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A Guide to the Middle of Nowhere: Marfa, TX

I’m dripping with envy right now. I wish it was me in this shot in front of the iconic Prada sculpture in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as Marfa, Texas. Instead this is Sarah Stodola, Founder and Editor of Flung -- the thinking person's travel publication. It's one of my favorite magazines for an honest perspective on all things travel. 

AOS was lucky to get the inside scoop on her trip. Here, Sarah shares her take on what makes the micro city of artists so fascinating (we’re talking one-stoplight-in-the-entire-city, micro!) and her guide to the most creative small shops in town. Without further ado, I'll let Sarah take it away.

“Before minimalist artist Donald Judd arrived in the early 1970s, Marfa was a floundering former railroad stopover in the remote West Texas desert. He gave the town its first dose of creative vigor, and in his wake a growing handful of artists and makers have made their way to this eerily picturesque town of 2,000 in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been intrigued by Marfa for years, so naturally jumped at the opportunity to spend some time there. After a 13-hour journey that included two flights and a three-hour drive from the nearest airport in El Paso, I finally arrived at our rented bungalow, travel weary but excited. Marfa did not disappoint. This is a town with the artistic sophistication of a New York City, the pace of a muddy river, and an utterly singular atmosphere, where large-scale isolation fosters a hive of creative activity.”

 

Marfa Brands

All the soaps here are made in the studio in the next room, and the scents waft through to the shop to create the most pleasing olfactory experience. Owner and maker Ginger Griffice keeps the shop open whenever she’s working, so you can always peek in and see a bit of her soap-making process. The soaps come in folksy scents derived from simple, pure ingredients—the Campfire is my dream-come-true soap.

Marfa Brands / 107 South Dean Street / Marfa, Texas 79843

 

Wooden table and vintage blue cabinet hold soap-making supplies.
Hand-crafted wooden pieces on a wooden table.

The Wrong Store

I’ve been crushing on the couple that runs this shop ever since I met them for the first time in July—Buck Johnston and Camp Bosworth are total weirdos in the best way possible, and their shop is an ode to their infectious sensibilities. A single sprawling table, made by Camp, runs the length of this former church. Camp’s an artist who works in the studio in the next room crafting the carved wooden pieces that anchor the shop’s inventory. Best of all, their pet coyote, Peyote, keeps watch over the whole operation. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unique shop anywhere in the world.

The Wrong Store / 110 West Dallas Street / Marfa, Texas 79843

 

Cobra Rock

The waitlist for a pair of handcrafted boots from Cobra Rock is over eight months long, so don’t expect to snag a pair on your way out, but the shop is worth a visit for two other compelling reasons: to watch owners Colt and Logan at work and to get a load of the vintage bootmaking equipment that fills the studio-cum-shop.

Cobra Rock / 107 South Dean Street / Marfa, Texas 79843

 

Cobra Rock boots on shelf.
Interior yellow and white walls of Mirth.

Mirth

I don’t generally want things in my home that I don’t need or that don’t have a clear sentimental or artistic value, which makes Mirth an ideal stop for me. Nothing about this shop feels superfluous. Owner Maiya Keck’s offering of minimalist bottle openers alone would be enough to keep me coming back, with their deceptively simple combination of utility and beauty.

Mirth / 105 West Texas Street / Marfa, Texas 79843

 

 

Freda

I’m always charmed by amazing places carved out of tiny spaces—it’s one of my favorite things about life in New York City, but not something I expected to come across much in Marfa, where space is the one thing there’s plenty of. The 100 or so square feet of Freda manage to feel expansive thanks to owner Susannah Lipsey, whose eye for unflinching design details gives the shop its character. Her inventory is sourced from indie designers around the country, but with special emphasis on local Marfa makers.

Freda / 207 S. Highland Avenue / Marfa, Texas 79843

 

Exterior view of the tiny Freda shop.
Outdoor aluminium box sculptures from the Chinati Foundation.

The Chinati Foundation

When he came here in the seventies, minimalist artist Donald Judd became the catalyst for the artistic fervor thriving there today. Along with a number of other artists, much of his work is on display at the Chinati Foundation, and the highlight is his 100 aluminum box sculptures housed in two former artillery sheds (Chinati is on a former military base). They took four years to install, and the effect is transformative. You simply can’t go to Marfa without taking the time to walk amongst them.

