Stories in Clay @ Institute for American Indian Studies

Everyone likes a good story. In Native American culture, stories were told to pass on knowledge from generation to generation. It was a way for tribe elders to pass on the history, sacred learning and beliefs to future leaders of the tribe.

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.

This Singing Mother was made by Bonnie Fragua of the Jemez Pueblo. The Fragua family is known for their pottery making, Bonnie studied under Marie Romero, and just a few years after starting won several awards for her pottery. This figure shows the squash-blossom necklace, ceremonial circles painted on her cheeks, and textured hair which the Fragua family made pottery is known for. Donated by Marjorie & Sidney Goldman, Collection of the IAIS.

Helen Cordero – the First Modern Storyteller Dollmaker

The first modern storyteller doll 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 and, 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, Helen was never happy with how her vessels came out. When Helen tried making figure pottery Juanita compared it to “a flower blooming.” Undeterred, Helen kept creating.

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.

This Singing Mother (Figure A) was made by Marilyn Ray of the Acoma Pueblo in 1999. The decorative styles used here date back thousands of years and are traditional to Acoma. Marilyn is known for the intricacy of her figures and the detail displayed in her work. Here she integrates both children and animals into the figure. The Olla held by the Singing Mother is typical of Acoma white and black pottery. Marilyn has won several awards for her pottery and been published in many publications on both Storytellers pottery and Pueblo pottery. Donated by Marjorie & Sidney Goldman, Collection of the IAIS.

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 that 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 in Pueblo societies in the American Southwest and are highly collectible.

About The Institute for American Indian Studies

The Institute for American Indian Studies preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality, and knowledge of Native American cultures. Through archaeology, the IAIS is able to build new understandings of the world and history of Native Americans, the focus is on stewardship and preservation.

This is achieved through workshops, special events, and education for students of all ages. Located on 15 woodland acres the IAIS has an outdoor Three Sisters and Healing Plants Gardens as well as a replicated 16th c. Algonkian Village. Inside the museum, authentic artifacts are displayed in permanent, semi-permanent and temporary exhibits from prehistory to the present that allows visitors a walk through time. The Institute for American Indian Studies is located on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut and can be reached online or by calling 860-868-0518.

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