At the Mouth of the West: A Recent Trip Through Midland-Odessa

by Neil Fauerso August 11, 2018

I had never visited Midland-Odessa until a week ago, but that region looms large in the iconography of Texas. Anytime a movie wants to establish that Texas is a hard, menacing, cutthroat place, it can throw a panorama of some pumpjacks mercilessly dipping on a flat expanse. Think of the opening of Blood Simple, the endless industry dotting the horizon as E. Emmet Walsh croaks, “But here in Texas you’re on your own.” 

I recently drove to Midland-Odessa en route to New Mexico. As I turned off at Ozona, the roads became dustier, the road work ceaseless, and giant trucks rattled past. It was like the highways in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I had no reception on my phone, so I listened to the one CD I had, of Philip Glass-composed works for the experimental Amazonian group Uakti. The landscape attained a platonic ideal of flatness, ground the color of white ash, and signs for fresh water and land for sale everywhere. Flames from refineries and processing plants flickered in the distance like dystopic prison camps of the future. Periodically a large grid of trees would rise from nothing. Were they orchards or tree farms? It was hard to tell. In the center of each tree farm was a large, stout McMansion, usually flanked by a gleaming, boat-sized Cadillac. I thought of Peter Greenaway’s great movie The Draughtsmen Contract, about sex and power in the manicured hedges of an English estate, of how jutting wealth like a plume of oil can turn the drabbest of places into a surreal fever dream. 

Upon reaching Midland, I headed directly to the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. The Permian Basin is one of the largest oil fields ever discovered and was the largest until the Saudi oil field was discovered in 1934, leading to the U.S.’s horrific alliance with the house of Saud and the post-WWII American empire. The museum is… very odd. Seemingly designed by the same people behind Denver’s mind-rending terrorism museum The CELL, the Petroleum Museum is extremely dense (one game, ostensibly for kids, involves choosing which well option you would profit the most from, and resembles an oil-and-gas question from the Texas State Bar that I failed miserably). There is a ranting element to it. It is extremely pro-fossil fuels, and vaguely conspiratorial. OPEC is treated as a sinister global cabal (which… not untrue) that destroyed the halcyon boom days of Midland. One hilarious display case was filled with dated bottles of shampoo demonstrating all the wondrous products that contain petroleum. The creepiest part of the museum in is the Exxon-sponsored Energy City, an exhibit for kids of brightly plasticized interactive displays that takes them into a gleaming, happy world coursing with the earth’s blood. The effect of the museum is not unlike talking to your aggrieved, recently laid-off father in-law for way longer than you anticipated at a family reunion. 

One recurring current in the museums in Midland-Odessa were strange, surprise exhibits that were relatively incongruous or unrelated to the museum. In the Petroleum Museum, the main exhibit on the Permian basin ends, and then there’s an extensive collection of beautiful stones — gems, quartz etc. I vaguely gathered that these were donations by various people who had gotten rich from oil. This stone exhibit alone is worth the visit, with exquisite glittering formations standing in stark contrast to the black crude the museum is built on (and is sold in little vials like vampire blood). After the rock exhibit, there’s yet another exhibit of the Chaparral race car designed by a Midland native. It’s breezy hagiography toward a very beautiful invention of games and leisure. Two visiting boomers in Hawaiian shirts, looking like late-stage Mike Love, seemed in a state of reverential awe, like a Catholic visiting Sainte Chapelle. Taken together, the exhibits in the Petroleum Museum form a strangely perceptive analysis of the culture of oil — a fevered, defensive, geopolitical paranoia, the splendors of the wealth, the grand absurdity and shock of the indulgent extremes of the internal combustion engine. 

Next up was the Museum of the Southwest. As I drove through Midland, I admired a plethora of charming mid-century homes and I imagined living in one of them. Despite the purgatorial flatness of Midland, the region has a lure, an austere charm. Every museum is chock-full of cowboy poetry, cowboy narratives, and memoirs. Midland is an infinity pool of dust looking out over the mirage of “the West.”  

The museum includes the Turner family mansion and a modern extension. The Turners were the wealthiest family in post-war Midland, having won a lawsuit for a highly lucrative claim of oil. They ascended in that mythic West Texas story of oil wealth, like the Cybil Shepherd’s sad, flush clan in The Last Picture Show. The stately mansion has a tinge of sorrow itself. Juliette Turner, the matriarch of the fortune, was murdered in 1963 under fairly shady circumstances. The patriarch, Fred Turner, died a few months later. 

The museum is a highlight of Midland. It has a first-rate collection of art of the west, with a fairly interesting and progressive rotating exhibition program. These are jewels in Texas: regional museums of the rich familial dynasties — the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas; The McNay in San Antonio; and of course, most impressively, the Menil Collection in Houston. There’s a simplicity to the narrative of converting resources to lavish estates and then turning them into art museums that seems almost quaint at this point. The most affecting at exhibit at the Museum of the Southwest is photographs from the Isleta Puebla in New Mexico from the late 19th century. Railroad companies forcibly gained lands through the Puebla in 1881 and tourists began to flock to the area with great fascination. This exhibit crystalizes the white expansion of the west, and how colonialism in general is driven by an aesthetic pull of “the exotic” entwined with contemporaneous self-mythologizing. Erase the past and create your own myth — a hero’s march amongst these “strange” new people. 

