Citizen of the Year: Patricia Michaels

For her creativity and the positive attention she brought to Taos — and in particular, Taos Pueblo — Patricia “Water Lily” Michaels was chosen Citizen of the Year.

Joan Livingston
Posted 10/9/13

When the first challenge on the TV reality show Project Runway was to create New York-inspired fashion. Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels thought of the artistic women from that city who found themselves in New Mexico.

On a harbor boat ride, …

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Citizen of the Year: Patricia Michaels

For her creativity and the positive attention she brought to Taos — and in particular, Taos Pueblo — Patricia “Water Lily” Michaels was chosen Citizen of the Year.

Editor Joan Livingston introduces the Citizen of the Year for 2013 and the year's Unsung Heroes. Read more in the Oct. 10 issue of The Taos News.
Posted

When the first challenge on the TV reality show Project Runway was to create New York-inspired fashion. Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels thought of the artistic women from that city who found themselves in New Mexico.

On a harbor boat ride, Michaels recalled the windows Georgia O’Keeffe painted in her cityscapes and the linear simplicity of Agnes Martin’s paintings. Her interpretation was a dress with sleek urban lines and fabric hand-painted with a soft geometric pattern.

“Everybody was wondering, ‘Who was this Indian girl?’ She doesn’t have anything to offer to the world. Where does she come from? She doesn’t have any concept of fashion or art,’ ” she said. “Then, when I went on the stage and started talking about all these brilliant, successful women, this is what (judge and designer) Zac Posen said, ‘I think we have a woman for a woman’s voice here.’ ”

Michaels made news when she became the first American Indian contestant on the Lifetime Television show. But week after week she persevered with artistic garments and innovative textiles that pushed the boundaries of what people might expect from an American Indian designer. It’s a stereotype she has worked hard to overcome during her career.

In the end Michaels was first runner-up for season 11. She says being on Project Runway brought her great exposure, and importantly, enabled her to be an example for Indian youth.

And for her creativity and the positive attention she brought to Taos — and in particular, Taos Pueblo — Patricia “Water Lily” Michaels was chosen Citizen of the Year.

Trendsetter

The day after Michaels was born, her mother brought her to the opening of the family’s Santa Fe gallery and laid her on Navajo rugs, an auspicious start in life.

Her father, Eddie Michaels, of Polish heritage from Wisconsin, made reproductions of Native American beadwork and quillwork. Her mother, Juanita Turley, is from Taos Pueblo.

Michaels says she was fortunate her “fabulous stepfather” Frank Turley came into her life in fourth grade. She says Turley’s skill as a blacksmith inspired her four years later to work in silk.

Why silk? Wool, cotton and leather had already been done in Native America, she says.

Michaels, one of four children, grew up in Santa Fe but the family spent a great deal of time at Taos Pueblo. She sewed powwow dresses and ceremonial clothes for herself and family members, using her grandmother’s foot-operated sewing machine.

When she was a teenager, she chose to live with her grandparents, Ben and Manuelita Marcus at the Pueblo. “I wanted to be fully educated about who I am,” she said.

Her grandfather, Ben Marcus, was a tribal leader who gave her a wealth of knowledge. “He said I can’t leave without respecting who my people are.”

Michaels went to Santa Fe High School during her senior year for its extensive art courses. She studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts before going to the Chicago Art Institute.

Her first show was in 1992. At the end, she said, Lloyd Kiva New, founder of the Institute of American Indian Arts, told her, “First Santa Fe and then Paris!”

Michaels apprenticed with a tailor in Milan, Italy, and with two children in tow, headed to New York City’s garment district. Another career highlight was working with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation on two international cultural exchange shows for Native American and South African fashion designers and artists. As the featured artist for the Aboriginal Awards Festival, she showed at Toronto Fashion Week.

Michaels exhibited her fashion at a number of museum and art shows. Still, she kept encountering a pervasive question: “What’s so Native American about her clothes?” Her response was, “I’m Native American so that’s what is Native American about it.”

The year 2008 was a rough one in which her 16-year marriage to artist Tony Abeyta ended. She says her husband gave her an ultimatum: choose a career or marriage. “I said ‘okay I choose career,’ ” she said. “It was the scariest decision I ever made.” It was also one that brought her a great deal of pain — “I cried for three years,” she said.

