Marfa Nights

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There’s so much to say about Marfa, and it’s such an inspiration for my work, that it’s a bit overwhelming to start. We’ve been there several times: several Too Many Times, Landis might say (but he doesn’t really mean it….). What’s easily, quantitatively said about Marfa is that the town is full of stunning installations of art, and there is a very fluid boundary between Art and Place.

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Its true wonder, however, is that it’s such a substantial confluence of Aesthetic Experience in such an unexpected place. And, even more, that the experiences are significant, interrelated, intense, and unpredictable. It’s at once understated and over-the-top, accessible and mysterious, witty and dead-serious.

We were there for my birthday this fall—a long weekend with some out-of-town friends. We toured significant art installations sprinkled throughout town, had private tours of some spaces rarely available for public viewing, toured excellent galleries, relaxed, and ate well. Landis and I choreographed a series of activities for the weekend (it was my 50th, after all…), and our time was full. After several trips, we now know many of the characters in the drama that is Marfa, and so going back means getting to see people of whom we’ve grown very fond, as well as always meeting some new folks. To tell you what it’s really like to be in Marfa, I should try to describe the impressive installations by Judd, Chamberlain and Flavin and, or what it’s like to come upon the Prada-store-installation (google “Prada Marfa”) in the middle of nowhere. But others have done that before, better than I can. Instead, let me try to describe just one evening: a barbeque at a friend’s house, as a metaphor for the experience of Marfa.

The evening began at Barbara Hill’s and , an interior designer from Houston who has done over a couple of houses in Marfa (see the New York Times, 12 October 2006), and Houston (see Dwell, May 2007). Barbara has taste so good it’s hard not to hate her, but a sense of humor so wicked it’s hard not to love her. She was Miss Texas in 1956, and has hair a color of red that states with a wink “I Am Not Trying to Pretend This Is My Real Hair Color”. She refers to her house as “The Dance Hall”, and indeed it was—the dance hall for the local Mexican-American community that was established, prosperous, and segregated, when it was built decades ago. Now it’s a spare loft with a sense of humor: plywood floors, raw plaster walls, an amazing mix of old and new furniture, a sliding door that’s made from an old sign, and a bathtub that pretty much sits in the middle of the room. Oh, and my favorite: her Texas minimalist closet, which is open to the space and displays—rather than stores–a sparse selection of black clothes and kickass collection of wildly patterned cowboy boots.

Dinner was catered by the folks from the Food Shark Yep, they’ve been in the New York Times, too—see 22 November 2009. Hip doesn’t even describe what Krista Steinhauer and Adam Bork do, which starts with serving lunch out of a stripped-to-the-metal delivery truck in downtown Marfa. But the food—it’s amazing. Using local ingredients and starting with West Texas roots, Krista brings in flavors from places like Syria and Romania, and for us—since they had just returned—Turkey. Constructing the menu with her via email was a delight, and I quickly got to the point where I knew we could simply tell her to do whatever she wanted, and it would be fabulous. It was: slow-roasted pork shoulder, cochinita pibil, minted black beans, melt-in-your-mouth tamales, and another dozen or so out-of-this-world dishes.

We ate with our plates in our laps in the agave grove garden, where, dead-center, is a fire pit that’s a sculpture in itself: a pyramid of welded rusted steel pipes, wittily evoking a campfire, under and around which the flames dance. We all sat, very cozy, on the concrete benches that encircled the fire, telling ghost stories and drinking margaritas and sweet Mexican soda. As it got dark, the stars came out in ridiculous clarity. The atmosphere was at once glamorous and down-home, and the guests—who had started their day thousands of miles from here (literally and figuratively)—started to relax.

New friends—permanent and weekend residents of Marfa who we had just met in the previous couple of days—stopped by with champagne, and as the evening got later, there was a plan afoot to get us over to the studio of wood artist Camp Bosworth, which is in an old church. There, we peeled back to see the next layer down in Marfa. Not only is Camp’s work interesting, clearly existing on that thin line between folk and irony, but in the old sanctuary of his adobe church studio, he has created a space for other artists to exhibit. This month it was a stunning video installation by Adam Bork of the Food Shark (google him), who had helped prepare dinner a few hours before. Everyone in this town, it seems, wears several hats, has a story to tell, is able to exist on pragmatic and artistic planes at the same time, and not only “gets” the Marfa aesthetic, but finds a way to contribute to it.

Normally, we can barely stay awake past 10, and we live in Los Angeles, for heaven’s sake. And here we were in Marfa Texas, at 1 am, sitting in an old church surrounded by several towers of old TVs, transfixed as we experienced the bliss of this amazing installation, in the company of the guy who created it whom we had met four hours before. It was no lightweight installation, either. Sitting there, we all knew this was the real deal.

It all comes together in Marfa, like just a few other places on earth—the landscape, the people, the food, the art, the flow of time and experience. Each time we’re there, it’s a reminder for me, as an architect, about what I aim to do in my work, which is to create a stage set for the drama of life to play out.

Jenn Shore