2015-2016 Goliad Media Artist-in-Residence Christi LaViolette premiered her latest series of photographs at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton, TX on April 9th. The series features far West Texas, where LaViolette captured images that characterize the meaningful emptiness of the border region and its history. We are proud to feature the photographs from the series here as part of our ongoing virtual gallery—prints are available in our online store.
Life Looked Over is a series of photographs inspired by the history of Texas border-towns and the transition of once-bustling communities in West Texas. I was initially drawn to understand the history of this slice of Texas because my grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from Leon, Mexico and was a part of the cultural roots that now define life in Texas and beyond. Research on towns like Shafter and Valentine shed light on a once-booming silver and gold mining industry that proved to be short-lived and ultimately yielded fascinating shadows of communities that are now often overlooked and forgotten.
Initially I was intrigued and inspired to understand more about how a thriving community could become an abandoned ghost town, and I wanted to document this fascinating transition through photographing places that gave new lives to people. The parallel of big money in the form of silver and gold mining to our local struggles with big oil and their lack of concern for local communities was striking and all too familiar. The practice of moving in, raping the land for natural resources, rewarding the economy with the benefits, but ultimately having no concern for the long-term welfare or existence of the citizens is a pattern that appears to repeat itself. Although the ecological consequences of silver and gold may not be as severe as fracking or transmitting hazardous materials through protected land and communities, the general disregard for human life based on a low population density is apparent when looked at from a historical perspective.
The irony is that although these towns are largely documented as abandoned and sad, when they are experienced in person they are beautiful communities thriving on their own terms. They are remnants of the way the Mexican immigrants helped to define and shape the culture not only in Texas but also throughout the United States. They are towns satisfied with their status and aren’t seeking any change or progress as defined by many in more densely populated areas.
It was only after physically being in these towns that I learned of the story of Milton Faver, who owned the largest ranch in Texas and employed countless ranch-hands from Mexico, or the struggle of Shafter residents to fight the installation of the Trans-Pecos pipeline, or the immensely expensive TARS program that created a larger-than-life blimp to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. I wanted to show the people of West Texas, but it felt too intrusive into their way of life. Instead the structures left behind, looked-over, or forgotten seemed to paint the picture of life in West Texas, both from its beginnings in the 19th century to present day. Every image is in some way overlooked but crucial to the past and present of the history of West Texas and its many border towns.
“Deafening Silences and Other Desert Contradictions”
—Rima Abunasser, Ph.D.
I’d grown tired of hearing about borders—who draws them, who protects them, who defines them, who defies them. I’d become weary of the tragedy of refugees, of the anger of nationalists, so exhausted by ignorance and fear, so defeated by the unshakeable hold of hatred in a world that clings so tightly to imaginary lines on ever-changing maps. I dreamed of empty spaces.
I’d already fallen in love with West Texas—with this place that blurs the boundaries between desert and mountain, that erases the line between urban and rural, that makes space for both rancher and artist. When Christi LaViolette invited me to join her while she worked on a desert photo series I didn’t hesitate. I was more than ready to drive away from the real world and forget about those imaginary lines on those ever-changing maps.
As we made our way through the DFW metroplex, the markers of suburbia cycled past: Starbucks, Chili’s, Shell, Olive Garden, Quick Trip, On the Border. The endless, disorienting loop of American life.
“Was that another Chili’s?”
“What town are we in now?”
“Have you ever read Sartre’s ‘No Exit’?”
Somewhere past Abilene, we broke free of the suburban loop. The landscape changed—much flatter now—and the speed limit jumped. As SUVs and sedans gave way to speed-ing 18-wheelers and loaded farm trucks, I thought about the irony of longing for the slow pace of life in the desert. The freight trains that amble through our cities, dirge-like whistles pushing back against the clip of urban life, hurtle unencumbered through these open spaces. In the distance, where these 80-mph highways slow again to 55 and diverge into urban webs, our cities unknowingly await the cargo, unaware of the lifeblood speeding through the vast countryside.
Wind farms and oil fields. Sweetwater turns into Midland; hundreds of wind turbines bleed into hundreds of pump jacks in a reverse journey through energy innovation. Clean and dirty technologies cut across the landscape in equal measure, swallowing up ranch land and changing lives, invisibly powering distant cities.
“I wonder what it looked like before the wind farms.”
“Like oil fields.”
“I wonder what it looked like before the oil fields.”
We took a left at Midland. Pecan farms, a diner, a church. The road became circuitous and just when we thought we’d missed a turn, the mountains rose up around us. We laughed at our inability to describe our surroundings as anything other than “beautiful.”
