Marfa, Texas – One “Giant” Movie, & The Arts

As mentioned previously, Marfa’s claim to fame:

  1. the movie Giant was filmed here
  2. it’s a well-known Arts destination

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Giant (1956) was directed by Hollywood artistic juggernaut George Stevens (who won an Academy Award for Best Director for his work on the film), and earned a total of 9 Academy Nominations for work both behind and in front of the screen. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean in his last role (and only third film) before his untimely death. Even though the film came out in the 1956, there continues to be a dialogue about this cinemas Classic. There’s been at least two different documentaries: Return To Giant (2003), and Children of Giant (2015). Giant has withstood the test of time, because it dared to be about matters of substance. The film was ahead of its time as it spotlighted racial prejudice and segregation against latinos. One only needs to turn the news on to see how these are still relevant issues today as the nation is indulged in conversations about Mexican Immigrants and DACA.

One of the go to tourists destinations is the restored Hotel Paisano. The Hotel was designed by famed architect Henry Trost in the 1920s. In the 1950s Hollywood came to the Hotel, when the movie Giant was in production. Many of the cast and crew stayed at the hotel, or made use of its amenities. Today there’s some film memorabilia up around the hotel, and there’s a number of small shops (including one that sells Giant film related merchandise), and a gallery attached to the hotel too.

 

Despite being a town of around 2000 residents, Marfa boasts well over a dozen art galleries, the most preeminent Art destination being the Chinati Foundation. While Marfa may feature numerous art galleries plus a number of retail shops specializing in artisan wares. Many of them have limited hours primarily focused to Friday – Sunday. I knew this going to the town, but even so I found half the places I tried to visit closed the Saturday I went. Between vacations, and galleries between installations my luck was not with me.

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Still I managed to make it to Book Marfa, which features a specially curated book store, artisan made goods, as well as a mini art gallery with works for sale. I love their regional book section. Anyone with an interest in ancient art especially of ancient man the book the White Shaman Mural is a must read.

The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos by Carolyn E. Boyd, Kim Cox

Winner, Society for American Archarology Book Award, 2017

The prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas and Coahuila, Mexico, created some of the most spectacularly complex, colorful, extensive, and enduring rock art of the ancient world. Perhaps the greatest of these masterpieces is the White Shaman mural, an intricate painting that spans some twenty-six feet in length and thirteen feet in height on the wall of a shallow cave overlooking the Pecos River. In The White Shaman Mural, Carolyn E. Boyd takes us on a journey of discovery as she builds a convincing case that the mural tells a story of the birth of the sun and the beginning of time—making it possibly the oldest pictorial creation narrative in North America.

Unlike previous scholars who have viewed Pecos rock art as random and indecipherable, Boyd demonstrates that the White Shaman mural was intentionally composed as a visual narrative, using a graphic vocabulary of images to communicate multiple levels of meaning and function. Drawing on twenty-five years of archaeological research and analysis, as well as insights from ethnohistory and art history, Boyd identifies patterns in the imagery that equate, in stunning detail, to the mythologies of Uto-Aztecan-speaking peoples, including the ancient Aztec and the present-day Huichol. This paradigm-shifting identification of core Mesoamerican beliefs in the Pecos rock art reveals that a shared ideological universe was already firmly established among foragers living in the Lower Pecos region as long as four thousand years ago.

I swung by the famous Ballroom Marfa for their installation at the time, and was rather taken by this artists use of electrical current through tobacco to the cooper sheet metal. I think in this case, it brings back fond memories of me working with copper during my metal & jewelry days. There was also an interesting exhibit that tackled political issues of identity as found in language and how various countries were using accents to authentic paperwork and grant or deny admittance to their country for foreigners. I also tried to visit the artisan retail fronts of both Freda,and the Wrong Store but they were also closed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marfa, Texas – The Chinati Foundation

