An Elegy for David Tompkins

Our beautiful friend David Tompkins has died. He was, as are we all, a singular individual. A native of Connecticut, he appeared in Marfa more than 20 years ago, nursing a broken heart and seeking a place of quietude where he could work on his art – poignant stories about poets or talking animals or scenes of Marfa that he drew and lettered. To those of us who encountered him then, he was a cipher. He walked everywhere and was always alone. In a display of mild sartorial exoticism for the area, he wore his shirts unbuttoned at the chest and tended toward professorial tweed coats and wingtips run down at the heel. We finally talked to him one starry night. Who was he, we asked. What brought him here? “David Tompkins,” he said, practically levitating with intensity. “I’m here because my life imploded.”

I remember that his answer, so unexpected and stark, made us laugh and, after a beat, he laughed a little too. Implosion seemed so histrionic. But I know now how he felt. In the days since we learned he’d drowned during a June 28 flash flood, right in the middle of town, his friends have walked around like hollow shades, our lives imploded. At least, that’s how it feels for now.

Although he left periodically for work stints, or to care for his aging parents in Connecticut, Marfa was David’s home. You probably saw him smoking outside Frama or standing at the edge of the dance floor at a house party, or, in days past, walking his creaky old Catahoula, Bix. You could’ve also seen him at the Chinati Foundation. David read widely and dedicated his editorial skills to Chinati for 15 years, where he wrote and thought about art and helped produce the museum’s publications. He was likewise proud of his contribution to films he made with the artist Matthew Day Jackson, as well as essays he penned for journals such as the Los Angeles Review of Books.

David was a weirdo of the best caliber, equal parts gruff and tender. He chortled heh-heh-heh when something amused him, which was often. His speech was punctuated by a habitual clearing of his throat every thirty seconds or so, a vocal tic that showed up depending on his audience and the topic at hand. He could be deeply private, withdrawn even, prone to solemnity in his self-reflection or sudden hot temper, and yet David was a world-class listener when listening was needed by someone close to him. The concentration that he brought to listening was an expression of his intrinsic kindness and his profound loyalty, tilting his head to peer intently at the speaker over the rim of his glasses. If a friend had a baseball game, he’d be there. If a friend had an art opening, he arrived early and stayed late. If a friend played music in a late-night DJ gig, he’d sit with her for hours in the darkness of the radio booth.

When his light was on very early in the morning, David was drawing. He loved comics and created short form and longform comics of his own, carefully crafted projects that sometimes went on for many years. His comics were pointed, insightful, humorous: his Marfa version of the Mexican bingo game Loteria included El Abogado, El Otro Abogado and El Amigo del Abogado, all drawn identically. The humility of his subjects – two vultures discussing philosophy, donkeys pondering existential questions, the life of Walt Whitman’s battered hat – was a reflection of his own depth and lack of pretension.

Yet he never hid his fierce intellect. He participated in many Marfa theatrical productions and play readings over the years and was a big part of the current group, which gathers weekly to read aloud Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” It’s a difficult play – complicated, thorny and sharply funny, too – and the group pauses frequently to explore questions about motives, language or themes within the text. It’s David, his green eyes ablaze, whose answers usually pierced the closest to the truth.

He owned very little; his belongings filled just a few boxes. Though his footprint upon this world was small, his shadow kisses a river of people long and wide. His death has left his friends with an urgency, a compulsion, to let those around them know that they care. In the Dollar Store laundry aisle – I love you. While eating a plum right off the tree – I love you. Many times since June 28, between ragged breaths – I love you. And if there is any gild to his ending, it may be the startling realization of how much, how very much, we care – that those of us who live here, far from blood family, many of us who’ve been here for years and years, who’ve laughed, tiffed, nurtured and drifted from one another over time, are in fact a doggedly enduring sort of family too.

Last night was moonless and the stars were a million pinpricks of light against inky velvet. It’s the sort of thing David would have noticed, how much majesty and beauty there is in the obvious. Look at that, he would have said, clearing his throat. Look at that.

A gathering in David’s honor will be held Saturday, August 21, 2021 in Marfa. Above photo by Justin Almquist.

David Tompkins’ comics appeared regularly in the pages of The Big Bend Sentinel in the early 2000s.