In a secluded town like Marfa, Texas, there’s enough physical space to take risks. A touch of isolationism coupled with Marfa’s otherworldly beauty have long drawn artists like Donald Judd, yearning to break out of the often claustrophobic art world of oversaturated urban centers. Before it became the stomping grounds of choice as it is now for pop culture royalty like Beyoncé, however, Marfa served as a wholesome family vacation spot for Dallas-raised photographer Gray Malin, long inspired by the scenery of ruggedly beautiful West Texas. Now—years after having first gone viral with his iconic shots of a banana peel on the highway in front of the “Prada Marfa” installation—Malin reflects on how, for him, Marfa has always served as the perfect place to get away.
Gray Malin's Marfa, Before It Was Cool
What first brought you to Marfa?
My dad is obsessed with land. My parents are from N.Y.C. but they relocated to Dallas so he could start his own real estate business. He really has a love for land, and so my family got a ranch in West Texas. I grew up going to Marfa and to my family ranch, enjoying the local art community; basically, my Marfa is so not the trendy place that it’s become. There were always some galleries, so we’d just park our car and walk down the main strip not far from the city hall to visit those galleries. When we would go out there, it really was all about the landscape. West Texas is just really stunning—mountainous and completely the opposite of what I assume people imagine Texas is like.
What’s it like getting to and from Marfa?
It’s about a nine-hour drive from Dallas, where I’m from. It’s a real haul to get there. We would always go out for a long weekend or something like that. The famed Prada Marfa is an added 45 minutes outside of Marfa, though. Each time we’d go out to West Texas as a family, I would bring my film camera and shoot more and more, and then during one visit, Prada Marfa was suddenly a thing. I found the installation—just a one-room, stucco replica of a fully-functioning Prada store like the ones you see on Fifth Avenue, except in the middle of the desert—just so absurd and hilarious that I begged my family to take me. But that’s where my first famous shot really came from; and when my photos started going viral, that’s about when Marfa started to get some more notoriety and attention, as a backdrop for a few famous films and things like that, blossoming into the Marfa that it is now.
Where is your favorite place to stay in Marfa?
Most recently, I’ve always stayed at the Thunderbird Motel, which also has its own café. Thunderbird definitely started the trend of the converted little motels—you know those old, dingy motels that are now so pretty? Still simplistic with concrete floors, cool rugs, maybe even a circular chair with a net back with a nice throw over the top of it, and a swimming pool. And at Thunderbird, you actually cross the highway to get to their café for breakfast. The Thunderbird is just really kind of the “OG” cool hotel from Marfa.
Where do you go to find inspiration in Marfa?
My favorite place to photograph is at the Chinati Foundation. You can’t not be moved to take a photograph. It was founded by Donald Judd who moved out to Marfa from N.Y.C. and, in my eyes, really put Marfa on the map. At the Foundation, you make an appointment to take a tour of the grounds, which brings you to these old airplane hangars that they’ve repurposed to permanently house artwork by Judd and his friends. Especially at a young age growing up in Texas, visits here were very moving for me—to see artwork played against the landscape of the natural environment was heartwarming. There are so many windows and so much light at the foundation, which really make the art come to life—and as a young, aspiring photographer, I was totally smitten with all of this.
Why has Marfa become such an artistic hub?
As an artist, I see why people are drawn to Marfa—it’s visually stunning. And people tend to follow artists to places they love to go and feel inspired by, so that, in my opinion, is really how Marfa became "Marfa." People loved Donald Judd’s work and wanted to know where he was getting all this inspiration from. Also, an installation like Prada Marfa makes this space feel a little more inclusive to artists who feel that they fall outside the lines of “fine art” a bit—for people who don’t really fit into the “art world” as it stands. It’s really the environment that makes Marfa so special and unique.
What are your favorite things to do in Marfa?
Aside from the Chinati Foundation, there’s also Ballroom Marfa, a non-profit that has worked hard to maintain a lot of the really central installations in Marfa, like the Prada installation for example. It’s a donation-based non-profit that supports the arts in this relatively remote place, and it’s a must-see. They’re really an institution—I went in there on my very first trip to Marfa many years ago and it struck me from the very beginning. In general, though, people have no idea how truly beautiful this part of Texas is. In the morning, the light is so stunning over the mountains and it is moving. When we would visit, my family and I used to drive to nearby Terlingua for a chili cook-off—ugh, we’re so Texan. We’d go on nature walks. Nowadays there are a lot of bars, and many of them have live music in the evenings so the whole town kind of comes to life. But at the end of the day, it’s really just small-town Texas. Marfa for me is all about the confluence of nature and art, and family time.