Marfa may be a city with only a local population of around 2,000 (according to the 2010 Federal Census), but with dozens of art galleries and a film festival the small town certainly packs quite a punch in the Arts world. But Marfa’s iconoclast status as an art destination is due to Donald Judd’s works, and the fosterage of New York’s Dia Art Foundation to help establish the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas on the remains of an old military base. Here’s what they have to say about themselves:

The Chinati Foundation/La Fundación Chinati is a contemporary art museum based upon the ideas of its founder, Donald Judd. The specific intention of Chinati is to preserve and present to the public permanent large-scale installations by a limited number of artists. The emphasis is on works in which art and the surrounding landscape are inextricably linked. As Judd wrote in the foundation’s catalogue:

It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully. This should not always be thrown away. Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum-iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.

 

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The Chinati Foundation

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Stardust & Astrophotography in Southwest Texas

Despite being a bit daunted by the long drive it was from my home base of Dallas / Fort Worth to reach Fort Davis and it’s neighboring city of Marfa, Texas I had been incredibly excited for my trip to McDonald Observatory, and that part of the country for the rare opportunity to be in true Dark Sky area to try my hand at Astrophotography.

If you’re trying to see the stars whether it’s with your own eyes, a telescope or a camera lens, you’ll have the best visibility in areas that are classified as Dark Sky. We just don’t see the stars anymore except the most brightest (like Polaris) from our cities, because we have too much light pollution surrounding us. The light from our urban environment washes out the most distant light from the heavenly bodies around us. Think of it like how your night vision is ruined when you have lights turned on around you.

So much work goes into the preparation for Astrophotography. First it was time to do some research. Thanks to Wikipedia’s entries having elevation information and GPS coordinates of Latitude and Longitude I then plugged that information into the Stellarium APP on the days of my visit to see when and where the Milkyway would be rising and visible. Luckily for me it was going to be visible at that time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere (May through August), and I found the hours where I’d have the best opportunity to shoot the Milky Way each night. Once I had the basic information and reference points in the sky I was able to combine that information with my free Sky Maps APP (which shows the night sky), so I could orient myself with nearby celestial objects the day/night of to get my camera pointing the right way.

If you’ve ever seen the meme:

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This is because cameras have in some ways not yet neared the complexity of what our eyes can do. Vision with our eyes and with a camera works under the same base principle in that it requires light to see. Our eyes make complex changes rapidly, a camera lens has to be set up just so. The darker it is the wider the aperture needs to be opened and the longer the shutter speed should be kept open as well to allow the most light to come in. This requires more sophisticated camera equipment that allows you to manually manipulate those settings, and also requires a tripod (otherwise there’s too much camera shake and the images will be blurry). Ideally you also want a lens that can infinity focus as well, and you need to be able to turn off auto-focus and image stabilization.

Because our galaxy, our solar system, and our planet are in constant motion if you leave the shutter speed open too long you begin to get star trails [example follows].

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http://www.lincolnharrison.com/startrails/

Now I wanted to focus this trip on Milky Way Photography so Star Trails were NOT the desired result. There’s actually a mathematical formula used to calculate how long you can leave a shutter speed open based on the capability of your specific camera before you start experiencing the streaking of a Star Trail (it’s very long exposures that show rotational trails like above). So finding that number in seconds (a little over 17 seconds) I then adjusted my settings to JUST under that so I could maximize the light I took in. Additionally I had to use the Photographer’s Ephemeris to find out when Moon Rise was so I could avoid it. Why? The Moon is detrimental to Milky Way shots because the stronger light of the Moon causes it’s own light pollution drowning out the fainter Milky Way.

Luckily everything was lining up beautifully for my shots from an astronomy stand point. And then, Mother Nature decided to rain on my parade. 3 Nights of potential shooting, and I only got about an hour here and there of sporadic breaks in the cloud coverage across those 3 nights (usually the breaks were NOT conducive to MilkyWay shots at all) where I had a chance to shoot something, and even then there were still wispy hazy clouds that prevented me from getting clear shots, or other people ruining my shots. This is sadly the best shot I got.

