Road Trip: Art Pilgrimage – Marfa TX light, ruins, re-purposed buildings Pt. 2

A former supermarket?

A former supermarket?

It was a running joke among those of us who wrote on the arts for The Santa Fe New Mexican. Every profile on an artist we ran seem to open with, “the light spoke to me….It was the light that drew me…..”

Always with the light-some artist’s ecstatic response to the New Mexico version of it.

But the joke’s on me because I experienced a displacement of time and space in reaction to the light in Marfa the first night I was there.

“Putain,” I thought as I sat in the courtyard of the Paisano Hotel. It feels like Paris that night we ate outside at 10 PM. But that was northern Europe. June.

But it’s January. 6 PM Central Time. Here…now…it’s still light. Here’s a film from the courtyard of the hotel showing what the light looked like.



Something was off. I couldn’t square the time with the light. I know Marfa has aerial phenomena- the Marfa Lights. ( American Spirits-Marfa Lights-why not) A viewing area exists about 8 miles out of town.  But this was different there was something in the air- like a vortex- my normal perceptions were skewed.

Metior red band for a new world. Mixed media on canvas.

Metior: red band for a new world. Mixed media on canvas. Image size 9″ x 12″.

One person I asked about my condition said, “It’s because we should be in Mountain Time like Santa Fe.” I knew Marfa was in the Central zone but my eyes and this feeling – I got nothing out of this answer. Couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

But the displacement fueled my curiosity – the natural armor of perception was compromised-  for the remainder of my stay I was le flaneur –  I crisscrossed the town center for the next few days in search of hidden places, unexpected locations and encounters with locals -anything the town had to offer.

I did finally get a scientific explanation for what I was experiencing- from my server at Stellina, one of the watering holes in town..

See more about Stellina  here:


When the nearby MacDonald Observatory was being built the time zone here in this part of West Texas was changed – at the scientists’ request – from Mountain Time to Central Time so the researchers in Chicago and Austin could share data in real time with the observations made at the observatory. So the sun and  light weren’t  lying – the clock was.

 Marfa has a number of great legacy structures from the 40s, 50s and 60s that have, are or will be re-purposed.

Inside an old warehouse next to the tracks that formerly stored wool-not it houses sculptures out of mangled car parts by John Chamerlin

Inside an old warehouse next to the tracks it formerly stored wool-now it houses sculptures out of mangled car parts by John Chamberlin

marfa dark bld.

marfa to be

These, along with projects by big name architects  are the kinds of structures I appreciate on my business trips -you can find them everywhere…Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Los Angeles… reminders of our country’s industrial past- some getting new life with TLC. .

Marfa also has a number of ruins-mostly in the form of adobe buildings returning to the earth.

Ruins outside of town.

Ruins outside of town.

An adobe building in pretty good shape by Marfa standards.

An adobe building in pretty good shape by Marfa standards.

Pretty much says everything about the attention adobe gets here.

Pretty much says everything about the attention adobe gets here.


The woman I met from Colorado who had some knowledge of the area told me the adobe building tradition is dormant here. Marfa isn’t Santa Fe. There are some parallels to the way Santa Fe was a few decades ago before it got the national attention it enjoys today.  The video below reminds me of what it was like in Santa Fe-in the barrio near downtown.


marfa adobe street houses

 I didn’t see any adobe structures being refurbished in Marfa.

The buildings most in demand for re-purposing are the older warehouses and structures from the 40s and 50s.

Store front for Ranch Candy

Store front for Ranch Candy

Marfa Ballroom-exhibition space

Marfa Ballroom-exhibition space

marfa church gallery marfa altar

The light, the buildings, the feeling I got here leads me to believe this could be a good spot for a structure I’ve wanted to see built for some time. More about this in another post.

This is the Prada store located about 35 miles north of Marfa near Valentine, TX...a small group of houses. This is an art project that Prada cooperated with and supplied product for. It's never open.

This is the Prada store located about 35 miles north of Marfa near Valentine, TX…a small cluster  of houses. This is an art project that Prada cooperated with and supplied product for. It’s never open.

The photograph above – grabbed from the web- shows the store sitting within an area carved out from the surrounding ranch land.

I wanted to take a photo too and measure the building outside,  look inside -but I didn’t see it on my way in as I’d taken a different route. But on my way out…about 6:30 AM I passed it. I wouldn’t have seen it at that hour were it not for a couple of people setting up a tripod and getting ready to shoot it at sunrise. I barely saw them in the dark while they were moving around the center of the road.