The Chinati Foundation / 1 Cavalry Row / Marfa, Texas 79843 / 432.729.4362

Image by Kim Tran

Arber & Son Editions

Robert and Valerie Arber built a gallery in a former movie theater—when they’re in town, which is the majority of the year these days, they live in an apartment carved out of the former projection booth. Robert was Donald Judd’s printmaker, while Valerie’s an acclaimed artist in her own right. Together, they are a present-day link to Marfa’s original artistic roots. The art featured in the gallery is proudly contemporary, yet unpretentious (some has associations with Chinati). Robert’s collection of vintage motorcycles only adds to the fun.

Arber & Son Editions / 128 East El Paso Street / Marfa, Texas 79843 / 432.729 3981

 

Vintage motorcycles, prints, and a Mexican flag adorn the interior of Arber & Son.
Street view of Marfa Ballroom's white facade.

Ballroom Marfa

This nonprofit arts space was founded in 2003 in an early 20th century dancehall. It hosts thoughtful art exhibitions here and sponsors other events in town. The weekend I was there, we were lucky enough to attend a Ballroom-sponsored Bonnie “Prince” Billie concert at the Crowley Theater. Ballroom also commissions original posters by local and independent artists for every event. One of my favorites is the one for a Kahil El’Zabar and Hamiet Bluiett concert last year, designed by Austin artist Brice Beasley.

Ballroom Marfa / 108 East San Antonio Street / Marfa, Texas 79843 / 432.729 3600

 

Lost Horse Saloon

I’ve always had a certain image of what the perfect Texas bar would be like, and this place nails it: a lonely neon “Beer” sign piercing the darkness outside; inside, a few pool tables, cheap cold beers, a bit of desultory live music, and a crowd that’s in no hurry to discover the next thing. That’s the Lost Horse Saloon, with its mixed crowd of old-timers and hipsters, and a delightful lack of urgency.

Lost Horse Saloon / 306 East San Antonio Street / Marfa, Texas 79843 / 432.729.4499

 

Neon
Hand holding a cup of coffee.

Do Your Thing

In Marfa, things get reused and re-appropriated habitually. Something that seems like one thing will fall into the hands of someone who reimagines it as something wildly unexpected. Case in point: Do Your Thing, the seriously capable coffee shop recently set up in the back of an old lumberyard and hardware store. That it’s so out of context is a major part of its charm. We spent a whole morning there chatting with owners Simone and Robert, tasting everything from a classic latte to a “Modern Gibraltar”—“taller than a macchiato, shorter than a cappuccino”—and finally stepping out into the sun completely wired.

Do Your Thing / 213 S. Dean Street / Marfa, Texas 79843

 

Pizza Foundation

Thin crust in deep Texas. Speaking as a New Yorker, I can happily report that there is some amazing pizza being made in a former gas station at the “main” intersection in Marfa, aka the only stoplight. I like to sit at the bar, where parties of one wearing cowboy hats tend to congregate, and I like to order half a pizza, which is just fine with the staff. There’s another art gallery right next door, great for a post-meal wander.

Pizza Foundation / 102 US 90 / Marfa, Texas 79843 / 432.729.3377

 

Customers fill the bar at the Pizza Foundation.
Tequila Gimlet from Cochineal on a pink table.

Tequila Gimlet at Cochineal

I grew up in Kentucky, where bourbon reigns supreme, so I’ve always been a little wary of the liquors that other regions in America claim as the be all and end all. Enter tequila, the water of Texas. I knew that in order to truly experience Marfa, I’d have to imbibe, despite associations with tequila that ran toward bad frat parties and inadvisable late-night shots. At Cochineal, a restaurant featuring amiable dishes made with quality ingredients, my companions insisted I try the tequila gimlet. Smooth, tasty, refreshing, just sweet enough. Color me a convert.

Cochineal / 107 West San Antonio Street / Marfa, Texas 79843 / 432.729.3300

 

Prada Marfa

Thanks in part to Beyoncé, who was photographed in front of it last year, the Prada Marfa installation sculpture has become the most recognizable image in Marfa, even though in truth it’s a half hour or so outside the town. I was skeptical—commemorating a global fashion brand seemed antithetical to the whole point of Marfa—but when I got to it, the Prada Marfa revealed itself to be a true work of art. By placing Prada completely out of its element, the weird little building didn’t feel like a paean to consumerism, but rather a comment on its inherent artifice.

Prada Marfa / Route 90 between Valentine and Marfa, Texas

 

View from the highway of the Prada Store art installation oustide of Marfa.
Sarah Stodola bio picture.

ABOUT SARAH

Sarah Stodola is the founder and editor of Flung Magazine, the author of Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, and a widely published travel and culture writer.

Image by Micilin O’Donaghue