Mixing Art And Ranching In Marfa, Texas

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Where Art And Ranching Collide: Marfa

Located Out In The High Desert Arena Of West Texas And Was Once Occupied By Cowboys

Marfa, TX Panorama [Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen-CC]

Out in the high desert arena of West Texas, in view of the meandering Marfa Mystery Lights that give this town its intrigue, a traveler can find a rare confluence of cowboy and hipster culture.

Meandering towards the post office in town, a visitor is as much likely to stumble on a loose tumbleweed as a New York art critic. Renowned minimalist Donald Judd settled in Marfa in the 1970s, putting this tiny outpost on the map of the New York art world.  The reality is that the distant patch of sand was occupied a hundred years earlier by ranchers and cowboys, Mexican and American.

"Old Marfa kind of makes their living off the land," said Chip Love, a lifelong resident of Marfa who operates a local cattle ranch. "The ranchers say we ranch à la carte, because there is nothing on the side."

The 1956 film, Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson, is a snapshot of old ranching culture here. Today any old cowboy can come off the ranch for an hour-long church service each Sunday at the Faith Alive Cowboy Church.

But if hard drink is required, the Lost Horse Saloon is a great place for cowboys [and would-be cowboys] to belly up to the bar. The saloon is rugged, just as the barman cowboy who runs it. Ty Mitchell – who runs cattle during the day -- sports a black cowboy hat, an eye patch, and a mustache that even Sam Elliot might envy.

Other than working the land, there had been few other ways to make an extra buck in the past in this town. But with the changing culture, remote access and the trendy art community ready to spend, there is more money up for grabs these days.

Cowboys In Marfa 1939 [Courtesy/Carol Highsmith-Library of Congress]
Businesses In Marfa [Photo Credit: John Cummings-CC]

Besides ranching, Love is president of the Marfa National Bank. In this job, he gets a close up view of the ongoing expansion of the town, through the development and residential loans that are being taken out. Land values are still primarily on the upswing and newcomers -- including many retirees who traveled through Marfa in their youth -- are coming back and taking out loans to enjoy the next step of their lives. The town is also attracting the interest of young, tech-savvy members of the Internet generation who have made their bank and are looking to disconnect.

Ellery Aufdengarten, another long time rancher in the area, says that cowboy culture persists in Presidio County, where Marfa is located, because it is still a major source of economic activity here. Cowboy cash goes into the feed stores, grocery store, the lumberyards, and the gas companies.

“We don't spend the money on the hotels that the tourists do. But week-in and week-out, we spend a lot of money -- I do anyway -- and I'm not one of the big ones,” Aufdengarten explains.  “[Ranching] (consistently) has been overlooked by a lot of [recent] trendy articles and things like that. But boy there is still a lot of cattle grazed around here and a lot of cattle [getting] shipped out.”

While the city is seemingly dead during the week, Marfa comes alive on the weekends as visitors rush into dozens of hip art galleries such as the Greasewood Gallery, the Marfa Studio of Arts, or the ever popular Judd Foundation. Urban myths permeate this burgeoning desert hipster scene including stories of the extraterrestrial lights and the hippie colony over at El Cosmico (complete with requisite trailers, tepees, and Mongolian yurts).

Lesser known, but perhaps more enduring, are the cowboys who settled this land, who can still be seen in the local haunts like Padres or the famed El Paisano Hotel, grabbing a beer in their Stetsons.

Vintage Photo Of Marfa Residents In 1968
Old School Buildings In Marfa [Courtesy/Carol Highsmith-Library of Congress]
Vintage Photo Of Men Riding A Wagon In Marfa [Courtesy/Carol Highsmith-Library of Congress]

Traditional cowboy culture gained a foothold in this region of Texas in the 1880s, when the railroad finally reached this hidden gem. All of the towns in this area are at least 25 miles apart, Love explains, which is the maximum distance an old steam engine could chug before running out of water. Civilization came in service of the railroad. However, it wasn't till a hundred years later that New York art critics discovered Marfa, driving throngs of artists, hipsters, and retirees to settle here.

The Marfa Mystery Lights however are still the most potent draw of the area that captures people's imagination. An actual platform has been built just outside of town for viewing the strange phenomenon in the distance of the Chihuahuan Desert. Although academics and researchers have tried to explain that the lights are just cars approaching in the distance, the lights -- extraterrestrial or not -- continue to draw tourists to this cow town. Many visitors describe multi-colored orbs, floating above the desert floor, splitting and darting in various directions.

"There is always a cynic," Love said, "but the lights were being documented before there were cars and artificial light sources."

Hidden inside this small corner of the Southwest desert plain is evidence that the Cochise Indians farmed corn here as far back as 1500 B.C.. Spanish Conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is said to have arrived in modern Presidio County by 1535. Perhaps these early inhabitants and explorers constitute the real “Old Marfa.”

In any case, numerous cultures run side-by-side in this dusty turf where art and ranching collide. All of them are dependent on each other to some degree, and all are going about their business as the odd, unidentifiable, mystery lights dance on the horizon. 


David Irvin

A graduate with a Masters Of Science from the University Of North Texas, David has written on many beats including crime and business for such outlets as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Montgomery Advertiser & USA. He enjoys RVing and surfing the Internet.

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