What I saw in passing….on this road at this hour at that speed…:.


Dean Balsamo



Sensing my travel-starved state, our friend said, “Marfa.” And that was that. Several days later I took a solo pilgrimage- a road trip- to Marfa in West Texas.

You could describe it as the “biggest little art town,” in the country given the people who make the trek there- national/international artists, gallerists and collectors, celebrities like Beyoncé film makers and those who seek unadulterated art experiences like me.

It’s about 7 ½ hours from my home in Santa Fe,  3 from El Paso, 7 from Dallas and 6 hours from Austin.  It takes an act of will and a true believer’s fervor to get there.

marfa map

But like all the best holy spots rekindling of faith can occur, visions and maybe cures.  My experience touched on all of these things. I came away loving this part of Texas, feeling rejuvenated and creatively inspired. The desert air and 75 degree weather was ok too.

While films have been made here- Giant (w/James Dean) and There Will Be Blood – visual arts of a more minimal nature pioneered by the great American artist Donald Judd dominate parts of the landscape, as well as, various galleries.

The place fed my creativity. I worked on a script and some other writing, walked around the areas bordering the main street taking photos of the classic 40-60’s buildings being re-purposed , toured Judd’s spaces around town and met some friendly people .

Here are some of the Judd’s concrete sculptures sitting on the land surrounding the old German POW camp he bought decades ago and turned into the working exhibition grounds for his and the work of contemporaries he admired.

MARFA JUDD CONCRETE TWOOne of a number of concrete pieces by Donal Judd on the grounds of an old German POW camp he bought in Marfa decades ago.

MARFA JUDD CONCRETE ONEThere are a number of buildings on this land-you can see part of one in the background. The German POW’s were housed there, now they’re filled with Judd and other artists’ work.

It’s a funny place in a good way. I pulled into the Paisano Hotel on the main street in town and the only people I see walking are a couple of back packer-looking types with a camera staring at the Victorian influenced city hall building.

marfa paisano hotelThe Paisano Hotel in Marfa where I stayed.

But this isn’t a hippy town like Sebastopol or Cotati in Cali. The art over lay and location in the scrub of West Texas gives it a different feel.

There’s sort of quiet buzz here. You catch people at the hotel looking at one another or in Stellina, the hipster’s watering hole/ restaurant that appears to be the place where many of the visitors come as well as the local art movers and shakers gather.

It’s in an old building’s store front space. Common tables line the sides facing an elongated oval bar in the center of the room. The bearded server said this about the owner/chief: “She’s self-taught.” That’s Marfa I thought.

marfa building with stellina

Stellina the place I ate in one night is located in the storefront underneath the balcony seen in the photo.

marfa steillina with caption sketch use

One morning I searched for 20 minutes trying to  find Do Your Own Thing Coffee. Had I not read something about it’s unlikely location-in what looks like an old lumber and tool supply yard I never would have found it.

Here are some pictures of its surroundings and of the shack that houses the café.

MARFA DO YOUR OWN THING PIXThis the outside of Do Your Own Thing Coffee-sort of the closest thing to a “hippy” spot. Inside they have a wood burning stove for cool mornings.

MARFA DO YOUR OWH THING DOGI sat outside in the early morning sun and  spoke with a woman  who was from Denver. She bought ½ acre of land within the town so she had hook up for water and paid $75K. She’s building some kind of living/exhibition space she hopes to host various events.

If you go out of town some that same 75K will get you five acres.

I got the impression from talking to some people and observing the town that there are a number of people there who have money and are buying places to live there sometimes and have some sort of business. Whether they actually need to make money to maintain their places is another story.

I didn’t really realize why I went to Marfa until I came back. But I’ve been thinking of a project for a few years now-a building project called Heaven Sighting Device-that I feel could work there. More about that a later post.

marfa truck stop with note in tx I took sort of a  back way down there…south of Carlsbad, NM I went through 50 miles of oil country. All I saw was scrub and pumping oil wells and had to share the two lane road with huge tractor trailers and large pickup trucks all working the oil fields till you hit  I-10. This truck stop I sketched from memory was Mad Max like…an Airstream and various tents set up here and there. The whole time I was going through the area I thought I was looking at something secret. It reminded me of growing up in California during the 50’s and 60’s and our road trips to the desert where we’d see pumping oil wells and just appreciate them as objects of wonder. They were fascinating. Always had and always will have -a fascination with industrial processes and the tools/machinery making them possible.

Dean Balsamo