The surprise exhibit in the Museum of the Southwest is in the lugubriously titled Turner Legacy Galleries. Situated in the Turner Mansion, it feels akin to a wing of the Vatican in terms of its solemnity and piety. What is in the Turner Legacy Galleries? An extremely self-aggrandizing shrine to the Kentucky Derby and the two Derby Winners the Turners owned. Chock full of display cases and breathless Derby reverence, one display case of the Turner’s two Derby trophies, arranged like the grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, includes the quote by “newspaper man” Irving Cobb: “Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain’t never been nowhere and you ain’t never seen nothing.” (Hard disagree, Irv.) I audibly chuckled walking through this section and felt wistful thinking of a time when the rich were completely enamored with racing horses, instead of now, when they mine data to elect fascists and engage in megalomaniacal, Moonraker-esque space exploration and vampiric blood therapy. 

Next up was a 20-minute drive to Odessa. Midland, historically, was the wealthy town, the manager town, and Odessa the town of the roughnecks, the strip clubs, and the dive bars. This is readily apparent. Odessa — hollowed out, semi-shuttered, and howling with hot wind — is one of the bleaker cities I’ve visited in Texas. The Ellen Noel Art Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is considerably less impressive than the Museum of the Southwest, but it’s free and worth a quick visit. The highlight is its brilliant large mural, The Stampede, by Tom Lea, from 1940. A visceral panorama of a bull stampede, the piece, like the best southwestern art, contains a charge of velocity and vitality akin to Italian futurism. The two rotating exhibits I caught were slight but charming. One collected the various dresses and costumes made by Texas-born Hollywood seamstresses and included the biographies of small-town Texas women who made glittering cowboy outfits for Jane Russell and Tab Hunter. The other, titled Cut Up/Cut Out, collected local, national, and international artists who work with piercing and cutting methods. I at first thought the exhibit was closed because in a bit of provincial caution there were signs everywhere to “NOT TOUCH THE ART.” The quality of the works ranged wildly, from pieces that could be in a Neiman Marcus window display, to subtle and challenging works such as Ana Bidart’s carved register rolls that resemble eroding glaciers. 

After a long day, I wanted to grab a beer in Odessa. An aficionado of dive bars, I thought I had settled on a spot called Tumbleweeds, but when I drove by, the “bar” was a house with a cardboard sign stapled to it with “Tumbleweeds” scrawled in black sharpie marker, and approximately nine giant trucks with confederate-flag bumper stickers parked outside. Interrupting some MAGA bros spinning homicidal fantasies about their family court judges, six shots of Wild Turkey deep, was not what I had in mind, so I headed back to my hotel in Midland.

On the drive back, I passed perhaps the most relevant piece of art on my visit. A mural outside a gun range that depicts a bucolic scene of a father and son hunting flows into a scene of a busty, enraged, and fearful woman who resembles Laura Ingraham levelling a gun at some unseen threat in front of a billowing American Flag. This is one summation of the direction of the country, and especially the state of Texas.  



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Lee Hill August 12, 2018 - 09:53

Nice…making fun of the folks in Midland/Odessa like they’re bunch of provincial rubes. I think the writer has been watching too much of the movie ” Hell or High Water” while toking up on a doobie. The description of the petroleum museum is totally spun out of imagination in spite of its creativity. Perhaps one has to be a product of this place and culture to understand it and not a poser out for a one night stand like a common roughneck from North Dakota…

Kristen Reichert August 13, 2018 - 09:57

Couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m from Midland, and I can understand how it’s hard to see the beauty in a desert town that wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the discovery of that evil oil, hence a museum dedicated to it. And the beauty isn’t just in the museums. It’s in the sunrises, sunsets, and the people, but you have to put aside your prejudices and actually talk to them to find that out.

Drew August 13, 2018 - 09:15

A bit harsh, but an entertaining perspective certainly.

You hit the Petroleum museum hard, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the similar exhibits now crowding kids and science museums in the state. A few years ago I visited both the Perot and the Ft. Worth Museum of Science and History, and both have extensive new exhibits about fracking and fossil fuels. So it’s not just out in the Permain Basin.

H August 13, 2018 - 12:52

The universality of what NF is getting at may be the point… Generally it’s well received when the dynastic resource-conceived wealthy create an “aren’t we heroic” shrine to themselves because they are also the ones funding the majority of cultural (and other) activity in an area, especially apparent in the oil patch.

It is what it is. Listen to the Art Dirt on “dirty money”.

