Michaels speaks to a primary challenge of keeping indigenous art alive. The artist’s designs must translate into products that appeal to a wider audience — who may or may not appreciate the traditions from which they come — to create a more prosperous future for artists and their communities.
Interviewee: Patricia Michaels, Fashion and Surface Designer
8/19/2005 - Santa Fe, NM
What is your name and profession?
My name is Patricia Michaels. And my profession is fashion design and surface design.
What is it like to be a Native American designer?
I've been doing fashion design for the past 20 years and it's been difficult because when I first started to do fashion I wasn't accepted as Native American fashion. They asked me what I was trying to do? What I was doing made no sense. And why I wasn't I making fringed coats and beaded garments and Hollywood designs? So I called this last collection that I did Naturally Native because it's inspired a lot by nature and that's what I'm inspired by. Therefore it's only natural that we evolve and go with the content of what nature is providing for us. And sometimes if nature is mad, then my costume might seem a little bit racy and edgy; or if nature is very calm and beautiful and I'm enjoying myself I just really follow that and that's where my heart is and I enjoy it.
Has it been hard to market your pieces?
Yes, it was extremely hard because they said, this is all so new and different, you need to write a story about each piece and then they'll sell. It does work and it's a nice relationship with everything I create. But it is difficult to market because woman and Native American, they feel that our society just didn’t have enough Native American designers so therefore how could there be an industry for Native American designers without more than one real innovative designer. They said, where are you going to go with this? You're representing natives. So now I think it's finally growing and there's a lot of young contemporary designers and I think that there are huge possibilities for it.
Do you see yourself as representing natives?
Absolutely, my collection had the theme of water because we struggle for water rights in our village today, and for native people we have always taken care of our resources so it seems like every time the resources are out in the surrounding areas, they come to us and fight for our resources. So any time that I see struggles for native nations on their resources it hits me in a way, then I work out my frustrations through creating something beautiful and knowing that we hold on to it the best that we can and make it into the beauty that we see it.
Why do you think indigenous designs are appealing?
Indigenous designs are extremely challenging and appealing to wear and exciting because of the fact that there's something that is meaningful behind each piece created. A lot of times in society, people have gone away from taking the time to really think about what they're doing from day to day. Indigenous cultures are raising their families to really think about how their family is going to enjoy their life and still come home and bring something peaceful. Not only monetary things to the family household. It encompasses conversation, observation of feelings and the environment about them. Therefore the indigenous designs carry that same type of message. For most people they might find it a little too challenging, they don’t want to deal with it, they run away with it. Get your coffee, your notepad, take your notes, it's not important, we've got stocks to buy, the world is to pillage. With native design, I've tried to take it in the direction of a very contemporary look so they're not so inhibited about approaching what we feel in our hearts.
Do you see yourself as a role model for other Native American artists?
Absolutely, I've worked in materials that were non-Hollywood materials that didn't have anything to do with leather or wool. I went straight to work with silk and that became a challenge. And I also started to do a lot of couture and custom two-piece suits. That was definitely innovative and most people were just not expecting to see that.
When did you realize you would be a designer?
In the fourth grade when my Barbie dolls took a creative award at a science fair. I dyed their skin velvety brown and so the science fair judges looked at it and said well, you know, we don't know. She didn't write anything about the content of what went in the skin but we think this is very creative and it's beautiful. It was like an invention creative award.
What are your thoughts relating to the African culture?
For the time that I have been able to spend with the Africans from South Africa, I know that they have that same belief background, where you really want to have that cultural experience and it's a longing similarity that you just feel. The presence is there and it's strong. There are just parallels that just go unspoken where you see them taking care of each other in a very familiar way. You only want to spend that time because it's rare, we're in America being Native American Indians and the cultures that we have aren't always so pronounced as the experience that we're having with the South Africans.
Had you thought previously about cross cultural relationship?
Yes, I grew up on the stage dancing as a child. I've always thought that it would be nice to have cultural exchanges with other countries. The night before I was born my mother opened up a gallery downtown Santa Fe and from that moment on it was incredible. I saw different people coming into Santa Fe and into our gallery and we traveled throughout the United States doing cultural exchange programs through dance. But I was raised around a family of dancers, I realized that I appreciated the ceremony of getting prepared before the dance and the way the traditional garments looked and that just expounded on my interest to make garments for people who could wear them without feeling like they're intruding into our culture.
What were your goals in taking part in this shared event?
My goal in taking part in this shared event is that I have an exchange with the South Africans so that we can grown from one another's experience and knowledge of what areas we're strong in and what areas that we are weak in. I find it extremely fascinating that they can have their cottage industries established and really be providing for their families. It's important because of the native culture we're very close to our families. In my studio I have mostly family members working in there, aunts and apprentice nieces, but if that can just grown further and we can respectfully market it with strong understanding that there's a place for everybody, even as far as shipping and sales. These areas as communities have never been explored as vastly as most people think.
(The Tribal Fusions fashion show offered designs from native cultures in and the United States, as well as Africa.)
How is what you're doing today going to contribute to the social and economic development of the Native American?
The most rewarding part of what I can give back to my native culture and my works of fashion design and textile design is that there's a message in each piece and I also have apprentices that work with me. A lot of my models are also Native American Indian and it gives young girls the opportunity to feel good about themselves because low self esteem is high. Native American culture with the stereotype expectations of Native Americans it's easy for someone to feel that they don’t have a place in society, which media always propagates. I have a family who then has all their own creative energy and all of us are doing our own things. I have a son who does his own independent film documentaries and then a daughter who was modeling today, she's eight so she does everything. My husband, Tony, who's a painter, and they see us evolving constantly and enjoying a creative spirit. I think it gives a lot of excitement to the community and we hire so many people to help that they learn from it and it feels good because you're doing something with people that you absolutely love.
What would you say to someone who looks at what is going on here today and says how's that ever going to change anybody's life?
I know it changed my life because already I've met wonderful and foreign people, I've made contacts and I did great sales. At the end of today, after you do a show and what we do at the Indian Market. If I sold better today than any of my other fashion shows, then that's the first start and secondly to have a relationship, to brainstorm with the other designers, to go forward with what works and what doesn't work, that's another important part and we decided that before we do a fashion show we would have a debriefing. But I think the power the designers had as a whole felt it was very important that we do debriefing and think of other alternatives of how to market and what will be good for us.
What do you hope the Africans take away from this exchange?
I hope that the South Africans take away with them the feeling of my appreciation that we were able to participate with them and that the sincerity of their presence here and all the desires to a part of a collaborative effort, is very strong. That they continue a relationship, they continue communication. More of how to better market, how to better produce, how to be ready for the mass production and all of that exchanges is hoping that we get into that realm of let's make it work.
[Read original here at the WK Kellogg Foundation Website]