It’s another sunny spring day in Austin and various scenes from “The Hours” keep popping into my head, probably because of how the film uses flowers to consistently and deftly express a wide range of sentiments. Kathryn Miller, owner of Austin’s beloved flower shop, Cowgirls & Flowers, offers her own take: “Anything is possible with flowers – they set the stage.”
Miller grew up in Florida, inheriting an appreciation for flowers from her mother and grandfather, both of whom she says were gifted gardeners. After earning her English degree from the University of Florida, she did a stint in the Peace Corps. And later ended up in Atlanta where she met and befriended Doug Dyer, a cofounder of Esther’s Follies. He invited her up to New York City, where she first worked in a flower shop while pursuing an acting career. When Dyer decided to return to Austin, she came with him. But instead of following Dyer into the world of cabaret performance, Miller chose to open a flower shop here.
“Theatre made me really love tableaux,” says Miller, adding that she studied art a lot after college. “I had this background in flowers, so it was a strange melding of different experiences that came together seamlessly.”
After working out of her house for a few months in 1978, she opened her first location the following year, on E. Sixth Street near Trinity, which was an outlier at that time. “This was the early days before Sixth Street became what it is – there was nothing down there.” Her partner in that location eventually moved to Fort Worth to open his own flower shop there, Sixth Street slowly began to change into the destination it has become and her shop’s building was sold.
But as with many entreprenuerial tales, Miller’s includes a fortuitous exchange that allowed her to reach her goal. After buying some janitorial products at Sandy’s Supply, she told the shop’s owner that she had lost her lease. He offered her a house he owned in the area. “I said, ‘Isn’t somebody living there?’ and he said, ‘I’ll get them another house.’ That’s how Cowgirls & Flowers began, and the shop has been thriving at that location on W. Sixth Street for the past 27 years.
“I just did it! I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says, grinning. “If you knew what you were doing and all the pitfalls, you would never have the courage.”
What about the shop’s name? Miller’s self-confessed love of mythology came into play. “I discovered Hathor, an Egyptian goddess who rules gardens, flowers, art and perfume.” She’s often depicted with cow horns, notes Miller. This was in the early 1980s, during the period of urban cowboys and Texas chic, of course. “Cowgoddess doesn’t have the same ring to it,” she says, laughing.
Due to Miller’s longstanding association with theatre, when movies come to Austin her company is usually involved in floral design for the sets. She reels off the names of projects quickly, but without an air of pretension: “The Alamo”, “Blank Check”, “D.O.A.” and “Miss Congeniality” are just a few. Her connections to Austin’s gay and lesbian community also run deep. Every year, she does the flowers for all the openings at Zachary Scott Theatre as well as for the Project Transitions fundraiser Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? At any given time, she has three or four designers working for her, and she staffs up during busier weeks.
Her shop, which is open six days a week, handles a wide range of events and will pret ty much do anything involving flowers. Miller can quickly recall a few of the more note- worthy projects. “We did a wedding several years ago at a ranch somewhere between here and Houston. These folks had exotic animals! You would see a giraffe, ostriches, wildebeest. We had ostrich eggs, feathers and natural flora in the arrangements.”
She works directly with growers from Texas, California, Columbia and Ecuador. “We really go out of our way to bring in different types of flowers, unusual flowers and things you might not see in the grocery store.”
Miller and her team create their gorgeous arrangements out of a well-worn, green and lavender old house that’s nestled mid-block on Walsh Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. The shop’s green walls, antique furniture and vases – of every size, style and material – add to its warmth and charm. Various brightly colored paintings on silk hang from the walls; those were done by one of the shop’s floral designers. The wonderfully old, very heavy door to the cooler, where the flowers are kept, is a piece that Miller purchased from another flower shop that was open in the 1920s. Cowgirls & Flowers has a mascot in Mimi, Miller’s sweet little Papillon dog. “She really runs this place,” Miller says.
Miller is extremely proud of her relationships with the LGBT, theatre, art and women’s communities – all bonds that stretch back 30 years. “I would not be where I am without [these groups],” Miller says. “I have just experienced such tremendous support.”
And believe it or not there are many gay folks – men and women both – in the floral business, Miller says. “At one time, someone said, ‘You’re the only lesbian florist in Texas!’ At that time, it may have been true,” she says, laughing.
About a year ago, Miller moved to San Antonio to be with her partner of one-and- a-half-years, Wendy Smith, who serves as the vice president of a healthcare company. “Love comes late sometimes,” she says. Cowgirls & Flowers will be expanding to San Antonio soon, but Miller says she still considers Austin her home base.
Even though economic conditions have been tough – January and February were “not fun” – Miller says the last two months have been fast and furious. She’s grateful for the loyalty of her clients and the dedication of her employees, all of whom have degrees in art. “It’s very important to us to gently guide flowers,” Miller says. “I like to balance them in the most natural way that I can.”
Describing Austin as an incredible city, Miller seems destined for further success in the Lone Star State. “There’s this very creative entrepreneurship in this town,” she says. “I really feel like I tapped into an energy – it’s a very accepting and adventuresome environment.”