Accepting Angst in Marfa, TX

SPRING 2020

by Lisa. M. Williamson, Cohort ’15

When sculptor Eva Hesse experienced a spell of self-doubt prior to creating her pivotal work “Hang Up,” friend and fellow artist Sol LeWitt implored her to “stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out…stop it and just DO.” His words are delicately pinned to my studio wall, but I always understood his DO as DO-something. When I told a friend I was going to Marfa, Texas, for a writing residency to confront self-doubt, he quipped, “have you been before? There is literally nothing to do.”

I first encountered nothing when the Trans-Pecos mountains swallowed the rental Camry outside El Paso. Physical distance from all that was familiar shifted to emotional distance. In vain, I tried to slow time, by stopping along US 180 to take pictures, including the obligatory selfie at Prada Marfa. I embraced becoming nothing, while in forward motion to my destination, until I arrived at the little white house on Austin Street, where I was halted by aloneness.

Marfa Lights Viewing Area. Photo by Lisa M. Williamson
Marfa Lights Viewing Area. Photo by Lisa M. Williamson

Migrating from office to dining room, unpacking and repacking, and setting up my laptop only to move it minutes later, I was restless. The knotted stomach was a reminder that being alone in the desert is different than being alone in a hostel or coffee shop. At first I dodged aloneness by checking text messages and emails, moving my pen and anxiously underlining words in books. I went running, shedding layers until I was bare shouldered and at the edge of town with nowhere else to go. I wanted to create something, so I made enchilada soup to share with my companion, a feeble attempt to quiet the angst that had followed me far longer than a thousand miles.

The walk to Donald Judd’s home the next day was accompanied by an icy rain that shifted the season and brought plummeting temperatures. I searched for kinship in his library and my eyes rested on Heidegger’s Being and Time, the same book I was avoiding back at the little white house. The question arose: could this behemoth of a text be the roadmap to a converted army base in the Chihuahuan desert?

Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete at the Chinati Foundation. Photo by Lisa M. Williamson
Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete at the Chinati Foundation. Photo by Lisa M. Williamson

Marfa and Judd’s symbiotic relationship is fully realized at the Chinati Foundation in fifteen untitled outdoor works, providing an immediate encounter with Nothing. For hours, I became space and time crawling across the fragrant grasslands. Subtle movements in shadows were captured in a journal, along with the way the horizon line bisects the mammoth blocks. My hands detected slight temperature changes in the concrete as wildlife could be heard digging under the corners. Did Judd choose Marfa because this desolate Texas town understood what it meant to be suspended in Nothing, or did Marfa choose Judd in order to illuminate Nothing?

Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete at the Chinati Foundation. Photo by Lisa M. Williamson
Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete at the Chinati Foundation. Photo by Lisa M. Williamson
Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete at the Chinati Foundation. Photo by Lisa M. Williamson
Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete at the Chinati Foundation-Photo by Lisa M. Williamson

In doing Nothing, something arose within. Fidgeting ceased and the words flowed for the remainder of my stay. I left Marfa with a moveable feast that continues to reveal angst as a peaceful companion and cherished presence. Rather than avoiding it, today it is a celebrated part of my process.