In the late 1950’s, Helen Cordero was 45 years old, and the mother of six children. She and her cousin’s wife, Juanita, had been doing bead and leather work to sell to the tourists who came to Cochiti Pueblo, south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Both women were skilled artisans, but the leather and beads were so costly that there was little profit to be gained from selling their handiwork.
“Why don’t you make pottery?” their grandmother suggested. “You don’t have to buy anything. Mother Earth gives it all to you.”
Juanita was already an accomplished potter. But Helen had to learn, and it was a struggle. After six months of practice, her pots still didn’t look right. That was when Juanita suggested she try making figures.
“It was like a flower blooming,” Helen was to say later. Small frogs, birds, animals and eventually little people came to life. The first time she showed them at a festival a collector bought them all and ordered more, including a 250-piece Nativity set.
In 1964, Helen was asked to make a larger figure with children. Some potters were making mother and child figures, but Helen wanted something different. She thought of her grandfather, one of the great Pueblo storytellers and preservers of tradition. She remembered his voice and made her first storyteller figure a portrait of him, with his five grandchildren. One of those grandchildren is Helen.
Helen Cordero, honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure, passed away in 1994. Today more than three hundred potters in thirteen pueblos have created storytellers—men, women, animals, birds and mythical figures.
I saw my first storyteller at Acoma Pueblo in the early 1990’s. I loved it so much that I bought it from the potter, a wonderful artist named Peggy Garcia. My little storyteller is a woman with five children, beautifully fashioned and painted. I gave it to my mother, whose 45 years of teaching elementary school made her a true storyteller. Now that she’s gone I have it back. It sits on my shelf, carefully anchored, as I write this. I wish I had a photo to show you. Here’s a similar example of Peggy’s work.
(For the information about Helen Cordero, I credit an article by Pamela Michaelis.)
Who are the storytellers in your family? Maybe you’re one of them.