The First Storyteller

Native American figurative clay sculpture is a rich collecting opportunity

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From ancient times, clay figures have been present in the Pueblo pottery tradition. Figurines, especially human female figures, were an integral element in the Anasazi culture by 400 AD. There is little evidence for the continuity of figurative work between 1500 and 1875, when first missionaries and then scholars denounced or derided the making of figurative clay pieces. However, beyond that time figurative sculpture has flourished--especially at Cochiti Pueblo just south of Santa Fe--in the forms of animals, birds and caricatures of outsiders and, more recently, of images of mothers and grandfathers telling stories and singing to children. Following the coming of the railroad to New Mexico in the late 1800s, Native American artists delighted in mimicking their new visitors, and their caricatures included supplicating padres, businessmen, cowboys and dancing bears.

The story of Cochiti Pueblo artist Helen Cordero is inextricably linked to the art of figurative clay sculpture . . . for it is she who gave new shape to an ancient form. According to Barbara Babcock, author of The Pueblo Storyteller: Development of a Figurative Ceramic Tradition published by the University of Arizona Press, 1990. Helen's story is as follows:

The First Storyteller

Helen Cordero
The First Storyteller 1964
Slipped and painted earthenware
8.25 inches Ht
Alexander Girard Collection
Museum of
International Folk Art
Santa Fe

"When Helen Cordero began making clay persons in the late 1950s, she was 45 years old, the six children she had raised were grown, and she was doing beadwork and leatherwork with her husband's cousin, Juanita Arquero, to make a little extra money. Most of the profits, however, had to be used to buy more materials.


"Why don't you girls go back to the potteries?" Fred Cordero's aunt, Grandma Juana, asked. "You don't have to buy anything; Mother Earth gives it all to you."

And so, Juanita, who had learned to make pottery as a child, "started up again" and Helen spent six months learning the ancient art from her. Juanita was already an accomplished potter, and in comparison, Helen's bowls and jars didn't look right. "They just kept coming out all crooked, and I was ready to quit," said Helen. "I didn't think I would ever get it right."


Juanita suggested that Helen try figures. "It was like a flower blooming," said Helen. Small frogs, birds, animals and, eventually, "little people" came to life in abundance.

One of the first times Helen showed them at a Santo Domingo feast day, folk art collector Alexander Girard of Santa Fe bought all of the "little people" (standing male and female figures, 8 to 9 inches high) that she had; he asked her to make more and larger figures and bring them to him. Shortly thereafter he commissioned a 250-piece Nativity set.


Girard then asked Helen to make an even larger seated figure with children. Perhaps he was thinking of the "Singing Mothers"--figures of women holding or carrying a child or two that several Cochiti potters were making. Helen went home and thought about Girard's request. "I kept seeing my grandfather (Santiago Quintana). That one, he was a really good storyteller, and there were always lots of us grandchildren around him." Santiago Quintana was also a leading member of one of the clown societies and a mucho sabio. And he was a valued friend and collaborator to several generations of anthropologists and observers of Pueblo life: He wanted his traditions preserved and maintained, and he went to great lengths to ensure that "they got it right." When Helen remembered her grandfather's voice and shaped that first image of him telling stories to five grandchildren, she made two significant modifications in the Singing Mother tradition: (1) She made the primary figure male, rather than female, and (2) she placed an unrealistic number of children on him. Subsequent Cordero storytellers have had as many as 30."

That was 1964 and the grandfather figure with five children was the first storyteller. As a portrait of Helen Cordero's grandfather, it is a self-portrait as well, since she is one of the children. The first storyteller is part of the Alexander Girard Collection in the Museum of International Folk Art remote in Santa Fe. 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!

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 4

Related Pages

Collecting Indian Pottery article
Glossary of Pueblo Pottery article

How Pueblo Pottery is Made article
Pottery: Enduring Styles of The Pueblos article

Collector’s Resources


Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054
House of the Shalako rem By Appointment in Peralta | 505-242-4579
Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Santa Fe

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery | 505.986.1234
Chimayo Trading & Mercantile | 505-351-4566
Steve Elmore Indian Art | 505-995-9677
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Wadle Galleries Ltd pic 128 West Palace Ave | 505-983-9219


Bryans Gallery 121 Kit Carson Road | 575-758-9407
Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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