Starting in 2002 Texas Highways began commissioning me to produce an annual photo essay on any small Texas town of my choice.
In 2004 I chose the eclectic town of Valentine, TX with the idea of publishing it the month of February for Valentine’s Day. Since there were no hotels in Valentine I asked local famed artist, Boyd Elder, if I could stay a couple of nights at his ranchito home.
Once there I started exploring the town and its residents. Somewhere along the way I thought I had to create an emblematic, if somewhat cliche image of a flaming heart. After mentioning the idea to Boyd he said we could do it in his backyard. So I drove out to Marfa and bought several feet of lead rope from a quaint hardware store in town.
In spite of the rigidity of the lead rope, we both had trouble shaping a heart with any degree of success. At that point Boyd suggested we use a stiff wire to create the heart shape, which we did.
I proceeded to set up my massive Toyo 4X5 camera in place and pointed the camera against the backdrop of the Sawtooth and Livermore Mountains. Once we positioned the heart in place on the dividing fence between the Gear Hart Ranch and Boyd’s ranch house we doused the rope with Coleman camp fuel. With the rope saturated and in position, I took a meter reading, made several camera adjustments, focused under the black cloth covering and quickly loaded my film holder.
I began to stress out because the February desert winds were really beginning to crank up and I knew I was at the mercy of getting two maybe three peak action shots off of this notoriously cumbersome large format camera!
Once in position, Boyd lit the heart and the flames began to gradually flare but then a gust of wind picked up the flames in dramatic form. I quickly shot and loaded and unloaded one film holder after another. At the peak of the flaming heart the desert brush suddenly caught on fire!
In a matter of seconds we had a fairly sizable brush fire blazing uncontrollably. In shock, I looked at Boyd and he looked at me!
Immediately we both grabbed the single bucket of water we had reserved for an emergency and needles to say, it was a sad and futile gesture on our behalf!
We both watched in awe as the winds fanned the flames into a fantastic flickering rhythm on this Chihuahuan desert dance floor.
Just as the winds had become the alpha, they too became the omega to this flaming heart story.
Boyd Elder died in 2018 at the age of 74.
Excerpt from the Texas Small Towns collection describing Valentine, Texas:
“Perhaps it was also the best time of the year for a certain hardworking Southern Pacifica Railroad crew as they toiled to expand the railway eastward. Local legend says that they reached this site on February 14, 1882, and named it Valentine. The town flourished as it became a shipping point for the surrounding cattle ranches, and it soon boasted all the amenities of a western town: saloons, a general store, and a hotel. The population peaked at some 600 residents in the early 1950’s right about the time that Johnny Porras, now 76, started running his general store and gas station.
Johnny was born in Valentine and remained here to raise his three children. Though the children have moved away, they haven’t lost touch with their hometown. Johnny chuckles when he opens his annual hand-stamped Valentine card from his granddaughter, who attends Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Johnny doesn’t philosophize about why he remained a lifetime here, but simply say he just “decided to stay in a small town.”
Many residents who worked for the railroad followed their jobs to big cities like Los Angeles and Houston. Gradually, the town dwindled in population, and now its main employer is the Valentine Independent School District, which stays busy educating a student body of 54.
Every year, students in grades seven through12 here compete to design the Valentine Post Office cancellation stamp. Last year’s winner, 14-year-old Rebekah Lynn Santabar, rendered seven sketches in about 20 minutes before submitting her final entry- a drawing of intertwined hearts- to the city council.
This is a good place to be an artist. For example, Valentine native Boyd Elder, who returned to his hometown in 1987, creates spectacular abstract creations using holographic and colored foil, which he sells at galleries internationally. Boyd designed several album covers for the popular band The Eagles, whom he befriended as an art student in California, as well as for Jackson Browne and for Crosby, Stills Nash & Young.
The town’s mayor, Chuy Calderon, who also is a science teacher and a Federal Express deliveryman, often thinks about how to keep the town alive. And for now, the annual deluge of Valentine’s love letters helps do just that.”