The mysteries of Marfa: Border drugs, good food, awkward two-steps & creepy catshide the art
When I first moved to Houston some 20-plus years ago, the arts world seemed mildly obsessed with Marfa.
Donald Judd put the west Texas outpost on the world art map. His legacy of large-scale projects influenced the way we consider art, its container and the surrounding environment. It's ever present at The Chinati Foundation.
I thought in order to keep my street cred I'd better go. I figured it was next to Galveston. Then I looked at a map. Born without the road trip gene, I decided to just wait for the book.
I didn't give Marfa (population 2,221) much thought until decades later when my longtime editor and Delicious Mischief /Houston ArtsWeek founder John DeMers dropped off the end of the Marfa cliff. Every time I called him to come to a show or cover for me, he would either be on his way, to, from, or actually in Marfa. I nicknamed him "Marfa man."
Turns out, the guy wasn't just obsessed with the place, but actually writing a book, perhaps that book I was waiting for. Lo and behold, I was off to Marfa to celebrate the Bright Sky Press publication of Marfa Shadows: a Chef Brett Mystery. Leave it to DeMers to combine his two loves, Marfa and food, and add a third, murder — actually, lots of them.
My trip began before I left town. "I could tell you stories about Marfa," whispered an old friend in town, who just happened to be Judd's old girlfriend. And she did.
A visit to Texas Gallery to see Jacinda Russell and Nancy Douthey's show 3 Weeks, 6 Earth Works 1 Portable Studio and All that Lies Inbetween chronicled some testosterone-fueled earthworks including Judd's work. I had fully intended to watch Giant, filmed at the Hotel Paisano, before touching ground, but it will have to remain a summer project.
I caught up with Houston improv dance goddess Leslie Scates, just back from Lower Left's annual March 2 Marfa. Yes, there's more than visual art in Marfa. Since dance improvisation pioneer Nina Martin moved there, it's a hot bed of Improvisation. Scates attends every year, polishing her ever-evolving ability to not know what's coming next.
I actually read DeMers' book, a steamy page-turner with sex, drugs and yummy meals, although not necessarily in that order. I picture Texans Matthew McConaughey and Renne Zellweger in the movie. It's not a traditional who-done-it, because a slew of people get killed, not a one of them underneath one of Judd's magnificent aluminum rectangles.
DeMers' thriller hones in on Mexican drug lords bypassing Marfa's art-centric history all together. "What gives?" I asked the famous foodie and first-time novelist.
"There are so many mystery series set around museums, just like there are about chefs and caterers, and the 'whodunit' is always cute and fun and clever, complete with a recipe for the victim's peach cobbler," DeMers says. "If I did a book about a museum like the Chinati Foundation, it would have to be dark and scary and violent, like Relic, and that takes place mostly underground in New York City.
"I don't think Marfa even has an underground. So no, the border drug wars called out to me here in a way art did not, since nothing about them is cute and fun and clever."
On the edge
Border patrol is big in Marfa. Glad they let us in, I wasn't sure there for a moment.
A stop at Prada Marfa is mandatory for any traveler, after all, it's sitting all alone by the side of road looking abandoned. It's fake and fun. I hope to apply for a major grant to clean the windows.
DeMers met up with us for a tour of the historic courthouse, which he lovingly describes in the book as a "peach and cream wedding cake." We stayed at Casa Julian, a sleek lodging with a front and back yard made of gray stones, which I got the urge to re-arrange in squares Judd style.
Matching gray cats swarmed about the hood. The cats turned up again on our tour of The Chinati Foundation, although our stern guide reminded us they were not allowed to come inside Dan Flavin's luminous color and rooms. The piercing austerity of Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminum continues to stay with me.
Perhaps 15 untitled works in concrete are best viewed from a plane. They left me cold. Even the cats seemed uninterested.
Judd's stamp on Marfa is ever-present, yet the place seems to be getting a vibe of its own. Besides art, there's food. It's no wonder DeMers made his sleuth a chef, Marfa is a muncher's paradise.
I'm still having date pudding fantasies from my five-dessert sampling at Cochineal. Burgers at Padres are dainty and delicious. Mike Micallef prepared a cowboy feast complete with his mom's amazing cheesy grits at CF Ranch. DeMers went Chef Brett on us, whipping up white bean chili, peach biscotti crumble and some amazing breakfast concoction. Next Tuesday, DeMers will teach you how to cook like Chef Brett at H-E-B.
Marfa is best experienced with others. Check out the blogeratti I traveled with: Katherine Center, The Bloggess, Happy Katie, CosmoPolitician and Blog con Queso, Bossy popped in for 24 hours, and I sat next to Hugh MacLeod of GapingVoid at DeMers's Marfa Book Company reading.
At the end of the day, Marfans gather at Padres, where we heard some fine Texas bands. I tried to two-step. I don't speak Spanish, but I think my partner was trying to tell me to quit adding steps.
DeMers promises Marfa Rocks, his next installment due out in 2011, involves some shady art biz. The third book, Marfa Blues, has two-stepping. I'm hoping the cats will find their way into the fourth book. Chef Brett will be cooking while sleuthing and sleeping with hot babes in all the books.
The town is a tad on the claustrophobic side, so people seem generally interested in newcomers. I had an extraordinary visit around the Pades fire with Cowboy Ty, a local actor and rancher (watch for him in the next Coen Brothers film).
I mentioned to one of my firemates that everyone seems so distinct in Marfa.
"Those that aren't just fade away," she added.
Or maybe, they just turn into those creepy gray cats.