[Life Back West] June 2011 – “Life is Fragile”

Untitled, Concrete, Chinati Foundation, Marfa,...

Donald Judd, Untitled, Marfa, Texas

The trip to West Texas with my spouse Chris and our almost 9 year-old son Traylor was to celebrate my brother-in-law Colin Wallis’ 40th birthday.

What I got out of it though, apart from birthday cake, was more than I had anticipated; a couple of sweet reminders about life itself.

While Colin lives in Austin, 11 of his friends had driven some 8 hours to  a ranch outside of Marfa, Texas for the weekend to celebrate the event with him. Something like another 50 will mark the occasion in Austin this week. While numbers don’t always mean much, having real, regular people as friends who will spend the time (and money) to schlep to a dusty, hot West Texas town in the middle of June is remarkable.

Remarkable was also the way his friends described Colin at the birthday dinner.

One friend, Chip Gist, noted that Colin had become a “totally different person” in the 20+ years he’d known him. While Colin is a handsome man at 6’2″ and around 180 pounds, the person Chip first met carried 300 pounds on that frame. Being that big is hard in a society that values fitness, and I’ve often wondered if Colin’s strong social skills are something he developed as a young kid to compensate for his large size. Last, that sort of excess weight is a recipe for any number of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks – not part of a formula for a good, long life.

The Colin that Chip first knew made  intentional choices, and the path Colin took – putting himself through school at the University of Texas and getting in shape by running, cycling, and doing triathlons –  was one of intent and discipline. The friends at his birthday party included runners and cyclists – people from that keep-in-shape life –  and the stories friends told about Colin were about the care and generosity he had with others that far surpassed the smart care he had taken with himself.

On Patriots’ Day you can usually find Colin in Boston running a certain marathon; when a friend needs a hand you can find Colin at the head of the line to help if he hasn’t already snuck in and taken care of the friend first. His job life parallels his personal life; he works with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, an organization that daily provides a high level of resources and assistance to cancer victims and their families that was unimaginable 10 years ago.

When artist Donald Judd chose to lay roots in Marfa, he did so to claim a childhood dream of living in the wide open spaces of the North American West. While Judd’s intent was to live a life in a place where he could practice and exhibit his minimalist art of breathtaking beauty, his intentional choice not only advanced his art but saved a community.

Marfa, like any number of small towns across North America, was on its way to extinction when Judd started visiting in the 1960’s. Sheep and wool had come and gone, and running cattle – something tough to do in the dry climate where range grass is hard to sustain – was not too far behind. As one 75 year-old resident expressed to me, “Without Donald Judd, Marfa would be a ghost town.” While Judd has his critics – one resident noted, “People say Judd was hard to get along with; I think he just had high standards” – there is no doubt that his intentional choice saved the town and its residents.

Today people from around the world come in a pilgrimage to see Judd’s work and it’s likely that Marfa is the only small town in North America that regularly draws major art and artists who want to display and perform there. It also attracts other organizations, such as the Ayn Foundation from New York, that choose to have a presence in the town. In Ayn’s case it’s a  permanent display of significance: Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper.

No Donald Judd, no Marfa today.

Every day I work with executive and team coaching clients who are making choices about their intent and the way they want to live their lives. Those intentional choices may be about performing better in their current job, preparing for that next promotion or career change, or working as a team or group more effectively – even with more fun to go along with more accomplishment.

Such choices are about intent; they are about what do you choose to do with your life.

Colin Wallis made some choices about taking care of himself that has led to a life noted for the care he gives to others. Donald Judd’s intentional choice created a mecca in a small West Texas hamlet and in doing advanced art and saved a town.

As Traylor slept against my side on our flight back from West Texas, Colin’s birthday remarks stuck in my mind as he had expressed appreciation for the support and kind words he’d received from friends. “Life is fragile,” he said, “thank you.”

And, I thought, there are choices you can make to be sure it’s the life you intend to live.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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