Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

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Helen Cordero



Honored May, 1985

Helen Cordero

When Cochiti Pueblo potter Helen Cordero reached her forties, she found herself dissatisfied with her work. She couldn't understand why her "pots never turned out too good."

At a relative's suggestion, she began making clay figures instead of the traditional pots. Those early figures of the 1960s evolved into the now familiar storyteller doll, the grandfather figure, who, with open mouth, sits with his grandchildren perched on him as they listen to his stories.

The storyteller is Helen's representation of her grandfather. "He was a very old man," she remembered. "He used to tell us all stories, and he'd put us on his lap or wherever we could sit. He was a great storyteller."

Born in 1915, Helen lived all her life at Cochiti Pueblo, adhering to her traditional way of life heedless of the fame and fortune that came her way. She continued to dig her own white clay, to prepare her natural red and black pigments, and to work outdoors in warm weather and at her kitchen table in the winter. Her husband and son drove one hundred miles to bring home the cedar wood she used to fire her pieces, covered with cow manure, on an open iron grate behind her house.

It was partially the encouragement she received early on from collector Alexander Girard, who bought her first figures, that enabled her to continue on her path, a path that led to the revival of figurative pottery, a tradition that dates back to pre-historic Pueblo cultures. This tradition ceased with the arrival of the Spanish, since figurative pottery was condemned as idolatrous.

"She really caused a revolution or renaissance in Pueblo ceramics. Her genius was that she took an exiting tradition, did something different with it, and it simply caught on. As a result the whole shape of Pueblo pottery has changed," says Barbara Babcock, author of The Pueblo Storyteller, a book about Helen.

"It's a very, very unique phenomenon in Pueblo ceramics for someone to just turn a new corner," said Stephen Becker, director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe.

Please see Volume 1 for complete text.
Photo ©1997 by Joanne Rijmes