The chickens dart about as Linda Durham tosses handfuls of feed on the hard, winter ground. The former Santa Fe gallerist raised them from hatchlings, naming each one for a female Catholic saint. Durham, her straw-colored hair gilded by the afternoon sun, almost lost one of them to illness, but nursed it back to health with a hand-fed diet of olive oil.
“Virgin olive oil,” she says, raising a finger for emphasis. “She’s a saint, you know.”
Durham, 78, was an art dealer here for more than 30 years — until she was forced to close her gallery, Linda Durham Contemporary Art, without ceremony, in 2011. It was a dark day for Durham, who represented some of the most prominent contemporary artists in New Mexico: James Havard, Richard Hogan, Stacey Neff, Dana and Eugene Newmann, and Erika Wanenmacher, among them.
“Linda was an early supporter of my work,” says Wanenmacher, a multimedia artist. “Once she made the commitment to represent me, she was all in. She let me do whatever I wanted and sometimes that was pretty radical. Her gallery had stellar artists and was really the only place I wanted to be.”
“Whenever I say, When the gallery failed … , people say, ‘It didn’t fail. Times change,’ ” says Durham. “But I had no more money. I had no more borrowing power. I tried to sell it but that didn’t work. It all happened so fast. So I closed it. It just seemed like such an abject failure — mine — and I didn’t know what I would do next. I had forgotten that I existed outside of Linda Durham, girl art dealer.”
Durham’s life is filled with stories. Many of them appear in her new book Still Moving (Mobius Pathways Press, 252 pages, 2020, $17.95), a memoir about reinventing herself and the risks she’s taken to do so: from her years as a Playboy Bunny among the crème de la crème of the New York social scene to globetrotting adventurer to founding the Wonder Institute in 2013, a philanthropical organization and art consultation business. Despite the vicissitudes life has brought her way, she’s always asking, “What happens next?”
“I always have this little exercise of mine: the three steps of what you want to achieve,” she says, fussing with the umbrella at an outdoor table. “You have to identify what it is you want to achieve. Then you have to declare whatever that is. Then you have to proceed.”
From the East Coast to the Southwest
Durham was never an artist, but she’s immersed herself among creative types since the time she was a teenager, growing up outside of Camden, New Jersey. Her ambition then was to be an actress. At 13, she was an apprentice in an acting company, doing summer theater. She would get small roles in their performances, like the part of the cigarette girl in a production of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants.
“ ‘Cigars? Cigarettes? Anything else you want to smoke?’ ” she says in a husky, come-hither voice. “That was my line.”
After two years at New York’s Ithaca College as a theater major (she was a dropout), she married her first husband, who had just graduated from Ithaca and planned to move to New York City. She was 19 and thought — naively, she says — that the world was her oyster.
“I was voted most talented in high school. I thought, in New York, they would certainly notice this. I thought I would just read in the papers ‘hiring actors,’ and I would apply. But there was a great newspaper strike the very week we moved there, and there were no such ads.”
But she did see an ad for Hugh Hefner’s new Playboy Club. It was 1962. The club needed models and dancers to work as serving girls. “So I applied. It was like one of those cattle calls for Broadway shows. We all showed up in our bathing suits and leotards. I got hired.”
On her first night on the job, Durham, as “Bunny Jill,” dressed in the classic strapless black corset teddy, sheer black pantyhose, bow tie, and cottontail, gamely waited on her first celebrity, American television personality Ed Sullivan.
“I was so nervous. There I was in my little Bunny suit with my tray of drinks.” She demonstrates the Bunny Dip: left hand held up as though carrying a tray, bending slightly at the knee while keeping her hips and torso forward, her other hand reaching almost behind her as though placing a drink on an imaginary table. “He ordered scotch and soda. But I didn’t know that tonic water wasn’t soda. So I poured this grumpy man a scotch and tonic. I’ve since learned from people’s grimaces that scotch and tonic is not a good drink.”
The memories come easily for Durham. She likes to talk about her past experiences, the good and the bad. One surmises that this is because she’s fascinated by how they fit, like pieces in a puzzle, into her journey. And she imparts that fascination to the listener. It’s infectious.
Undeterred, Durham kept the job for the next several years, and married her second husband when she was only 22. “Lots of my life,” — she pauses, weighing her words — “it’s not that it’s unsavory, but what is that space right between ‘savory’ and ‘unsavory’?”
In Still Moving, she writes about her life as a series of kismet moments in a grand adventure. But some of these moments yielded lessons, like the time “Bunny Jill” agreed to do a semi-nude photo shoot for Harvey Kurtzman, founder of MAD magazine. She was assured beforehand that the photos would be used as reference material for Kurtzman’s comic series Little Annie Fanny.
It was the prelude to an awkward experience. She was asked to sit — topless — in a stranger’s lap. He held her uncomfortably close. At the end of the shoot, she noticed that the cartoon was already drawn. She never learned the real purpose of the shoot. “Maybe Harvey Kurtzman was fulfilling some sort of grown-up Make-a-Wish fantasy for the Silent Man,” she writes. But she did have the sense to procure from Kurtzman a letter stating that the photos were not for publication — and get paid — before leaving.
At the end of the chapter, she adds an undated journal entry as though it were a postscript: “I can have class. I can be a contender. I can be somebody.”
Durham left the life of a Playboy Bunny behind when she moved to New Mexico in 1966. Her second husband, Bart Durham, was a graduate of the University of New Mexico, and he always intended to return to the Southwest. And Durham, in love, followed. They settled on an expanse of land near Cerrillos, New Mexico, and began building a home. But coming to rural New Mexico from a fashionable life as a New York socialite, Durham felt out of place. On a dry and blustery spring day, she took a break from the construction and walked out to a promontory overlooking the land.
