Willa Cather

Canyon Road

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I have been lucky enough to window shop along some of the most famous art streets in the world, from Paseo Prado in Madrid to West 27th Street in New York and M. Alcala in Oaxaca. But never has one road peaked my curiosity as much as Canyon Road in Santa Fe.

My “Other Mother” – Byrne Miller – lived in a rented house at the base of Canyon Road in the 60s, long before this 6/10ths-of-a-mile-road  was the home of more than 100 upscale galleries.  Back then it was a dirt road in the cheap part of town; many of the artists who lived and painted there built their own homes and studios out of adobe.

I tracked an address down from an old advertisement for the Byrne Miller School of Dance and set out to find the house where she danced and where Duncan began his third novel. But it turns out artists back then weren’t really into organization. The numbers don’t always go in order and some houses were torn down and replaced in different locations with the same number.


 The closest I got was this cluster of buildings that now house two wonderful galleries. Somewhere behind me was the portico where Duncan paced and smoked his pipe while writing the Santa Fe Fiesta Melodrama and the kitchen where Byrne brought her dance students from St. John’s College for some home cooking.

What a heady time to be two artists in their nomadic prime. The Santa Fe Writer’s colony thrived from the 20s through the 40s… think Willa Cather and “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” D.H. Lawrence called Santa Fe home as well as the great poet Witter Bynner, who threw parties at his house for guests including Martha Graham, Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe. Mary Austin’s “Casa Querida” was home to literary readings, salons and a fine arts school – and her own writing was very concerned with Native American rights.

The first Santa Fe artist’s colony owed its impetus to the Museum of New Mexico which held unjuried exhibitions for local artists starting in 1915. It attracted famous artists like Robert Henri, who showed in 1916 and 1917, and modernists like Marsden Hartley and John Sloan…then spawned a Santa Fe style local “school” with the 5 painters – los “Cinco Pintores.” You can still find their paintings for sale on Canyon Road.

By the mid 60s, when Byrne and Duncan arrived, commercial galleries had made Santa Fe a tourist destination, with the chance for artists to sell their work on a regular basis. 


The owner of the gallery where I think Byrne and Duncan lived, Mark Greenberg, has family on Hilton Head but adores the town he chose to make his home. He’s on the board of the Canyon Road Arts Association and told me that in Byrne’s day, Canyon Road was as known for bar fights as painting – there was practically a shooting every weekend. Now there are as many famous actors in residence as painters: Alan Arkin and Gene Hackman have houses just up the street.

Byrne loved her years here. Duncan, not so much. The novel he began here is depressingly bleak, his query letters to publishers almost desperate in their defiance. It’s all a fascinating part of the memoir. Duncan was a Charleston SC native and he felt claustrophobic, without any bodies of water nearby.  After a week in Santa Fe I felt the same. It’s a beautiful city, with incredible art and architecture, but so dry I literally had to stick my toes in the Rio Grande on a day trip out of town just to feel human again.


Dancing Bishops

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 It took me longer than I expected to finish Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” I am not a fan of priests, nor do I have any history with the American Southwest. The only connection I have to Santa Fe, where the novel is centered, is borrowed from Byrne Miller. She lived there in the 1960s, a hundred years after the priests that so intrigued Cather. I wonder what they would have thought of Byrne: a modern dancer from Manhattan, Jewish, uninhibited, radical and experimenting with open marriage.

I suspect they would have been no more astonished than the Native American students Byrne took under her wing. Here came a tall white woman who walked even taller, confidently aware of her shapely legs and jutting breasts. She wore cat-eye glasses and scraped her jet black hair under silk scarves, except when she posed for publicity photos – wild-haired and wilder-eyed.

When she guest-lectured for a class called “Man and his Arts” at the Navajo Community College, students wrote thank-you letters about how she made them aware of their posture. When she taught dance at the Rock Point Community School, the Title IV Coordinator would later become one of her adopted sons: Benjamin Barney. Her class consisted of nine adults, two little girls and five onlookers – probably their mothers. Ben’s own mother might have been among them; she was deeply suspicious of dance as entertainment. Which might explain why in her journals, Byrne wrote of showing dance films, leading improvisations like “walking through phone booths” and emphasizing movement as a “teaching tool.”

I always found it odd, maybe even a tad imperial — the thought of a modern dancer from New York, teaching dance to a people whose very religion celebrated it. Dance came long before the priests in Willa Cather’s novel:

“The Bishop stood watching the flowing, supple movements of their arms and shoulders, the sure rhythm of their tiny moccasined feet, no larger than cottonwood leaves, as without a word of instruction they followed the irregular and strangely-accented music.”

I wonder if, at the time, Byrne watched as much as she demonstrated. She could be terribly intimidating, as my brother-by-Byrne attests. Ben was one of her best dancers but dance, in his culture, is a vehicle of faith. Movement is literally transformative. Byrne wanted him to wear tights and perform on stage – for strangers. She choreographed a role for him in a piece she called, ironically, “The Walls Between Us.” Against his mother’s wishes, Ben danced for Byrne.

It still haunts him. He writes letters to me, helping with the memoir I am writing of my own time with Byrne. “The performance happened, even when I felt bad about it.”

It circles back to Cather and her Bishops, the novel that made me slow down and study the rhythm of the words. Byrne’s journey was no different than that of any outsider.  The bishops had to pay for their awakening in years of travel – by horse, or burro, through Mexico new and old. Understanding wasn’t a souvenir.  Byrne was much luckier. She collected children who grew to love her, faults and all.

Wind and Willa

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To see the trees again - photograph by Gary Geboy

Blustery days put me on edge. The South Carolina Lowcountry isn’t supposed to be wind-whipped but today the seasons are battling it out on the banks of the Beaufort River. The water is the color of Spanish moss flailing from the massive boughs of Live Oaks. I can’t relax, settle into my thoughts, with palm fronds scraping the window. And I’m not sure why.

When I lived here with Byrne, I could always toss these questions into the air between us. There would be wine, on the porch, and maybe a sliver of cake. And stories, always hers, that I scoured for meaning. She was confidant and fortune teller. I could interpret my life through hers.

Now that she’s gone, I unravel truths from books instead. I wrap the ideas of other writers around my shoulders, seeing how the words fit. Like these, from Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

“It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it,” she wrote. “The Navajo hogans, among the sand and willows, were made of sand and willows. None of the pueblos would at that time admit glass windows into their dwellings. The reflection of the sun on the glazing was to them ugly and un-natural – even dangerous.”

I have tried to change the landscape, living in this house that Byrne and Duncan Miller loved. Hiding behind its windows and walls, I pretend that all I see is permanent and predictable. Something I can draw from, and write about, at will. The wind reminds me I am an intruder.

One of Byrne’s first adopted “children,” a Navajo elder I consider my brother-by-Byrne, if not by birth, wrote a letter to me when he found out I was writing a memoir of my time with her. We were planning a reunion, here in the house he had visited on momentous occasions in Byrne’s life: major dance concerts, anniversaries, memorial services. One line in his letter has confused me, until today.  

“At times I want to see the house and the trees again, but did not know ways to them.”

My brother-by-Byrne sees himself as walking through landscapes, not discovering or claiming them. What matters are the memories and feelings they evoke. The path is not one he controls. He is at peace with that. I sit at my desk and wonder when the wind will stop and I can settle into certainty again.