Pottery Collector’s Guide: Pueblo Storytellers
Pueblo people of the Southwest have made clay figures since ancestral times. While these forms were not widely practiced throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, figurative pottery was revived in the twentieth century and clay figurines have since become one of the most popular and widely collected Native American art forms. At the Indian Pueblo Store we are your trusted connection to Native American Art and Artists of the Southwest and we share knowledge to help you learn about and enjoy your treasured pieces for years to come. We developed this convenient guide focused on Pueblo Storytellers as an aide to learn more about these cherished forms.
A Tradition from Long Ago
Our ancestors before us have passed on their knowledge through songs, spoken word, objects and imagery from the time of legend. Over time, these stories have become interwoven into our existence. Stories are passed on in our own languages according to the passing of seasons. Each story teaches us cultural customs, the histories of our people, ways of life and life lessons to learn from. The Storyteller is a visual representation of storytelling on long winter nights, around a dining room table, or a long car ride through the high deserts of the Southwest. The Storyteller is often given as a gift to celebrate those known to teach and share traditions through their own ways and telling of their own stories.
A Legacy of Art
Helen Cordero (Cochiti Pueblo) (1915-1994) is credited with the creation of the modern Storyteller form we know today. At the age of 45, Helen began to work with the clay as she had once done as a child. Sitting and learning from an accomplished potter, Helen was challenged with the symmetry of traditional bowls and was encouraged instead to focus on figurative pottery. As Helen grew more comfortable working with the clay, she excelled at creating animal and human forms. Several years later, Helen was asked to create a “Singing Mother,” known then as a seated female figure holding a child. Helen struggled to create a female figure, as she kept visualizing her paternal grandfather, Santiago Quintana. Helen’s image of her grandfather was powerful – she remembered him telling stories and sharing traditional ways with his five grandchildren. From this visualization, Helen formed a seated male with an open mouth with five children seated around him. Today, Helen’s first storyteller is on exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art and celebrated as inspiration for the modern Storyteller.
Throughout Helen's life, she continued to create pieces that spoke to her as an artist and continued to innovate her own style by creating animal storytellers. In 1986 Helen was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is the highest honor given by the United States government for Helen's contribution to folk and traditional arts.Turtle Storyteller by Helen Cordero held in the permanent collection of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
Creating New Paths
While it has been over half a century since Helen Cordero created the first Pueblo Storyteller, there are many artists who continue to create the traditional figurative pieces depicting a seated figure with various numbers of children. Over time artists have expanded the concept and added new, original elements to make it their own. Acclaimed artist Stella Teller (Isleta Pueblo) developed a signature style featuring clothing from an array of Native American cultures created with the white clay of her homeland and painted with earth-tone hues of grey accentuated with turquoise accents. Artists create unique interpretations of the storytelling tradition using animals as their primary figures or incorporating them alongside children. Artists like Marilyn Ray (Acoma Pueblo) and Chrislyn Fragua (Jemez Pueblo) often depict playful animals on their pieces giving them a unique and playful element. With all the advances of style and personalization, there are artists like Martha Arquero (Cochiti Pueblo) who uphold Helen’s traditional approach of honoring grandparents and ancestors.
Today, artists from many of New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos create Pueblo Storytellers. This form of Pueblo pottery continues to be one of the most exciting, colorful, and cherished pieces as artists continue to put their own spin on storytellers. With each piece created completely by hand, a closer look reveals each Storyteller has its own story to tell. From modern interpretations to artists who hold true to the traditional form, the Indian Pueblo Store’s hope is that just as Helen Cordero found inspiration from her grandfather, those creating today and future generations will find their own inspiration in those today who share stories from the past and take time to teach others with care and patience.