Growing up and living in New Mexico most of my life, it is no surprise that so much beautiful southwestern pottery is rich in our state’s unique history. Some of my favorite pieces of pottery are known as “Storytellers”. Each storyteller piece has a larger clay figure telling a story usually a man or woman to a group of smaller figures, typically children, who may also be surrounded by animals or subjects adding character and significance to each piece.
Clay pieces that have been shaped into figurative shapes and effigies have been made for centuries dating back to the culture of the Anasazi. However, storytellers became very popular by potters on the Cochiti pueblo in New Mexico in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The surge in popularity of New Mexican storyteller art is attributed to the infamous potter Helen Cordero who made what is known as the first contemporary storyteller in 1964 that is commemorated today as part of the Alexander Girard Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. New Mexican storyteller pieces are highly sought after by collectors because they each have their own unique story. Each piece of art makes an excellent conversation piece and adds a different element to any pottery collection.
Helen Cordero’s story is what I find most intriguing and is a story familiar to many of us. At 45 years old, having raised her six children who were grown, she found herself wanting to find a way to earn extra money. She had been doing bead and leatherwork with Juanita Arquero who was a cousin of her husband, but they found themselves having to put most of their profits back into purchasing materials before they could reap a profit. It wasn’t until an elder suggested that they make pottery that they reconsidered their business plan. For as explained, they would not have to buy any materials to make their product, “Mother Earth” would provide them with everything.
Juanita had learned to make pottery as a child, so her skills came back quite easily, but for Helen this was a new art she would need to learn to master. Despite her efforts, and Juanita’s help to teach her, no matter what she tried her pots were still coming out crooked and after six months she was ready to quit. I myself, can sympathize with Helen. How many times have we each found ourselves at the brink of despair thinking our efforts are futile? As the old adage states “the darkest moments are just before dawn”.
Just before giving up, Juanita decided to try something different and switching away from making typical pottery began blazing her own trail making clay figures of animals like frogs and birds eventually making clay figures of miniature people. To her surprise at the Santo Domingo Feast Day she met Alexander Girard, a Folk Art collector. He purchased all of her clay people and asked if she could make more. He later requested she make a set of figures with a larger central figure with children. As she began to brainstorm on how she would make the piece it brought back childhood memories of being with her grandfather who was a wonderful storyteller. So often he would be surrounded by all of his grandchildren to include her, mesmerized by his many stories.
Helen's memories were transformed into works of art that became a theme that can be seen in all her pieces. This inspiration ignited her career as a potter. She continued to make storyteller pieces with as many as thirty children! In the years since as many as 300 potters have followed in her footsteps from over thirteen pueblos to make these beautiful pieces of art. Storytellers are now commonly seen of both humans and animals surrounded by their young with added elements unique to each artist with each piece telling its own story. Helen Cordero is an inspiration to all of us not just for her art, but for her journey as a fellow human. Not only does understanding the history of these pieces add sentimental value for the collector, but gives us hope in our own lives that even in the midst of despair the silver lining may be just around the corner even if it doesn’t look what we had first imagined. Perhaps Helen’s life story teaches all of us that success can be just past the point of giving up.