A few years ago, I took a canoe trip on the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park’s Santa Elena Canyon. Our group camped overnight at the mouth of the canyon, and in the morning, one of the guides called everyone over to see a tarantula as big as my hand.
More in Marathon
The French Co. Grocer is at 206 N. Ave. D. Call 432/386-4522.
The James H. Evans Gallery is on US 90, three doors down from the Gage Hotel. Call 432/386-4366.
To me, this hairy spider epitomized the wildness of the Big Bend landscape. So later, when I wandered into the French Company Grocer in Marathon and saw a pillowcase bearing a life-size image of a tarantula, it resonated with me. I bought it, along with a second pillowcase printed with a horned toad, another iconic Texas creature. These pillowcases, which sell for $25, are part of Marathon resident Marci Roberts’ Desert Critter Wear collection, which also includes T-shirts, camisoles, and dresses. Roberts creates them using screenprinted images taken by photographer James H. Evans, who recently became her husband.
Roberts thought pillowcases would be fun. “I didn’t know if people would go for having a critter on something you put your head on every night,” she says. “I certainly didn’t know if they would buy one with a tarantula on it, but people loved it. I added the horned toad for those not quite ready for a tarantula, though.”
In 2003, Roberts was working for an architectural firm in Austin, and she became acquainted with Evans when he came to town to promote his book Big Bend Pictures. Evans had operated his art gallery in Marathon, the James H. Evans Gallery, since 1989. The two hit it off, and a few years later, Roberts moved to the tiny West Texas town to help him open a new gallery space on US 90, a few doors down from the Gage Hotel.
Her decision to move to Marathon was huge, Roberts says, but she doesn’t really remember agonizing over it. “I just kind of did it. Usually, you put down the pros and cons and really think about it, but I don’t remember doing any of that. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on the front porch looking out at this little town of 420 people and thinking, what just happened?”
She says she did question her decision to move, but only briefly. “Everything is different here than what I was used to. But it was exactly what I needed.”
Six months later, she learned that Marathon’s French Co. Grocer was for sale, and she bought it. “I’d never written a business plan. But I went to the bank and they said yes. I stuck my toe in the water and it swept me away.”
Employees run the store and share in profits. Roberts added natural foods, camping gear, hardware, toys, produce—and, of course, Desert Critter Wear. “We have a deli and great coffee in the morning. You can drink a beer or wine on the porch. It’s more like a general store, a throwback to the one William French first opened here in 1900. We are all over the place with our market; I’m proud to say we have lard right next to organic butter.”
Roberts and Evans bring critters into the studio or photograph them outside against a white background, taking great pains to release each one back to where they found it. So far, they’ve photographed a conenose bug, a rattlesnake, and a javelina in addition to the tarantula and horned toad.
Evans’ gallery also sells cards and books, as well as prints of his landscapes, portraits, and wildflower images, including those taken in 2015, when Big Bend enjoyed what Roberts calls the “bloom of the century.” “The whole year we had our jaws on the floor, not believing the beauty we were seeing in the park,” she says.
No word on whether wildflowers will soon grace T-shirts and pillowcases. But Roberts says that the two collaborate on almost everything. “He does the images, he makes art out of something I can’t see, but I’m a good editor for him. We really do go back and forth.”
Roberts made her first pillowcases with a polyester-cotton blend to keep the price low, but then people asked for a nicer grade. Now she uses pure, 400-thread-count cotton. “I wasn’t sure people would pay to have that, but I knew that I would,” she says. “If I would buy it, usually someone else would, too.”
In addition to the gallery and grocery, you can also find Desert Critter Wear at Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Barton Warnock Visitor Center near Lajitas, Big Bend National Park’s Chisos Lodge gift shop, and online.
The gallery’s hours are officially 10 a.m to 6 p.m. “most days,” but Roberts and Evans sometimes slip away during those hours to take photographs or work on projects. Evans often heads to his studio and darkroom across the railroad tracks, but visitors can walk over and ring the doorbell or summon them by calling the phone number posted on the gallery window. Marathon is a small town, after all.
Originally from East Texas, Roberts studied design at North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) and worked in New York City for about five years before moving to Austin to be close to her nephews. “When I met James, though, I was kind of burned out,” she recalls. “Life wasn’t making any sense. Somehow it makes sense in Marathon.”
Somehow, a tarantula on a pillowcase makes sense, too. These spiders are not aggressive, and their bites pack about as much punch as a bee sting, but when threatened, they’ll rise up and stretch out their front legs like a boxer facing an opponent. I think of the tarantula on my pillowcase as a little bodyguard, watching over me while I dream of Marathon and Big Bend.