A storyteller in clay. Indian figurines spring from a forgotten tradition

PUEBLO women have a way with creating pots of clay - symmetrical and stylish. But Helen Cordero didn't have that knack. ``No, my pots never turned out too good,'' she says, and you get the idea she still wonders why this cultural talent passed her by. But no matter, because Mrs. Cordero started a new trend from a forgotten tradition. She molded a storyteller, an Indian figurine with children in his lap and clinging to his shoulders.

This was back in the mid-'60s, when Cordero was in her middle years. That first storyteller sold for ``not much'' - maybe under $10, she recalls.

But those days of the ``slim take'' are over. Cordero trotted off to the 1987 Indian Market in Santa Fe with 17 sculptures - mostly Storytellers - in her bundle. And all were snapped up like sawbucks off the sidewalk. Each Storyteller went for about $2,225. To underscore her success story, a posh gallery on Santa Fe's plaza sold its last Cordero Storyteller for a cool $3,500.

``They are very, very expensive - because I was the first to make them,'' she says. Cordero is quite aware that when her Storyteller started scoring financial coups in the marketplace, a copycat mania set in. Craftspeople up and down the Rio Grande embarked on a cloning binge. But despite the proliferation, most connoisseurs still claim Cordero to be undisputed queen of the Storyteller genre.

Cordero knows she's attained fame, but ``I don't like to be told about it,'' says the grandmother who prefers a simple life at Cochiti to the chichi circles of the white world, which she could well afford.

There aren't many grandmothers who can display a letter from President Reagan on the kitchen wall. Or a raft of ribbons won at art competitions, a New Mexico governor's award for art excellence, and a 1986 award from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington.

Before her Storyteller hit it big, the Cordero family farmed the arid earth, scratching for daily bread and basics. ``We were so poor,'' says Cordero, who had tried to bring in cash by making beaded baby booties. But that didn't pan out financially.

Cordero now spreads her prosperity in the Indian tradition of sharing. ``I help my children. My whole family,'' she says, matter-of-factly, oblivious that carats and Cadillacs for personal consumption are the first fruits of many nouveau riche. But that's not her style.

She says that the Storyteller was inspired by her grandfather. ``He was a very old man, and his children had children,'' she says. ``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.''

Cordero collects her clay - white, not red - in the area. ``I get my clay, but I don't tell where,'' she says wisely, mindful that competitors might overrun her cache. Her strong alliance with the earth surfaces throughout conversations, especially when she refers to the clay as ``she'' or ``mother.''

``She [the clay, the earth] is very close to me. I am with her, and she knows it, and she helps me create my grandfather. It seems like she tells me, and I do as she tells me,'' Cordero says. Although no two sculptures are the same, each Storyteller represents her grandfather. Other figurines that have brought her acclaim include the Drummer Boy and the Children's Hour.

Cordero doesn't have a studio. When the weather is warm, she works outside, and when the days turn chilly, she sets up shop on the kitchen table. She doesn't have a kiln, either. Each clay piece is covered with cow manure and fired on an open iron grate behind her house. Her husband, Fernando, and son George drive nearly 100 miles to collect cedar wood for her fire.

Cordero's Storytellers launched a revival of figurative pottery, an art form that dates back to prehistoric pueblo cultures. Figurines - depicting bird, beast, and human - prevailed in the pueblos until the Spanish clergy arrived in the Southwest in the 16th century.

The padres frowned upon the figurines, labeling them idolatrous, so the art form went into a hiatus. But a comeback was staged in the late 1800s when a Santa Fe trader wanted to boost his tourist trade. He recruited potters to make figures. And they obliged, although many of their creations were caricatures, spoofing Anglo and Hispanic foibles. Again, the art form slipped from the scene. Then along came Cordero.

Except for the years when she attended St. Catherine's Indian School in Santa Fe and the days she traveled with her artwork, Cordero has spent her life at Cochiti. Situated about 25 miles southwest of Santa Fe, Cochiti is one of New Mexico's 19 pueblos (villages), each inhabited by a different American Indian group.

The artist and her husband have been married 54 years and have raised four children and two foster children. As for grandchildren, she stretches out her arms and says ``many,'' a recent count being about 20. Son George is following in her footsteps, creating Storytellers of his own. And foster son Gabriel Trujillo follows Mr. Cordero, making the drums for which Cochiti is well renowned.

As Cordero pads quietly through her house, she looks about. There's an Anglo-style living room; a kitchen with appliances and an array of Carnival glass; an ``Indian parlor'' with apache baskets, Navajo rugs, and pots from other pueblo potters. ``I have the things I always wanted,'' she says.

But there's one thing she doesn't have - a Storyteller. She hasn't kept a single one.

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