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Essay: What you see is what there is

Photo courtesy of Wildsam

A new travel book from the publisher Wildsam includes personal essays exploring the people and history that make up the Big Bend region. One of essays is about life in Marfa. The essay’s author — longtime Marfa resident and journalist Sterry Butcher — says she wanted her essay to capture the authenticity of a small town, and all that might not be immediately clear to people visiting for the first time.

The Dairy Queen sign in Marfa was poetry the other night. My husband and I saw it while walking to meet friends at a bar that features a fuzzy faux-fur ceiling and quarts of Mexican beer. That sign, though, it stopped us. The black letters, all caps on a white background, transcended mere advertisement. It offered, instead, a series of connections I’d never thought about, and I was struck, once again, by the beauty of being wrong about the world. How could I be churlish, or jaded, when confronted by evidence of the unexpected, the new, and the innocent:






Most people visit Marfa for the visual art, but really, there is a sort of poetry all around, a rhythm to the days and the people that is a constant reminder that you are here, you are here, you are here. In a town this small–only 1,700 souls or so–and in such a vast, sere landscape, your humanity is forever focused and refocused. There is no way to ignore other people; anonymity isn’t possible. This is the checker at the Dollar General. He likes to play Mexican metal music during his shifts. Here are the old men who drink coffee early mornings at the convenience store. Marfa is so small that mail isn’t delivered to homes. Everyone schleps to the post office for their junk catalogs or water bills, and packages are doled out by the women who work the counter. “How is your son?” is something I’m asked every time I stand in line there. “Tell him we say hello.”

It’s hard to be anything you aren’t here, because Marfa’s inhabitants see each other enough, and in enough circumstances, to know the set of your face, the company you keep, your corn-or-flour tortilla preference, what your parents look like and the clothes you favor. You can’t pretend to be something you aren’t, because people already know what you are. Authenticity isn’t something that Marfans have to seek out. It’s already here. The desert, after all, doesn’t hide much. 

The artist Donald Judd, who chafed at being labeled a minimalist, moved from New York to Marfa in the 1970s, drawn to the town for its abundant beauty, its isolation, and a wealth of cheap properties that he repurposed to house his own artwork and the art of others he admired. He called his museum the Chinati Foundation, after a half-dome mountain southwest of town. Judd made few changes to the exteriors or interiors of his properties, finding the buildings suitable, more or less, as they already were. This straightforward sensibility complemented the frankness that already existed here. 

It never has been a particularly easy spot to live. For centuries, Marfa was an unnamed, unowned, unfenced grassland trod only by Native people and animals. It metamorphosed abruptly in 1883, when the railroad located a water stop on this wild and treeless plain. Ranchers, and those who served ranching, arrived. Its settlement manifested laborers, cowboys, feed stores, dry goods shops, hardware stores, bars and cafes. By about 1914, the population surged with refugees walking north, to Marfa, to escape Pancho Villa’s escapades and the Mexican Revolution, 60 miles away. In response to the revolution, the U.S. established a military outpost eventually called Fort D.A. Russell, which stayed active through World War I and served, in World War II, as a base for training chemical mortar battalions and an internment camp for German prisoners of war. In 1946, the fort closed, and with it dissipated some of Marfa’s high times. No more polo games at the fort. No more officers’ dances or military parades. For a long time, too, the railroad tracks divided the community, with brown folks generally on one side and white on the other, with separate schools. Many years of drought nearly crippled the ranching community and the economy that depended upon it. Decline settled on Marfa like dust after a windstorm. 

That’s when Judd arrived. His New York ways and proclivities for bagpipes and kilt-wearing were well tolerated, since he had ambitions about filling the buildings gone vacant, and he offered employment to people where jobs were scarce. Marfans appreciate hard workers, and Judd clearly had lots of projects. Not many folks here had been to big city museums back then. Even fewer had encountered contemporary art. When Judd installed gleaming boxes in these former artillery sheds and fabricated imposing concrete boxes and called it art, Marfans took him at his word. 

The repetition of those boxes makes sense here, within the rhythm of the town. The landscape is so open, so wide, and the sky so ever-present that the things that matter sharpen. Judd likewise intended, perhaps from a spirit of generosity or a tendency toward hubris, for Chinati’s art to remain sited there permanently, never to be loaned out or moved. As you look through them, Judd’s concrete pieces frame the untamable land and air, at least for as long as you care to gaze. What possibilities arise? What else can happen? What more can you do? In a place where the horizon lies there like an old friend, all day every day, the way forward can seem pretty clear. 

I stood in those boxes one snowy Thanksgiving Day, while visiting town 30 years ago. The impulse to move here came wholly formed in that moment, descending as certainly as the hammer hits the nail. I can’t totally explain why the urge was so declarative, but I know that it was related to these notions of time, the land, and a desire to have everything I needed and nothing more. Indeed, that is how it has been. One day last week, the librarian called out to me as I dropped books in the return slot. “Did you ever think you’d be here this long?” she asked. I didn’t, but then again, I knew that I belonged. I’ve been here more than half my life. Donald Judd died in 1994. I’ve lived in Marfa far longer than he ever did. 

Marfa is a generous town. When I first arrived, I lived in an apartment upstairs from a Catholic gift shop. One of my neighbors was the town cop, and the other was a handyman who became my first friend, a fun-loving sort who hosted boisterous Selena-heavy dance parties late every Friday. There was no sleeping through the music that pierced our shared wall, and so I’d go next door. Someone would slide over for me on the couch or at the kitchen table, where Frank ladled chile verde into paper bowls. I played rather serious softball with the Marfa Satellites. One of the teenagers and I were the only Satellites who were not yet mothers. They spoke English when I was present and ensured I had Gatorade for the brutally hot games we played in Mexico, where, inexplicably, someone always burned tires just beyond center field. A group of older ladies ran a Sunday painters’ gallery in a building Judd owned. They used to invite me to their monthly luncheons, like I had something to offer socially, which I did not, since I was neither married nor conversant in the gossip or agricultural news of the day. They just took me as I was, as they took Judd for who he was, believing I had value or could add to the conversation. The town made room for me. Marfans didn’t have to show me such kindnesses, then or now, but they did. I guess they could read who I was.

Judd wanted his work to be seen, and he wanted it experienced over a long duration of time within the careful, thoughtful context of art, landscape, and architecture. Back when I led tours at the Chinati Foundation, people sometimes asked what the art meant. It’s not up to me to explain, but I’ll say–and this may not come as a surprise–Judd wrote that his work was “without metaphor.” Chinati doesn’t have interpretative signage because the artist figured people could work out for themselves what was happening within the intersection of metal, sunlight, shadows and concrete. Thinking about this might take a while. That’s okay. 

This is a town, after all, where people consider the same art and the same mountains for years on end. We see the same cast of people at the bank, the tax office, the football game. I’m in a group that meets each Wednesday to read and discuss a play. On average, we spend three years on each play–presently, it’s Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. When you have the gift of time and the patience to consider something or someone for long periods, all manner of discoveries take place. What you see in Marfa is what there is. The sky is blue and tenantless except for scraps of silver-hulled clouds. A jackrabbit pants in the lacey shade of a mesquite. There are crumbled Oreo/gummy worms/Girl Scout/cookie/bombs at Dairy Queen. Enormous concrete boxes march along a golden prairie. It’s all right in front of you. 

Sterry Butcher has written about the people, places and animals of the Big Bend for 30 years. A writer at large for Texas Monthly, she lives with her husband in Marfa. Her essay "What you see is what there is" appears in the new travel book, “Big Bend: ‘A Panorama Without End."