A dichotomous place, Marfa is home to art galleries and abandoned buildings. Andy Warhol across the street from an empty theater. Designer food trucks serving vaguely Middle Eastern fare with names like the “Marfalafel” a minute away from the Dairy Queen, the only restaurant open between 2 and 5. A parked truck with its door wide open, its owner inside the hotel having dinner. Two hipsters asking if they still have to pay the rental fee if they only want the bicycle for “Instagram purposes.”
I could still see all the invisible lines on the ever-changing maps.
We saw it on the way to Prada Marfa. From a distance, it looked like a large sculpture, a rabbit, maybe. As we got closer, though, signs warned us to stay out, that this was government property, and art transformed into politics. Tethered Aerostat Surveillance System. Border Patrol Blimp. The 72-foot-long one can stay airborne for at least 14 days.
“They used those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yemen, too, I think.”
This time of year, Prada Marfa is surrounded by photographers. As soon as we pulled up, we knew Christi wasn’t going get any good photos here. We sat on the back of the car, smoked a few cigarettes, and watched the tourist who’d laid down in the middle of the road to get his shot. When the last of them left, we walked past giant anthills up to the train tracks. An 18-wheeler roared into the deafening silence and pulled over right behind my car. Worried something was wrong, alone by a desert highway, Christi and I turned to watch the trucker. He pulled out his phone and snapped a photo of the Prada store.
To get to Shafter, you take the other highway. You drive toward Mexico, through a mountain trail. We stopped at the historical marker that told us about Milton Faver, the Big Bend cattle baron who built three adobe fortresses “as a defense against hostile Apaches.” Don Melitón, as he was known, was one of the earliest Texas trail drivers; he paid his Mexican ranch hands 12.5 cents a day.
“Was that a good wage in the 1850s?”
Shafter, TX. Population: 33. Walking through the ghost town felt intrusive, like we were wandering uninvited through someone’s home. We spoke in hushed tones, worried that the clicks of the camera were too loud. We crawled through the barbed fence, past the no trespassing sign, to get a better view of the ruins. These silver smelters had once been the heart of a silver mining boomtown. That Shafter died long ago.
A monk nodded as he walked past us on his morning constitutional. An older man with a small dog picked up trash along the highway before checking the communal mailbox. A few of the houses had no pipeline signs in the windows. We saw those in Valentine and Marfa, too. Protesting the Trans-Pecos pipeline. Another energy innovation about to carve its way through the desert. An old lab barked and followed us until we stopped in front of the building where the “shootout at Shafter” happened in 1940. We told ourselves we saw the bullet holes.
On the drive back, the distant rainstorm made the desert look like the ocean.
Shafter is so close to Mexico that you have to go through a Border Patrol checkpoint on the way back to Marfa. I drove off to the side as directed and waited while the Belgian Malinois and his handler circled the car. A young officer told me to roll down the window.
“Where you coming from, ladies?”
“Shafter. We were taking photos.”
“Which one of you is a photographer?”
“I am.” She held up her camera.
“Are you American citizens?”
Christi wanted to tell him that one of us was half-Mexican and the other half-Arab but we were Americans. I worried that I didn’t have my passport to prove that, despite my name, I was allowed to live within these borders.
“All right. I hope you got some good pictures. There’s not really much else to do out here. Have a good day.”
It was our last night in West Texas. We already knew what the Marfa Lights were—an impressive trick of the light, but a trick nonetheless. It was so dark on the highway. I nearly hit a rabbit, Christi ignored a phone call to avoid distraction, we laughed nervously and wondered if it had been such a good idea to drive out here so late.
This wasn’t the West Texas we were looking for
We recognized some of the people we’d seen over the past couple of days—the college students upset they couldn’t text the hotel for reservations, the boys taking their band photo outside of Mando’s, the French family eating chicken fried steaks at the Paisano.
This wasn’t the West Texas we were looking for.
We were, as expected, underwhelmed by the tiny blips of light off in the distance. We listened to the giggling twentysomethings who’d just realized they had to change a flat tire and to the older couple loudly wondering if fog would affect visibility on alien ships.
This wasn’t the West Texas we were looking for.
“Papa, ou sont les Marfa Lights?”
“What’s that kid saying?”
“He’s asking his father where the Marfa lights are.”
“Ssshhh. Regarde les étoiles.”
“He wants the kid to look at the stars.”
Out here, far above the Chihuahua desert, the Milky Way stretches incomprehensibly across the night sky.
“Les étoiles, cheri.”
The stars, love.
We looked up. Imaginary lines on ever-changing maps reduced to a glorious insignificance.
That’s the West Texas we were looking for
LIFE LOOKED OVER: A PICTURE OF WEST TEXAS HISTORY
All images copyright © Christi LaViolette, 2016. Unauthorized use or reproduction of these images is prohibited without the expressed written permission of the artist.
Click to enlarge.