We missed the Cowboy Yodeling competition at Alpine’s own Sul Ross State University, as it was held a week earlier than our three day stay in the high desert towns of Alpine and Marfa in southwest Texas in early March. We declined to attend the Reptile and Amphibian Show whose participants all seemed to wear cowboy boots, heavy make-up and sport short cut bleached hair. We had much more interesting activities to check out with our friend Gwynne Jamieson, my manager at Data General many years ago. She moved to Alpine, a small town of about 5,000 four years prior, and threw herself into a number of civic-minded and community-enhancing activities, from saving Amtrak service to beautifying the railroad park, becoming a naturalist and supporting the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. We walked up to see it’s cacti greenhouse. Many of the cacti are native to the desert and are not for sale. Some were rescued and some were gifts to the research institute. Notable cactus were the Leuchtenbergia, named after Eugene de Bauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg, prince of Eichstadt, step-son of Napoleon I, and Obregonia, named after the former president of Mexico Alvaro Obregon Salido.
Every time I hear “Marfa”, an eccentric and artsy little town of 2,000, next door, maybe 20 miles from Alpine, surrounded by working cattle ranches and mountains along with mysterious white, yellow and orange night lights (known as the Marfa Lights), I think of Martha, my stepsister who died a few years ago of breast cancer and was a theatrical and musical artist in her own right. She would have fit right in with the bohemian town of Marfa. It’s branding campaign is unique: “Marfa: Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it”. There are numerous articles about Marfa found in Forbes and travel magazines. Marfa attracts visitors worldwide including Beyoncé, Kevin Bacon and writers like Leslie Jamison, author of the new book “The Recovering” . I just finished reading the book and was surprised to learn she spent two weeks in Marfa editing it.
The Marfa Book Store is a magnet for the town’s creative community and features an astonishing selection of hard cover and paperback art, interior design, architecture and philosophy books, along with a small art gallery. I thought of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) when I entered and got lost in the books and ambience. One would not expect to find such a bookstore in such a little town. But that’s Marfa!
Beyoncé visited the permanent installation of Prada Marfa, situated on Rte 90, about 37 miles west of town, on the way to Valentine. This 15′ x 25′ store was designed by Elmgreen and Dragset, two European designers, and erected in 2005, and included goods from the Prada 2005 collection. It is constructed of adobe, plaster, paint, glass, aluminum frame, fiberboard (MDF) and carpet. It is their most famous installation. We took pictures of this incredible scene much like Beyonce and countless others. The permanent installation mimicked a small Prada retail store and featured atmospheric installation lighting. It will never serve as an actual boutique as the door cannot be opened.
Unfortunately, even though Marfa is in the middle of nowhere or maybe because it IS in the middle of nowhere, the installation was vandalized and broken into, the handbags and shoes of stolen. Nonetheless, the installation and exhibit was repaired and replacement accessories were displayed, but this time only shoes for the right foot were installed and the handbags’ bottoms were cut away so they could not be used. There!
Aside from Prada Marfa, until the 1970s, Marfa was best known as the film location for James Dean’s final movie, GIANT, also starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper. (Earlier in our travels, Dennis Hopper was noted on one of our tours as a resident of Wilmington, NC. He got around.)
Not to be out done by Marfa, Alpine has its own celebrated artists. With Gwynne we stopped by the Curry Studio & Gallery on West Murphy Street, near the Amtrak Station, after purchasing the first of two Javalinas mementoes of my stay in the Southwest. Tom Curry, an editorial cartoonist counts the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Rolling Stone as clients, all from little Alpine. He also creates whimsical horney toads, about five or six inches long, and found in his backyard.