Jake Weigel August 13, 2018 - 23:05

Midland and Odessa certainly have a unique cultural aesthetic all to themselves that can be easily overlooked, especially when you have a day to look around. The Petroleum Museum is low-hanging fruit for obvious reasons. This display of regional pride is a bit over the top but also informative in the historical development of the area, which plays a significant role in national and international politics. The bronze Chris Kyle statue installed in 2016 in Odessa was missed in the article which is another obvious target. It also faced resistance from the local art scene and was funded entirely from private donations. For anyone interested in a more in-depth understanding of the art scene, here are a couple of places to start.

Randy Ham, Executive Director of the Odessa Council for Arts and Humanities, has done an incredible job building up the public art in Odessa. Tom Lea’s “Stampede” was a project with OCAH, the Ellen Noel Art Museum and the US Postal Service to restore this WPA mural. This week, an Albert Paley sculpture was installed in downtown Odessa thanks to Randy and a committee of dedicated people. Ray King has recently been commissioned to create a new 100-foot sculpture in downtown Odessa that has been over two years in planning by the OCAH committee and city. http://WWW.OCAH.ORG

UT- Permian Basin professors Chris Stanley and Mario Kiran have also been integral to Midland and Odessa with Pots N Prints. This is a three-time National Endowment for the Arts funded project that consists of a trailer they drive to West Texas K-12 schools and local Boys and Girls Clubs, complete with ceramics wheels, rake kiln and printmaking setup. Chris was also a key factor in the completion of the Stonehenge on campus. He has built up the Hungry Bowls scene that contributes significantly to the new West Texas food pantry that was established in part by Stanley’s efforts.

Both the Ellen Noel and Museum of the Southwest have made great strides due to several people including Annie Stanley and Daniel Zies at the Ellen Noel and Wendy Earle (who has recently departed from MoSW). Due to the conservative nature of the region, they have to strike the balance between regional interests and good art and have done an amazing job. Check out the Sensory Garden at the Ellen Noel which was established with the help of Texas Commission of the Blind and sculptures by Texas artists Jesus Morales and Danville Chadbourne to name a few.

Also check out the Ellen Noel Performing Arts Center simply for its architecture designed by Bora Architects + Rhotenberry Wellen Architects. The community theatre scene in Midland/Odessa is also among the highest rated across the country as well.

The Permian Basin has received the short end of the stick for its role in the production of oil and the wealth of Texas. This is by no means an endorsement of the oil industry but an acknowledgment of its reality in Texas and the Permian Baisn. If it weren’t for its oil, the art scenes that we know of in Dallas and Houston wouldn’t exist either. In the meantime, enjoy and appreciate what a small group of people can do to bring the arts into Odessa and Midland because they have to work harder than other places to make a difference.

Randy Ham August 14, 2018 - 16:47

I have to admit, I was very surprised to see an article about Odessa-Midland on Glasstire this week.
Odessa and Midland are not urban arts centers by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have a cultural community here, and I am very sad that Mr. Faurso did not see much of it.
As one comment to the article pointed out, Texas Tech just installed a new Albert Paley sculpture in front of the new academic building here in Odessa. This $260K piece, titled ‘Mirage,’ is unlike anything else in the public art arena here in West Texas. I was proud to serve on the selection committee for this project. We believe it will change the public discussion of public art in West Texas.
The Ellen Noel Art Museum’s Celebrate Texas exhibit was carefully curated by Daniel Zies, as was Cut Up/Cut Out. Some of these pieces are very delicate and it was probably for the best that there were signs instructing patrons not to touch the Art.
Odessa is also home to several literary events, having hosted the likes of Neil Gaiman, Brad Meltzer, Erin Morgenstern, and David Sedaris (twice). Authors you would never see outside of a metropolitan area. This year, we are one of only 79 communities in the US to receive an NEA Big Read grant.
Many of the residents of this area live below the poverty level, or don’t speak english. Some have never traveled. They live their entire life here in West Texas. For many of these people, it’s the Ellen Noel Art Museum, The Midland Odessa Symphony and Chorale, The Permian Playhouse, West Texas Talent, The West Texas Jazz Society (which boasts the longest running jazz party in the United States), The Odessa Shakespeare Festival, The West Texas Harp Society, the fine arts departments at our college and university, that bring the world to West Texas. So yes, we may have to put a few extra signs up, and we may have to gently instruct people not to talk during a performance. The Cultural Community here is dedicated to lifting our community up through the Arts.
I would hope that my colleagues in the Arts fields would recognize the hard work that is put in to bringing art and culture out here to the West Texas desert, and encourage it, rather than bemoan a perceived lack of quality and effort.
I invite Mr. Faurso back to West Texas. I’d be happy to escort him around the city, and introduce him to the people and places who work tirelessly every day to enrich our community though art.
– Randy Ham, Executive Director, Odessa Arts

Jake August 14, 2018 - 17:07

I got the URL wrong for Odessa Arts Council. Should be if you wouldn’t mind correcting that. Thanks.


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