Portraits from the Big Bend: Seph Itz

Seph Itz (photo by Maisie Crow)

“I’m ninety percent bougie and ten percent punk,” Seph Itz proclaimed, sitting on the porch of his home behind Marfa’s Dairy Queen. The creator of Marfa Open, an arts festival now in the midst of its fourth year, knows that experimental art can push buttons and envelopes and sometimes go too far. But his proclamation mostly means Itz is the one providing the structure and polish necessary to command a bit of respect for the alternative crowd that the festival supports. “We’re trying to get really talented people who haven’t gotten a shot, to give them a platform to develop from,” he said.

“I know a lot of things in Marfa kick off and only last a year,” Itz says, but the organization is hoping to find some staying power, tucked within an art community dominated by deeply established foundations with world class collections on hand. He envisions growing the nonprofit Marfa Open organization and festival to eventually support artist residencies that will propel artists from Marfa to international art fairs.

Itz first arrived in Marfa to see the works of Donald Judd –– and to get his mother out of Comfort, Texas from time to time. He hoped a Marfa trip would break up the unending card games he played while visiting his mother in her Central Texas retirement enclave. Trips to West Texas were soon a ritual for the pair. He eventually bought the house behind Dairy Queen and within a couple years launched Marfa Open.

Itz’s project in Marfa is one chapter in a lifetime that veers methodically between conformation and bucking the establishment.

“I was a Hill Country farm boy baton twirler,” Itz said about his early life growing up outside of Kerrville, Texas. It wasn’t easy being so boisterous in the South in the 1960s –– or anywhere, he said. “Boys don’t twirl batons, but you couldn’t stop me.”

He soon started playing music, and earned scholarships for the skill, but used the opportunity to instead propel himself through a computer science degree.

Itz, like his father and brother, then joined the military. Looking back, he feels his time in service provided necessary structure and discipline for him, but not everything about the experience was positive. He hid his sexuality, knowing it would allow him to excel within the organization. “You had to lie on security clearances; it was so painful,” Itz explained. At one point, he married a French woman. He eventually climbed the ranks to colonel in the Air Force.

When he was stationed in Washington D.C. in the 1970s, working in the Pentagon, Itz finally felt comfortable opening up a little. His time in D.C., and later in Boston, allowed him to travel into New York City every weekend to take dance classes. In the early 1980s, Itz says the city felt like an American dream, where anything was possible. But those carefree days soon crashed down into a devastating decade for the gay community. He lost three of his close friends in one year to the AIDS crisis.

At that time, Itz was using some of his military earnings to start collecting analog photography, bailing out now-famous artists by purchasing their work whenever they needed money in a pinch. “I was a little bit of a careful, bourgeois kid,” he explained, saying sometimes his friends’ behaviors back then scared him. AIDS struck with impunity, and Itz reflected, “Maybe letting go isn’t always the answer.”

Itz still considered becoming an artist. Nan Goldin, a venerated photographer and friend of his, used to critique his work. But he said he never could fully commit to the lifestyle. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but I needed security.” Itz wanted the safety nets of health insurance and a retirement plan and couldn’t imagine living like some of the artist friends to whom he endeared himself.

His New York dance classes eventually led him to Europe, where he became a performer in a German theater. The arts had a more regimented structure and more government-backed funding there. It was also in Europe, years later, that Itz met Klaus Seiges, whom he later wed in an intimate and artful ceremony at Building 98 in Marfa last year. Itz finally discovered some of the security, structure and artistic expression he desired.

It’s that sense of security –– so difficult to find for himself –– that Itz hopes to build for artists in Marfa going forward. “Artists need more and deserve more; we’d like to do that. We want to continue to support developing artists.”

Itz has a resolution to bring the world to Marfa and take Marfa locals into the world. He organized art exhibitions for Marfa local John Daniel “JD” Garcia in France and Italy this year, and helped Jared Menane bring to life a piece in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In its fourth year, Marfa Open is finally finding steady ground. Itz secured a few key supporters to sustain the nonprofit for the years ahead. “We really want to remain fiercely independent, which is easy to do. A lot of the establishment doesn’t participate with us anyway.”

Discussing the art scene of Marfa, Itz offered this comparison: “Try to say something bad about Picasso in France. They won’t move past it. Seeing the Judd collection was the reason I came here, but I realized there’s more to life than art history.”

Still, Itz hopes Marfa Open can figure out “how to remain fiercely independent and be loved. This year is already a leap forward.”