Marfa: cultural oasis in Texas desert

Marfa: cultural oasis in Texas desert
Railroad tracks cut through Marfa, Texas.

MARFA, United States - Nestled in the Texas high desert about an hour from the Mexican border, Marfa appears, at first glance, to be hidden from the outside world.

With a population of only 1,900, the city that began life as a railroad stop feels like a backwater, with fading buildings, modest homes and dormant streets.

Yet the sleepy appearance is misleading. For thousands of visitors who flock to the town each year from around the world, Marfa is a cultural paradise, an El Dorado for art lovers.

A visitor might struggle to locate a pharmacy or a supermarket, but will be able to enjoy bookstores, galleries, a theatre, a radio station, two annual film festivals and numerous art deco treasures.

Every weekend, the crowds descend on a town the local tourist board markets as: "Tough to get to. Tougher to explain. But once you get here, you get it."

"It's like the tide," joked Valerie Arber, an artist who has lived in the town for 16 years.

The stream of visitors regularly includes luminaries from the creative world, such as the director of the Tate Gallery, Nicholas Serota, actress Sissy Spacek, singer Beyonce or edgy bands such as The XX.

"Marfa is a contemporary utopia, a place for thought and art in a landscape of wild beauty," said Fabien Giraud, a French artist who works in the Fieldwork Marfa project.

Founded in the late 19th century, Marfa developed into a thriving community that included ranches and a military base.

A devastating drought decimated livestock, however, and the end of World War II saw the military base close, triggering a decline in Marfa's fortunes.

The town received a fleeting moment in the Hollywood spotlight when it was used as the location for the 1955 James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor classic "Giant," but it would be nearly another two decades before Marfa's revival would begin in earnest.

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