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The Transformation of a West Texas Town

This inviting book explores how small-town Marfa, Texas, has become a landmark arts destination and tourist attraction, despite—and because of—its remote location in the immense Chihuahuan desert.

Series: Charles N. Prothro Texana Endowment

October 2017
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208 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 27 b&w photos |

A small town in the vast desert of West Texas, Marfa attracts visitors from around the world to its art foundations and galleries, film and music festivals, and design and architecture symposiums. While newcomers sometimes see it as “another Santa Fe,” long-time residents often take a bemused, even disapproving attitude toward the changes that Marfa has undergone since artist Donald Judd came to town in the 1970s and began creating spaces for his own and other artists’ work. They remember when ranching and the military formed the basis of the town’s economy, even as they acknowledge that tourist dollars are now essential to Marfa’s sustainability

Marfa tells an engaging story of how this isolated place became a beacon in the art world, like the famous Marfa Lights that draw curious spectators into the West Texas night. As Kathleen Shafer delves into the town’s early history, the impact of Donald Judd, the expansion of arts programming, and the increase in tourism, she unlocks the complex interplay between the particularities of the place, the forces of commerce and growth, the textures of local culture and tradition, and the transformative role of artists and creative work. Bookending her story between two iconic artworks—the whimsical Prada Marfa and the crass Playboy Marfa—Shafer illuminates the shifting cultural landscape of Marfa, showing why this place has become a mecca for so many and how the influx of newcomers has transformed its character.

  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The History of Marfa
  • Chapter 3. Encountering the Landscape of Marfa
  • Chapter 4. Donald Judd in Marfa
  • Chapter 5. Marfa after Judd
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index


KATHLEEN SHAFER is a Marfa-based writer and artist who holds a PhD in geography and the environment from the University of Texas at Austin.


“The most memorable parts of Ms. Shafer’s book are her beautiful evocations of Marfa’s high desert landscape, its delicate colors, the big sky and dry air; and of Judd’s art.”
Wall Street Journal

“The town that emerges in [Shafer's] book is one beset by social, historical, and even moral contradictions.”
D Magazine

“I'll re-read Marfa. . . before I return to Marfa for the third time. My copy of Shafer's book will go with me when I do. When you make your next trip to Marfa, you'll want to take your own copy. You'll be glad you did.”
Concho River Review

“Shafer walks a fine line in her discussion of Marfa. On the one hand, she emphasizes the uniqueness and appeal of this small West Texas town that has become an art center, a destination for travelers from around the United States and Beyond. On the other, she notes that much of Marfa's appeal results from an imagined place, one that is probably more illusion than real—real, yes, in passing moments that appear and disappear like the Marfa lights.”
Pacific Historical Review

“This book is an easy, enjoyable, and informative read. It appeals to both the casual and academic reader, and those familiar and otherwise with the Big Bend area of Texas. It will be a valuable addition to the collections of many cultural geographers, especially those with an interest in sense of place, art, and tourism.”
Journal of Cultural Geography

Marfa is an engrossing weave of cultural geography and aesthetics in an arid landscape made hip, a compelling story about a special, fraught, and privileged place.”
Char Miller, Pomona College, author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas

“Kathleen Shafer has written a vivid, thoughtful account of Marfa’s emergence as an arts center and tourist destination. Accessible and sophisticated, this book illuminates the history of Marfa, the qualities of its arid West Texas landscape, and the transformation set in motion by Donald Judd. A fascinating study of present-day Texas, artists, and the business of art.”
Alan Lessoff, Illinois State University, author of Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca