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Pueblo Storytellers

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: March, 2014, Page 36
Photos by David B. Moore

This storyteller is from the Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, and was made by artist Mary Toya.

Pueblo storytellers delight collectors with charming details and tender sentiments

History is ripe with stories of late bloomers. Grandma Moses started painting in her 70s. Laura Ingalls Wilder started writing the Little House on the Prairie series at 65. Golda Meir was 70 when she became Prime Minister of Israel. Julia Child saw her first cookbook published at 49. Helen Cordero was 45 when she started making pottery.

That last name might not ring a bell, but Cordero belongs on any list of innovators for having reimagined a centuries-old ceramic tradition and, in doing so, paving a path of success for others to follow. Not bad for a woman who initially didn’t show much of a knack for the art.

Cordero, like many a mother, turned her attention to other pursuits once her six children were grown. She tried to earn extra money with her leatherwork and beadwork, but supplies were expensive and profits were meager. At the suggestion of a relative, she took up pottery; all the materials she needed were, literally, at her feet and free for the taking.

This lounging “mudhead” storyteller is by Chris Fragua of the Jemez Pueblo.
Her husband’s cousin, Juanita, an accomplished potter, taught Cordero what she knew, but Cordero’s bowls and pots never looked quite right. Juanita suggested that Cordero focus instead on crafting clay figures, an age-old tradition in Pueblo pottery. The results were life-changing and, ultimately, history-making.

The Cochiti Pueblo where Cordero grew up is sandwiched between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and is one of 19 pueblos, or villages, in New Mexico. Residents of Cochiti still speak Keres, their native language, and the Pueblo has long been recognized for its fine craftsmanship of jewelry and drums. More recently, Cordero put her Pueblo on the map by following her own instincts.

At Juanita’s suggestion, Cordero started busily crafting small animals and people that stood 8- to 9-inches high. She took them to a Feast Day celebration at the Santa Domingo Pueblo and there, a folk-art collector from Santa Fe—Alexander Girard—was so smitten that he purchased all of the male and female figures and asked her to make more­ of the larger figures for him, as well as seated ones featuring children.

At the time, other potters from Cochiti were making “Singing Mothers”—clay figures of women holding or carrying children—and it is presumed that these were what the collector was requesting. But in her mind’s eye, Cordero saw her grandfather, Santiago Quintana, a gifted storyteller, leading member of the Pueblo, and the go-to source for many anthropologists and scholars of Pueblo life. Memories of gathering around her grandfather to listen to Cochiti folktales inspired Cordero to create a sitting, open-mouthed male figure with two grandchildren seated on his lap and three perched on his shoulders and head (one of them representing Cordero herself). That was in 1964, and it was the first storyteller clay figure.

With the stylized eyes common to works by Cochiti Pueblo artist Dena M. Suina, this storyteller has great detail.
In her book, The Pueblo Storyteller: Development of a Figurative Ceramic Tradition (University of Arizona Press, 1990), author Barbara Babcock says: “Today, as many as three hundred potters in thirteen pueblos have created storytellers … and the storytellers are not only men and women, but also mudheads, koshares, bears, owls and other animals … often with children numbering more than one hundred.”

Not only did Cordero spawn a new art form that enabled hundreds of Pueblo potters to earn a living, she “made one of the oldest forms of Native American self-portraiture her own, reinvented a longstanding but moribund Cochiti tradition of figurative pottery, and engendered a revolution in Pueblo ceramics … Pueblo figurative pottery has been rediscovered, redefined, and reinvented by both producers and consumers,” Babcock notes.

Photos - From left: Acoma Pueblo potter Marilyn Ray incorporates her signature butterflies and animals in this storyteller piece. • This storyteller, with its multitude of children, was made by Navajo artist Lavina Yazzie.
Buyer’s Guide:
The Indian Arts and Crafts Association works to promote authentic Native American arts and crafts through public education and common standards for the industry. The association offers the following tips for collecting authentic American Indian art:
• Research the crafts that interest you.
• Purchase from reputable and established dealers.
• Avoid stores with perpetual sales or unethical discounting, where prices are inflated and then marked down.
• Ask the seller questions, such as: Of  what material is the item made? Is the piece completely handcrafted? What is the artisan’s name and tribal affiliation?
• Ask for a written description or certificate of authenticity with your purchase.

Finally, IACA advises: “Today there is a great variety of work being done by American Indian artisans who use different techniques and materials to create products suitable for all levels of collecting. Since these differences will often be reflected in the price, it is important to be informed about the item you are purchasing. However, buy what you like. Your personal taste and budget will guide you to a selection that will be satisfying to you.”

The official website of the Pueblo de Cochiti maintains a list of artists to help collectors identify authentic items. You can find the list at

Where to buy:
Heard Museum, Phoenix; Sewell’s Indian Arts, Scottsdale; Gilbert Ortega Galleries, Scottsdale.

Photos - From left: Vangie Suina of the Cochiti Pueblo, crafted this contemporary storyteller inspired by The Old Woman In the Shoe nursery rhyme. • A clown storyteller by artist Linda Lucero Fragua is made from hand-gathered clay that has been coiled, smoothed and painted with earthy colors.

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