Patricia Michaels - Exhibitions

A Letter to the Colby Museum by Patricia Michaels

Patricia Michaels modeling for Nancy Wood. 

View the images and read the letter below. An audio recording of Michaels reading her letter aloud is also provided here.

Dear Colby Museum Team,

I want to shed light on who and what the Taos Society of Artists and other painters who came to Taos Pueblo were and are to my people and me. I appreciate your time and attention to this insight into arts, artists, regalia, scenery, and models.

First, I want to set the stage for my first observations:

I grew up in a traditional family in my grandparents’ Pueblo home, and in Santa Fe on Canon Road in the Arts District. Our village house belonged to my grandfather, who was the head Water Clan leader. This meant he was in charge of our village’s traditions. With these responsibilities, our household was raised to respect all tribal members and our ceremonies. Outside of this, our survival was rooted in the understanding of our outside relations with the other pueblos, tribes, and newcomers. My grandfather spoke some Spanish, and my grandmother spoke some English. Together they were able to create working relations with the townspeople, as well as people from all over the world.

I was raised with stories, dances, and songs that my people held during trade and commerce with other tribes and Pueblos since the beginning of our existence in our beautiful Taos Pueblo. When a culture and its people are being killed, part of the genocide is to cut off trade routes and resources. This is what happened to Native America. Thankfully, our sacred mountain, ceremonies, and elders’ wisdom survived this trade severance. Part of this survival was to learn new ways to continue trade and commerce with the European groups of people who came to our Pueblo. I say this, as parts of the old trade routes never died. People from all over the world came and continue to come. It is literally an ancient trade route.

In all of this, the one thing about Taos Pueblo that remains consistent is that we wouldn’t expose our ceremonial ways of life, but we could always share what we did with our fellow relatives from other tribes and Pueblos. There was always subject matter that wasn’t taboo. Yes, there is beadwork inside our Taos Pueblo that is depicted in the paintings of the Taos Artists Society and other artists because our people continued trading with friends and relations of the Plains and Woodland Natives.

My grandparents’ home was full of beadwork, pottery, baskets, headdresses, songs, dances, and food from other tribes and Pueblos. These things were passed on through the years to honor and treasure the continued alliances with other tribes. They were so abundant that we had storage rooms at the Pueblo filled with these items. I remember when I was being advised before leaving our Pueblo home to be conscious of what I shared with the outside world.

You see, before these international talented artisans came to Taos Pueblo to paint us, other tribes visited us. In order to keep our knowledge and ceremonial responsibilities, we separated these from everything else, and never presented them to the public. In turn, we have a respectful understanding of the other tribes outside our village that we work with. 

Our working relationships with artists like Nicolai Fechin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kenneth Adams, Oscar E. Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, Gene Kloss, Julius Rolshoven, William Dunton, Catharine Carter Critcher, and many others grew. The artists paid their models and we are still paid today. I myself have sat for many artists in Taos, including Barbara Harmon and the international Russian treasure Nikolai Blokhin, to name just two.

There were also great writers and philosophers who sat in my grandparents’ home to talk, including Carl Jung, the psychologist and philosopher, and John Mankin, a writer for the TV series Kung Fu. My grandfather and my uncles made films, too. Recently, when my son saw E. Irving Couse’s photos of Taos Pueblo at the Lunder Research Center, he told Davison Koenig, the director, “Wow, this is still us today.”

E. Irving Couse (American, 1866–1936), Flying Wedge, n.d. Oil on canvas, 29 1/4 x 24 in. (74 x 61 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2013.098. Ben Couse was the sitter for this portrait. 

These relationships with people in the arts and my Pueblo grew into families for some. Many named their children after one another’s family members. Ben, one of Couse’s models, took Couse’s last name because they were so close. People in my village called him Ben Couse.

The truth is, we were lucky to have talented artisans visit and capture a day—or, for some, decades—in our lives. It brought recognition of the beautiful Southwest and what my village and my relatives from other Pueblos and tribes were all about. The artists’ interest in who we were, and are, helped to reestablish the much-needed commerce and conversation that we all continue to have today. That is the preservation of truth, and cultural understanding.

Art is the connecting bridge that so many other societies fail to recognize. Dismissing the imagery captured over the last centuries literally negates our existence. While some may see this work as cultural appropriation, take a moment to consider the reality that while appropriation can easily be appreciation, ERASURE is final and unmistakable in its malice.

As a child, honor and pride ran through every part of me when I would go into a gallery and see one of my relatives or tribal members painted. Now, as an adult, I still have this feeling when I see paintings of my people in national museums around the world.

As the Colby Museum is a venue for a deeper understanding of our relationship with the TSA and other artists, I hope that it will show the sophistication that naturally accrued to my people and the arts.

One also has to give credit to the Native artisans who studied with these master painters, like Albert Looking Elk, Juan Mirabal, and Eve Concha. Mirabal also created future problems for Native artists because he painted imagery that was taboo. Dorothy Brett’s model Trinidad told her things about the meaning of ceremonies that made clear that you must be careful how much, and what, you share.

I’m not advocating taking imagery of my people lying down, or that there aren’t images out there that have grown into an overall “Native look.” I know that the artists who worked with my people had a plethora of subject matter to draw from because it was a long-lasting subject and landscape for the artist and model to work from. On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to all the other tribes who historically aren’t present, and that some of these recordings became fodder for misrepresentations in film, illustrations, catwalks, advertisements, and so much more. Our sacred objects and regalia have been misused as sex imagery, mascots, drunks, cigar holders, and people with no home, pride, or voice.

Native America has continued to fight genocide, which includes erasing our culture and past. Taos artists were recording who we were and shedding light on a beautiful Pueblo life, people, land, and way of living. Today more than ever, it is everyone’s responsibility to undertake proper research to understand the truths they are representing. Please don’t categorize my beautiful people and the work they did with artists. Some of the works below include my grandfather, daughter, mother, and me, and demonstrate how work continues and relationships are built. Hundreds more images exist showing other family members working around the world, in art made throughout the ages. I’m just honored to be a part of this narrative—a narrative that is not as simple as it may look, because we have limits to what we can share.

Patricia Michaels

Patricia Michaels
Taos Pueblo, born 1966
Pottery Shards in the Foothills

Silk, tulle, washed leather, leather lasting, dye, acrylic, mica shards, mica dust, turquoise, shell, coral, jet stones, soil from Taos Pueblo