Storytellers: turning our experiences into art

Though animal sculptures have been produced for centuries by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, storyteller figurines are a relatively modern art form. Helen Cordero, an artist of the Cochiti Pueblo, is attributed with its invention. Now these highly expressive sculptures are produced by many artists from several different pueblos.

For an art teacher, storyteller figures offer an exciting change of pace from standard coil pots. For an art student, producing a storyteller figure is an opportunity to explore symbolism, sculpture, coil-construction and the relationship between our experiences and art.

START WITH A STORY The Pueblo Indian culture is rich with myths and stories, and storyteller figurines are symbolic representations of their oral history. I could have had my elementary-education university students interpret a Pueblo Indian myth with their sculptures. But instead, I asked each student to write a short story on half a piece of paper, describing an important event in their life, using metaphor and symbolism as opposed to simply retelling the event. Each story was required to have at least two “living” characters, though making inanimate objects come alive was very much encouraged.

From their stories, students were asked to pick a primary character and at least one, but possibly more, secondary characters. The primary character would become the “storyteller” of their artwork, and the secondary characters would become their “listeners.”

CREATING THE BASIC STORYTELLER FORM Students drew a circle, rectangle, square or half-circle on a piece of paper. To this they added details and shapes until they had created a sketch of their storyteller character. In creating this sketch, students were forced to consider how they would embellish a basic coil-built form with sculptural details to create their figure.

Then, students built an initial coil pot based on the shape in their sketch. The same rules for thickness and slipping and scoring apply to a storyteller figure as would apply to any other coil-construction pottery. The coil pot should be built up as necessary, but should never be completely closed and sealed.

Once the coil pot was constructed, they added the sculpture al details, working from their sketches but being encouraged to experiment with textures and forms. Limitations of height and width were determined by the kiln furniture to be used during firing. My students could work no taller than 10 inches and no wider than 8 inches. Each student was given 3 pounds of terra-cotta clay for creating their figure.

To avoid trapped air bubbles, larger sculptural items added to the pot–such as arms, legs and heads–were made hollow and basically opened on the side against the “body.” Before attaching the hollow item, a hole was punched through the body pot so that the trapped air would vent into the space of the body. Care was taken to keep the sculpture’s “mouth” open, so that the finished storyteller figure could “breathe” in the kiln (see diagram). Mouths must of course be open anyway, so the storyteller can tell its story.

SCULPTURAL IDEAS The arms, legs, head and other details of the storyteller (to include scenic items as an option) can and probably will be created by the student using sculpture techniques over pottery techniques. Clay should be formed into the shapes using additive or subtractive skills with a variety of tools, from loop tools to textural items. In some cases, it may be necessary to allow complicated forms to firm up briefly in the open air. This will make attaching them to the main coil body using slip, scoring and extra coils a bit easier.

THE LISTENERS Of great importance to the telling of a story is having people to listen to it. My students created their listeners out of solid clay, sculpting the forms and developing delicate details to create the secondary characters from their stow. The only traditional rule pertaining to the storyteller art form is that the listeners must physically attach to the storyteller itself, sitting on its lap, perching on a shoulder, and so on. With traditional Pueblo storytellers, there is a mild competition of sorts that occurs among the artists as to how many listeners they can pose on a storyteller, the record being more than 100!

With my students, I require at least three listeners. The listeners cannot be more than 1-inch thick and the clay must be well wedged to prevent air bubbles.

MAKING THE SCULPTURE SPECIAL After some discussion as to how to interpret the stories and the sculptures, my students came up with their own ritual to permanently connect their sculptures with their stories. They decided to tear up their stories into very small pieces and feed these into the mouth of the figure and into the body prior to firing. In this symbolic gesture, the small amount of smoke from the pieces of the stow saturates the clay of the interior during firing, permanently making it part of the storyteller.

FINAL STEPS Adding color to the storytellers can either be done authentically, semi-authentically, or be governed by the student’s expressive ideas. The authentic approach would be to add talc to slip, and then paint that onto the unfired terra-cotta. Dark colors can be created by adding carbon to different slip. But traditional storytellers are three-colored: the red clay, white and a dark brown or black.

Using underglazes produces a semi-authentic experience, but allows students a greater range of colors. Students could be allowed to paint their storytellers (as my students did) using color to make the storyteller connect even more with the expressive qualities of their stow.

TELLING THE STORY As a final critique of sorts, students each take turns presenting their storyteller figure to the class and telling the story the artwork is based on. They are not allowed to read this stow from a copy of the original, emphasizing the idea of starting an oral storytelling tradition within their family or social group. Other students ask questions as to form and technique.

My elementary education students consider this project to be the highlight of their art-studio experiences, and more than a few have reported using this project with their elementary-age students with great success. To be successful, students must understand basic ceramics concepts and must be able to plan and execute the form, indicating this project to be appropriate for fourth-grade or older. High-school students simply make more sophisticated storytellers.

For the teacher, this project introduces and applies several ceramics and sculpture techniques, while still allowing excellent opportunities for using art to learn about the culture of the Pueblo Indians.


* Terra-cotta or low-fire red-body clay (approx. 3 lb. per student)
* Kiln for firing low-fire clay (cone 05)
* Colored slips (talc or carbon added to thin clay)
* Boards or picnic plates and trash bags for building sculptures on and covering them overnight
* Clay modeling tools
* underglazes or acrylic paints to color the fired sculpture (Paint will require brushes and water. Coating with gloss polyurethane produces a nice finish after painting. Clear gloss low-fire glaze works well with the slips and underglazes.)


Students will …
* discuss the role of the storyteller sculpture as part of the oral tradition of the Pueblo Indians.
* examine the style of Cochiti Pueblo storyteller figures.
* create a terra-cotta clay storyteller sculpture in the style of the Cochiti Pueblo artists.
* sculpt clay using basic coil construction, additive and subtractive techniques, and color to represent at least two characters from a story the student writes.


Howard, N.S. Helen Cordero and the Story-tellers of the Cochiti Pueblo (A Closer Look Activity Book). Davis Publications, 1995.
Michael E. Prater is Assistant Professor of Art Education at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Publishers’ Development Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

Click here to return to the index of Articles

Facebook Comments