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The Milky Way Rises from above the Davis Mountains in Texas.

As frustrating as my trip was, the experience I took away from the attempt will pay dividends in the future. Thanks to my cousin’s invitation I was at least able to listen to some amazing talks at the annual McDonald Observatory’s Board of Visitors Meeting, by scientists and researchers like Dr. Fritz Benedict’s “The Joy of M Dwarf Binaries and How One in the Hyades Gives Me a Headache” and Dr. Rob Robinson’s “Astronomy Questions that Remain Unanswered.”

This is my best Stardust shot from my trip:

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This neon sign is all that remains of Marfa’s Stardust Motel, it can be found on US-90 as you head West from Downtown Marfa immediately next door to the Apache Pines RV Park. The sign has since had it’s neon restored and it’s lit at night time. The sign’s neon now reads “Marfa” instead of “motel” (most likely to avoid confused travelers), though the original motel lettering on the sign can be seen during the day.

 

That’s so Marfa

When a mutual friend first introduced me to Mary Ann Glass a few years ago, I always remember how when Mary Ann learned I was from Texas the first thing she asked me is if I lived anywhere near Marfa, Texas. I recall thinking, where’s that? It would take a google search for me to find where it was in the state, and the answer to that is summed up in 3 letters: B-F-E.

The closest way to get to it is to fly into either El Paso, Texas or Midland, Texas, and then grab a car and drive a few more hours to get there. It’s in such a remote area of the state, and just on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert (within a couple of hours of Big Bend National Park), it takes a hardy, and a bit of a unusual sort to want to call it home. In fact the town was created solely as a watering stop for the railroads.

Marfa, Texas is really only famous for three things:

  1. Movie Locations: Giant was filmed in the area with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson,  Dennis Hopper, and in his final appearance James Dean; more recently the film No Country for Old Men was filmed in the area starring Tommy Lee Jones
  2. The Marfa Lights (atmospheric anomaly, some sort of bio-luminescence, swamp gas, ufos?)
  3. The Arts

The development of the arts was really galvanized in the 1970s when minimalist Donald Judd moved from New York City to Marfa for the express intention of finding a spot to permanently display his works. He would find an old abandoned World War II army base, and with help from New York’s Dia Foundation, he established the Chinati Foundation which displays both huge indoor and outdoor installations and is home to his outdoor Concrete series.

From the creative seed provided by Judd to the area, more artists soon began flocking to the area. Today, Marfa despite having a very small population of fewer than 2,000 according to the 2010 Census, has well over fifteen different art galleries, hosting artists from around the world. Marfa also now hosts a film festival too. The town has become synonymous with the arts, featuring many artisan boutiques and wares in the city, and nary a chain store anywhere to be seen.

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This is best embodied by the “White Shirt Marfa” just as it’s name suggests, it sells nothing but White Shirts, because apparently you can’t own enough of them. It can also be represented in Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa, a pop culture land art installation, of a faux Prada store, with a door that isn’t functional. It’s been theorized to be the single most instagrammed location in the entire state. Of course, I couldn’t resist a Selfie either. It had just rained when I showed up, so I decided to take advantage of the mud and puddles, and stormy skies.

The town is so small, that most of the places a tourist might be interested in are closed except on the weekends. For this reason, I had intentionally left my exploring of the galleries and shops to Saturday, when everyone had hours listed as being open. Alas, in practice, over 2/3 of the galleries and shops I went to visit were closed, some permanently, some between installations, some on vacation.

The main reason I was in that part of the state is my cousin had invited me to a special weekend at McDonald Observatory in the nearby Davis Mountains, but when I realized Marfa was a short distance away from where I was staying in the neighboring town of Fort Davis, well I decided I ought to go give it a gander. Afterall, since I was in BFE, I might as well embrace the opportunity, as I have no idea if I’ll ever make it back.

You can look forward to installments of more photos in the near future from my travels to this part of the state.