Marfa: City of Art & Lights in the Texas Desert

By Daylen D on 8/8/2012


The despoblado is an area nestled in the Big Bend of Texas just north of the Dead Horse Mountains. The region’s name, translated as “the unpopulated”, aptly describes a weathered landscape too barren and beaten to inhabit. Here, in the forgotten lands, is a small town that embodies the Sailor Jerry way of life.


Marfa’s current population of 2,400 is an admirable blend of ranchers and artists. The ranchers built the town with their callused hands, creating a community from a wasteland. The artists that settled here in the 1960’s are disciples of Donald Judd, a leader in the minimalist movement who is also responsible for the town’s renaissance. The town is a peculiar evolution of circumstance, as inexplicable as the "Marfa lights" that appear to believers across the desert landscape.

Marfa Lights Viewing Area

There are many theories for the cause of mystical lights that hover in the darkness off of U.S. Route 67, some more rational than others. A scientific explanation, however, would detract from the existence of such an awe-inspiring phenomenon. This may be what attracted Donald Judd to Marfa. The structures Judd created are free of symbolism, personal statements, or political agenda. "Art need only be interesting" Judd states, as it is simply "something you look at." Judd bought acres of land in Marfa, including a former military base, and transformed the area into a permanent display of his artistic ideal. 


The community attracts the factions of our society that crave the autonomy of self-expression and discovery. Music and food have begun to permeate the ethos and in 2003 the Marfa Ballroom was opened, a non-profit center for public exploration of contemporary art and culture. Since then rock'n'roll icons Robert Plant, At The Drive-In, and Sonic Youth among others have been drawn to this perfectly devoid terrain that’s been stashed away in our nation’s crawlspace. 


The chow is building a reputation as well. The Food Shark embodies the culinary elegance of the town. It’s an old delivery truck parked under the farmers’ market pavilion adjacent to the railroad tracks. Despite it’s modest dwelling the food has been praised by Bon Appetit, the NY Times, and USA Today.


The values of the town are worthy of its namesake. "Marfa" was adopted from a character in a Dostoyevsky novel, an appropriate foundation for a town that embraces the contradiction between basic pleasures and intellectual stimulation. A perfect representation of this dichotomy is the infamous Prada "store" just north of the town center. This non-functioning faux retail space is actually a pop-art installation by Berlin artists Elmgreen and Dragset. The adobe and cinderblock building echoes Judd's minimalist aesthetic and is intended to never be maintained or repaired so it will gradually decay back into the natural landscape over time. 


Here's a few more images of some of the older establishments in town including a snapshot of those alleged and mysterious Marfa lights...

El Cheapo Liquor Store

The historic and revitalized Thunderbird Hotel

Marfa's gas station - stop in for directions to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area

 MARFA LIGHTS - often mistaken for headlights by
naysayers but trust us, there ain't no cars out there


Thanks for the great blog, but I regret to inform you that El Cheapo is no more, bought our by present owners with a changed name of Celebration Liquor.

Shop Sailor Jerry

Store Locator