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Pueblo Storytellers in Historical Figurative Pottery

Helen Cordero, born in 1915 at Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, is credited with the reinvention of the Cochiti figurative pottery tradition that started a revolution in contemporary Pueblo ceramics. Pueblo people in the Southwest have been making clay figures since ancestral times, but these forms were not widely practiced throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. But in the late 1950s, Cordero began making pottery figures modeled after long-established figurine forms of the Singing Mother, or a seated female figure holding a child. In Pueblo culture, oral stories teach cultural customs, values, history, rituals, and narratives specific to local communities. Cordero used her grandfather as inspiration, explaining “he was a really good storyteller, and there were always lots of us grandchildren around him.” She called him Storyteller, and the figure brought Cordero immediately to public attention. 

Cochiti Polychrome Pottery Storyteller Figure, signed “Maria P. Romero”
Lot 1287, Estimate $300-400

After receiving several awards, she continued making countless variations of her grandfather’s portrait. Her work remained distinguished, and no two are alike. Between five and 30 children tend to cling to each Storyteller. She describes them with “eyes closed because he is thinking; his mouth is open because he is singing … You listen someday, listen real hard, he’ll be telling you. Listen very closely, and he’ll be telling you stories.” 

Cochiti Polychrome Pottery Storyteller Figure, signed on the base “Felipa T.,” for Felipa Trujillo
Lot 1288, Estimate $400-600

Pueblo pottery is dynamic, and many modern artists pair these traditional techniques with innovative and stylized designs. The style is known for remarkable beauty and unmistakable craftsmanship, and contemporary artist often use the same techniques that were developed thousands of years prior. The entire process is completed by hand, usually using coil methods and natural polishing stones. The clay needs to be prepared, and it is usually gathered, dried, and mixed with tempering agents by hand. Often, the piece is finished in a homemade kiln or even an outdoor fire. 

Large Cochiti Polychrome Pottery Storyteller Figure, signed “Maria P. Romero”
Lot 1289, Estimate $700-900

The Storyteller figure represents the importance of oral traditions and the preservation of culture, and has become a staple in historical figurative pottery. A generation of artists inspired by Cordero’s work began making their own Storytellers using traditional methods with incredible amounts of skill and passed-down knowledge. Every potter utilizes their own techniques, clay, tools, and colors that make their work recognizable as valuable fine art.

Fine craftsmanship and unique qualities make Pueblo Storytellers distinctively collectable, the single most sold item in Pueblo art, and one of the most sought-after forms of clay art. Each sculpture is one-of-a-kind and embodies the importance of oral tradition in exceptional visual depictions of native cultures. Like the stories sung by each figure, these sculptures are timeless pieces of treasure.

Our July Tribal Art online auction features artifacts encompassing many of the world’s tribal cultures, from American Indian, Amazonian and Pre-Columbian; to objects from Africa, the South Pacific, and South-East Asia. Previews open July 12 – 14 in Marlborough


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