Marfa, Texas: The Most Incongruous Small Town Ever

By: Shelley Seale
Marfa Water Tower at sunset Getty Images / James Besser Photography

Last weekend I spent several days in Marfa, which is a small Texas town way out West, in the middle of the desert and in the foothills of the Chihuahua Mountains. I had been wanting to go to Marfa for a long time — it’s not your typical small rural Texas town, but strangely enough has become a creative community that is a haven for artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians. There IS an annual music festival and film festival, both of which are attended by thousands.

Marfa could have been like any of the hundreds of tiny hick towns in Texas that no one’s ever heard of, relegated to dying a slow death while the young people fled in droves. But it got its first claim to fame back in 1956 when it was selected as the site for outdoor filming for the epic movie Giant, starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Dennis Hopper. The stars all stayed at the historic El Paisano Hotel in Marfa, and a huge facade was built in the desert to serve as Reata, the family mansion, for all the outside scenes. It was just a facade, propped up in the back by 2x4s; all the interior scenes were filmed on a sound stage in California.


After that, film fans visited Marfa, and people also came to see the mysterious Marfa Lights. The art scene started back in the 1970s when minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa from New York. He bought several buildings and two large hangars, formed a foundation, and started to install his art. Since then, especially in the last decade and a half, other artists and creatives have been flocking to Marfa — either to visit, to live, or to work temporarily or for part of the year.

All of this is what makes Marfa such an incongruous town. It only has 2,000 residents, and there is only one flashing four-way stoplight in the whole place. In some ways it’s like many other small Southern towns: there is the huge, imposing central courthouse, surrounded by the town square. But start looking a little closer, and going in some of those doors, and Marfa’s duality quickly shows itself. There’s a feed store…and a few doors down is an art gallery. There is an old-school barbershop…and across the street is the chi-chi restaurant Maiya’s, which once inside the doors could be in Soho, New York or Los Angeles, or Houston.

Bearded, skinny jean hipsters and tattooed, pierced artists walk the streets and sit at the lunch counters alongside ranchers and the typical, expected small-town resident types. I’ve never been to any small town like this, with such a mixture — like a split personality. I could almost hear in my head the old-timers saying to each other, “Mildred, what the hell is going on around here??”