“I was so dejected,” she says. “My false eyelashes wouldn’t stay on. My nails were a mess. I said, God, please give a sign. Is there a reason why I’m out here? Just then, two ravens flew over my shoulders and hung in the updraft in front of me. I decided that was a sign. From 1966 until even this minute, whenever I see ravens, I always say, Pay attention to who you are, where you are, what’s going on. Years later, because I always threatened to do it, I had ravens tattooed on my back. So, then I was a New Mexican.”
And she’s been one ever since.
Getting started in the gallery business
Before opening Linda Durham Contemporary Art, Durham and her late husband had a small rare books business. One day, in the late 1970s, she walked into author and art dealer Forrest Fenn’s gallery for the first time and was enchanted by a shipment of rare books he’d recently received. After expressing an interest in working with the books, he hired her as his director of research. “A very lofty title for this college dropout with no research experience to speak of,” Durham says. “But I worked hard, diligently, and smartly. I said, I’ll stay for a year if you teach me the business.”
It was a year that proved to be an education. Durham familiarized herself with Fenn’s purview as a dealer, his interest in the works of artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Nicolai Fechin, George Catlin, Joseph Henry Sharp, and Frederick Remington. She learned how to identify fakes and about art conservation. She learned that “everyone in the art business knows everyone else. She learned how to wheel and deal. “Most disconcertingly,” she writes, “I learned that the world of artists, paintings, exhibitions, dealers, and consultants had a profound and intoxicating effect on me.”
But, after the gallery’s director denied her a $2 raise, she resigned, a year to the day from when she was hired.
A New York dealer whom Durham befriended when she worked for Fenn suggested that she start her own gallery. She writes in her memoir that the idea never occurred to her, but once the suggestion was made, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She had no money, but she did have artist friends in the community, many of whom had no gallery representation in Santa Fe. She moved forward with an idea originally planned for Fenn’s gallery: a traveling exhibition. Rather than deal with the logistics of mounting a trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific exhibition, it was easier, “and far less expensive,” she writes in her memoir, to do it in Toronto, Ontario. “My first show had John Fincher, Paul Pletka, Larry Bell, Dick Mason, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ken Price, and Luis Jiménez’s sculpture End of the Trail.” The show, financed by her local bank for $25,000, was mounted in an upscale shopping complex called Hazelton Lanes.
“I lost money, but when I got back I kind of had some instant credibility. So, I opened a gallery in my house, at first. Then I got divorced and put a down payment on a gallery on Canyon Road. That was my first real gallery. It just kept going. The whole time I was just keeping a little bit ahead of catastrophe.”
Disaster and brilliant success. “I just kept balancing somewhere in between those two possibilities.”
Durham represented deserving artists no one else was showing locally and brought them to an international audience through art fairs and exhibitions abroad: New York, San Francisco, Miami, Scotland, Germany, and Spain. And they were picked up by prominent publications: Art in America, Artforum, and The New York Times. She became, not just another gallery owner but a prominent one.
When she finally closed the gallery in 2011, Durham found herself asking, again, “What’s next?”
“I had an ongoing dream from a very young time,” she says. “I wanted to go around the world — like, all the way. Start right here, pick a direction, and keep going. So, I declared that that’s what I wanted to do. I told people. I said it aloud. Then I had to figure out how to do it. I went up into the mountains and sat on a log and just kept thinking, How can I do it? I got some ideas.”
While she didn’t have any money, she did have a whole lot of art. She drafted letters to her best clients at the gallery that stated, plainly, “my intention of celebrating my 70th birthday by going around the world in 70 days.” For $1,000 apiece, each client would get an artwork from her collection worth two or three times that much. More than a dozen sent her their checks.
Durham departed on Dec. 24, 2012.
“I thought, if you go around the world, you have to have a reason, a project, a goal. I decided I would plant seeds of peace. I got these little round paper discs that were embedded with wildflower seeds, and I had friends write prayers for peace or wishes on the backs of it. On the front, they had a little picture of the Earth. I took them with me and planted them in Soweto and Lesotho and Madagascar.”
She promised her clients that she would write about the experience upon her return and, perhaps, turn it into a book. Much of her experiences on the venture are recounted in her memoir, but, over time, the book evolved into a bigger story — or, rather, collection of stories. “OK, so it’s not Moby Dick,” she says. “It’s not Pride and Prejudice. It’s not even the greatest memoir you will ever read. But it is a daring, truthful, heartfelt story of a person.”
It’s also the kind of story that Durham believes could be written about anybody.
“I have this fantasy. You could write the most wonderful biography on any life. If you see any person, you can say, ‘That person has secrets, regrets, fantasies, dreams, goals.’ It’s enlarging, expansive, to know that about other people.”
Any place is a place for prayers
Framed by the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at her current home on Santa Fe’s east side, Durham sits at a table outside, the chickens safely locked in a spacious wooden coop. Nearby, a small glassed-in chapel she’s just finished building outside her home offers a commanding view of the mountainous terrain, etched in snow and receding, grey-blue, into the distance. She built it as a retreat, a sanctum just for her. Barely large enough for two people and devoid of furniture (for now, she says), a single candle burns inside, protected from the wind. “If I had a table and chairs set up, we could sit in there and drink tea,” she says, adding with a touch of dry humor, “or pray.”
A prayer is apt for that space, which she calls her cathedral. A prayer for the planet. A prayer for peace. Looking out to the mountains, Durham may take comfort in knowing that somewhere in Soweto, somewhere in Madagascar, seeds planted with the hopes and prayers of friends are blooming. ◀