In recent years Native American artists have set out on a new updated artistic path using clay to tell the stories of traditional life as a caregiver, mother or father and homemaker. Helen Cordero, a member of the Cochiti Pueblo, located 55 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico is a perfect example of the new generation of avant-garde Indian clay artists and the Institute of American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut has an excellent collection of her work as well as the work of many other famous artists of this genre that have been generously donated to the museum.
The first modern storyteller figure was made in 1964 by Cochiti potter Helen Cordero. Before 1964 there was a tradition of figure pottery in the Pueblo, however, Helen is recognized as the first to create what has become the modern art form of storyteller dolls. Male figures are referred to as Storytellers while Female figures are called Singing Mothers. Both are always accompanied by a number of children and sometimes an animal that is listening to the tale being told.
Helen worked with her cousin Juanita Arquero making pottery, Juanita was an accomplished potter in her own right making vessels and bowls. But Helen was never happy with how her vessels came out. Undeterred, Helen kept creating. When Helen tried making figure pottery Juanita compared it to “a flower blooming.”
Eventually, Helen was approached by folk art collector Alexander Girard who commissioned her to make a 250 piece nativity set. Appreciating her work, Girard told Helen he would buy larger figures that she created as well.
As the story goes, Helen's commissioned artwork was inspired by her grandfather, Santiago Quintana a well-known storyteller, and the result was the creation of the first modern storyteller figure. “When people ask me what it is, I tell them it’s my grandfather. He’s giving me these. His eyes are closed because he’s thinking and his mouth is open because he’s telling stories. That one, he was a really wise man. He knew so much and he was a really good storyteller. There were always lots of us grandchildren around him, and we’re all there, in the clay.” -Helen Cordero
Though Storyteller and Singing Mothers are a modern art form dating to the 1960s, pottery making itself dates back thousands of years. Today's Native Artists use some of the traditional designs and techniques to make and decorate these modern figures. Figures vary in size, with some pieces having up to 200 children attached to them.
Each figure is unique to the artist using certain colors, symbols, and glazes. Most Storytellers and Singing Mothers are created by artists with Pueblo societies in the American Southwest and are highly collectible.