Helen Cordero

Helen Cordero
Helen Cordero, 1986

Helen Cordero (1915-1994) was a potter from Cochiti Pueblo who became famous for her "storyteller" figures. The pueblos had a long tradition of "Singing Mother" figurines but Helen took that motif a step further: in honor of her grandfather (a tribal storyteller who knew many stories of the Cochiti oral history) she made a male figure with children and it quickly became known as a "storyteller." That was in 1964.

The idea caught on quickly among nearly all the pueblo pottery makers and shortly, each pueblo had developed its own version of the storyteller complete with local dress, designs and added configurations. Helen's intent was that storyteller figures be male (and she never made a female storyteller) while Singing Mothers always be female. That line has been blurred in that virtually all similar "contexts" are called storytellers. And I say "context" because there are now many figurines that are presented as animal or bird storytellers...

Earlier in life, Helen had tried her hand at beadwork and leather-working but nearly all the money she made selling her works went into purchasing supplies to keep going. Then her husband's aunt suggested she try making pottery.

It was a time when pottery making had almost died out in Cochiti but her cousin had learned the ancient ways as a child and Helen worked with her for six months learning the process and getting good at it. However, she was trying to make pots, bowls and jars but nothing ever came out quite right. Seeing she was frustrated, her cousin suggested she make figurines like many Cochiti pottery makers had been producing years before.

It was like Helen had found her true calling as she spent several years making countless little figures of animals, birds and people (male and female figures eight to nine inches tall). In 1960, Helen displayed some of her figures at Santo Domingo Pueblo Feast Day and attracted the attention of Alexander Girard, a well-known folk art collector. He bought everything she had and encouraged her to make more. He also asked that she make them larger and he soon commissioned a 250-piece nativity set from her. Shortly after that, he asked her to make a large seated figure surrounded by many children, a situtation similar to many of the "singing mothers" made by other Cochiti potters.

She thought about it and remembered her grandfather, a famous Cochiti tribal storyteller. She built a seated male figure eight inches high with five children perched on it. The fact the figure was male and had children figures perched on it changed Pueblo pottery history and started a new tradition.

When she displayed her storytellers at the New Mexico State Fair in 1964, she walked away with 1st, 2nd and 3rd place ribbons. In 1965 she took 1st, 2nd and 3rd place ribbons at the Santa Fe Indian Market. Her career was off and running and when she did her first one-person show in Scottsdale, AZ in 1973, it was sold out before the show opened.

In 1985 Helen was honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure. In 1986 she became a National Heritage Fellow.

"I don't know why people go for my work the way they do. Maybe it's because to me they aren't just pretty things that I make for money. All my potteries come out of my heart. They're my little people. I talk to them and they're singing. If you're listening, you can hear them." - Helen Cordero, from The Pueblo Storyteller (1986)

Ten children on a storyteller
Storyteller with ten children
10 1/4 in H by 10 in Dia
Seven children on a storyteller
Storyteller with seven children
8 in H by 8 1/2 in Dia
Twelve children on a storyteller
Storyteller with twelve children
9 3/4 in H by 8 1/2 in Dia
Three children on a turtle storyteller
Turtle storyteller with three children
5 1/2 in H by 89 1/2 in Dia
Two children on a storyteller figure Storyteller with two children
10 in H by 7 in Dia
Standing figure
Standing figure
3 3/4 in H by 1 1/2 in Dia
1 child in a blanket on a grandfather storyteller
Grandfather storyteller with 1 child in a blanket
9 3/4 in H by 8 1/4 in Dia
Standing Night Crier figure with a custom stand
Standing Night Crier figure with a custom stand
15 1/2 in H by 6 1/4 in Dia
12 children on a grandfather storyteller
Grandfather storyteller figure with twelve children
11 in H by 10 1/2 in Dia
7 children on a grandfather storyteller
Grandfather storyteller figure with seven children on him
10 in H by 8 1/4 in Dia
Photo of Helen Cordero courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts (public domain)

Cochiti Pueblo Potters