Helen Cordero is famous for creating clay storyteller dolls. Born in 1915, she grew up in the Cochiti Pueblo of New Mexico, an adobe village in the southwestern United States situated between the Rio Grande River and the Jemez Mountains. For more than a thousand years, people in her pueblo have made distinctive pottery featuring black designs painted over layers and layers of white clay slip.
Traditionally the potters of Cochiti made useful items—pots, bowls, and other containers. They also made small figures of animals and people. Some of these figures were decorative. Others were used for ceremonies. One of the most common was a mother holding a child. These mother-child figures were known as “singing mothers” because their mouths were always left open to let the lullaby out.
Helen Cordero’s grandfather, Santiago Quintana, was a renowned pueblo storyteller, a source for many anthropologists studying the Cochiti way of life. However, mostly she remembered seeing him with lots and lots of grandchildren, like herself, climbing on him, begging him for stories, a request that he almost never refused. He told stories of Coyote, Rabbit, and Badger, the little people of the American desert. He told stories of Corncob Boy and Corn Mother, mythic beings. He told tales of times past, and of people in the pueblo. He never ran out of stories, she remembered, because he could makeup stories that were as good as the old ones.
In 1964 Helen Cordero made a clay figure that was unlike any other in her pueblo’s history. It was a grandfather with children climbing onto his lap. A folk art collector suggested that she add even more children. She did. She added children climbing up the storyteller’s braids, peeking over his head, sliding down his arms. The proportions were “wrong.” The storyteller was large compared to the children, as if to suggest the size of his influence. However, Helen Cordero never referred to her little figures as “children.” She called them “little listeners.” She believed that what they were doing was as important as what the storyteller was saying. Wisdom, she believed, came into the world, not because it was spoken, but because it was heard. Echoing the older singing mother figures, Helen Cordero left the mouth of her storyteller open to let the stories out. She left the eyes closed. Her storyteller was always thinking of the next thing in the story.
For twenty years, she made many, many variations of her grandfather storyteller. Then she began to make grandmother storytellers and animal storytellers, especially turtle storytellers. Turtles were thought to be an especial friend of pueblo children. It was said that long ago when neighboring pueblos were at war, Turtle came and took the children away. He hid them and kept them safe. In another story, turtle takes dreaming children on a journey to see the whole world, but only if they promise to keep their eyes open. They must see the beauty, or they will be dull people all their lives.
More than honoring the tradition of her pueblo, Helen Cordero’s work is credited with reviving a broad interest in Cochiti pottery and storytelling. Her figures are never dull, suggesting she may have been one of the dreaming children Turtle took on his journey.