Michaels headed to New York, where ever-the-trend-setter, she was the first Native American to have a label at Fashion Week.

She returned to Taos, continuing to do shows and filling orders for her loyal clients. Her garments took top honors at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

And when she wasn’t working on her fashion, she assisted her companion, James Duran, with his construction jobs, plastering, mixing mud and sifting sand, building latilla fences — all to pay the bills.

The call

Michaels said she and Duran were living in Taos Pueblo last year and down to their last $40.

She went to the Taos Public Library to use a computer to see if any clients had emailed her. Instead she had a message from a Project Runway casting agent who discovered her through a fashion website.

She heard of the show but had never seen it so she used some of the $40 to rent two seasons. “I was saying, ‘Oh my god I love this. I could totally do this,’ ” she said.

For a month, Michaels worked at the essay questions for the show’s lengthy application using the free computer time allotted each day by the library for its patrons. She didn’t tell anyone what she was doing.

As part of the application process, she had to send photos of her garments, undergo two psychological evaluations and an audition.

She and Duran rented a car to drive to Dallas for the audition. Friends put them up — she and Duran slept on an air mattress in an over-heated antique shop.

After the audition she was told to stick around in case she had a call back. So she contacted Ray Trotter, who owns R.B. Ravens Gallery in Ranchos, to see if she could sell on-commission pieces of jewelry he had at a Dallas store. She also had paintings and powwow parasols to sell.

“I made $185,” she said. “That’s enough for fast food and gas to get home.”

The callback wasn’t necessary. She said Armando Thomas “Mondo” Guerra, one of the judges and winner of Project Runway all-stars, told her, “I wanted you to know right from the beginning it was a yes for me.”

In June 2012 she learned she was to be one of the 16 contestants. She arrived July 1 in New York and stayed through the third week of August for the show’s grueling production schedule. Contestants faced challenges such as creating a prom dress from Duck Brand duct tape or a breakaway outfit for a male stripper. She flew to Paris for one challenge — remembering Kiva New’s prophetic words. There was the sniping by competitors.

Michaels kept going.

“I thought about plastering with James,” she said. “I told myself you can climb those stairs again. You can do this. I thought about the heat of summer holding a latilla on a bale of hay trying to find my balance after coming down from the mountain dragging a big latilla. Or filling out that application at the library.”

Each morning she held her son’s eagle feather as she prayed for all youth to appreciate, respect and embrace what their elders did before them. In the evening she thanked her ancestors and elders for giving her this chance.

As one of four finalists, Michaels returned to Taos to create a collection for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York. Tim Gunn, the contestants’ mentor, arrived Dec. 19 at her live-in studio for a critique. Michaels was given $10,000 to spend but hesitated to start until Gunn gave his consent.

When Gunn threw out her wool coats she had to rethink her collection and whom she was designing it for. “I said, ‘I am making it for the world because finally American Indians get to have a voice,’ ” she said. “And this voice is going to happen now.”

In one of the show’s more memorable moments, Gunn joined her family for a traditional meal cooked by her sister Esther Winter at her grandparents’ home in Taos Pueblo’s historic village.

Michaels and her team of artisans, including Duran and her stepfather, got to work. The end result was a collection inspired by trees that features Michaels’ fabric manipulations, silver and mica paillettes, horsehair, and of course, flowing silk. Her stunning blue frock, layered and glittery, and horsehair headpiece closed the show. Her family, including her children, Gabriel and Margeaux, now 23 and 16, were in the audience.

No one outside the show knew Michelle Lesniak Franklin won. Michaels was contractually obligated to keep it a secret from family and fans at the local viewing parties she attended until the finale aired April 25.

As the first runner-up Michaels didn’t win any money but the attention, she says, is priceless. Moreover, the response to her success on Project Runway has been overwhelmingly positive with people in remote spots of the globe writing to say they were rooting for her.

“What’s come from all of it, which is positive, is that I have gotten letters from the youth,” she said. “They have said they are embracing their elders. I’ve had youth come to the door with their grandparents. I have elderly men and women who pray and send me gifts of what they do and what they make. I have given them incentive not to give up.”

Post-Project Runway, Michaels has been receiving orders for her fashion, particularly her signature eagle feather scarves; companies are calling for her advice. She has contract work from other designers and now is working toward a collection under her PM Water Lily Label for Fashion Week this coming February in New York.

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