyone and everyone can just walk in and have a beer.

Credits, from top: David Branch, UT Press


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