Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Clay - Pueblo Storytellers

In the tradition of the Pueblo Indians, the children make clay figures depicting storytellers passing along their legends while offspring gather round to listen. For ages 9 to 13. Plan 4 to 5 sessions.

  • Learning about Pueblo Storytellers
  • Using a combination of hand-building techniques
  • Applying underglazes
  • Working with three-dimensional form
coil, meld, pinch method, scratch and slip, underglazes

Click here for more information about working with clay. Click here and scroll down to see seven views of Storytellers. Barbara Babcock’s book The Pueblo Storyteller is an excellent resource for examples and more information.

  • 12- x 18-inch Masonite boards (one for each child) or canvas to cover the work surface
  • Clay, three small grapefruit-sized balls for each child, plus a few extra (Amaco #20 Versa clay fires white and has good plasticity.)
  • Clay needle tools
  • Clay loop tools
  • Containers with a small amount of slip or water
  • Amaco velvet underglazes
  • Brushes for applying underglazes
  • Plastic bags and trays for drying the clay projects
  • Examples or pictures of Storytellers
It is the tradition of Native American Indians to pass along their legends and customs to the younger generation in the form of stories. Cochiti Pueblo artist Helen Cordero's memory of little children gathered around her grandfather as he spun his tales inspired her to create the first clay "Storyteller" in 1964.

While making beadwork and leatherwork, Cordero found that most of the money she earned was used to buy more supplies. Her husband’s aunt suggested that she make pottery instead, since the clay comes from the earth and there would be no need to buy materials. When she tried pottery, Cordero said that her pots were “all crooked" and "never looked right,” so her cousin suggested she try making figures. Cordero started making small frogs, birds, animals, and eventually little people. Her figures were similar to the traditional “singing mothers," women with their mouths open in song as they hold their babies. Then Cordero thought of her grandfather passing down stories to his grandchildren. She made her first Storyteller representing her grandfather with five little children gathered around to listen to his tales.

The Storytellers became popular almost immediately. In 1964, her figures were awarded first, second, and third place prizes at the New Mexico State Fair. By 1980 there were over fifty potters making Storytellers. One of them, Mary Trujillo, began making animal forms as well, including Storyteller Turtles and Lizards.

Most of the Storytellers are seated figures with playful children and their toys attached. They are traditionally painted with white, terra cotta, and black, and the designs include plaids, stripes, flowers, and symbols from Pueblo pottery. Their hair is braided, knotted in a “chongo” or bun, long and free-flowing, or cut short, sometimes including hats or headbands.

Today as many as three hundred potters in thirteen pueblos have created Storytellers that range from men and women to bears, owls and other animals, often with more than a hundred attached children.

First Session
  • Check the clay several days ahead to be sure it is of good workable consistency.
  • Cover work area with individual Masonite boards or canvas.
  • Set out one ball of clay for each child, plus a few extra.
  • Have available examples or pictures of Pueblo Storytellers.
How to Begin
  • Share the examples or pictures of the Pueblo Storytellers and tell the children about Helen Cordero and her first Storyteller. Explain that, in the next several sessions, they will be making Storytellers using a process similar to that of the Pueblo Indians.
  • Demonstrate how to make coils for building the bodies of the Storytellers. Roll a lump of clay between your hands to form a thick snake-like shape. Put the “snake” on a flat surface. Starting with your fingertips, roll the clay down to the bottom of the palm of your hand and back to your fingertips. Repeat this motion moving up and down the coil, gradually increasing pressure until the coil is about a half-inch in diameter. If the thickness of the coil is uneven, place your hand over the thicker spots and roll with a little pressure.
  • Make the base of the storyteller by winding a coil in a flat, circular pattern leaving a small opening in the center to function as the air-release hole when the clay is fired. When the base is two to three inches wide, use your fingers to meld, or blend, the coils together. To form the body of the storyteller, which should be no more than five inches tall, begin building the coils upwards. Coils placed directly on top of the coil below it will make a straight-sided figure; coils on the outside edge of the coil below it will make a rounded figure; and coils on the inside edge of the coil below it will gradually close the figure. Leave a small opening at the neck where the head will be attached. As each coil runs out, attach the next one directly against the end of the previous coil. When the body is completed, meld together the coils on the outside.
  • Have the children roll coils, build the body portion of their figures, and meld the coils together. The surface can be further smoothed in the next session when the clay will be slightly harder.
 Note: Cover the figures with plastic, keeping the clay firm but workable.

Second Session
  • Cover work area with individual Masonite boards or canvas.
  • Set out one ball of clay for each child, plus a few extra.
  • Set out needle tools, loop tools, and containers of slip or water.
How to Begin
  • In this session, the children will be completing the bodies of the storytellers. Before making additions, the children should smooth the clay as much as possible, melding on small pieces of clay where necessary.
  • Form a head with fresh clay and hollow it with a loop tool. Use the scratch-and-slip method to attach the head to the body by scratching around the edges to be joined and applying a small amount of slip or water. Join the head to the body and meld the clay to form a neck. A nose can be added at this time, but the mouth is easier to cut out in the next session after the clay has hardened slightly.
  • Break off pieces of clay to make sturdy legs with feet. Attach them by scratching, slipping, and melding them so they become a part of the body. (For female Storytellers, slabs can be added for skirts.) Then make and attach arms. Hair can be made with clay or painted on later.
  • After smoothing the surface of the clay as much as possible, have the children complete the bodies of the Storytellers. 
Note: Cover the storytellers with plastic to keep the clay firm and yet moist enough to add the children in the next session.

Third Session
  • Cover work area with individual Masonite boards or canvas.
  • Set out one ball of clay for each child, plus a few extra.
  • Set out needle tools and containers of slip or water.
How to Begin
  • Explain that, in this session, the children will be making and attaching the clay figures of offspring gathered around to listen to the tales of the Storytellers.
  • Now that the clay is firmer, use a needle tool to cut out a mouth that gives the impression that the figure is telling a story.
  • Demonstrate the pinch method for building the offspring by pulling the appendages directly from the same piece of clay. This will make the parts less apt to fall off or break apart. Carefully scratch and slip the offspring and attach them to the storytellers in a playful manner. Additions such as shawls, hats, headbands, or toys can be added as well.
  • Have the children make and attach the offspring to the Storytellers.
Note: Dry the Storytellers slowly and bisque-fire them in a kiln.

Fourth/Fifth Session
  • Set out bisque-fired Storytellers.
  • Set out velvet underglazes and brushes.
How to Begin
  • Explain that, in this session, the children will be applying color to their bisque-fired figures using underglazes. Before giving the children their clay pieces, be sure they understand that bisqueware is fragile and must be handled carefully.
  • Demonstrate how quickly the underglazes dry when applied to the bisqueware. The children will need to dip their brushes often to avoid scrubbing and to cover all areas. They should carefully dab into any cracks or rough areas on the clay surface. Be sure the children understand that they must plan ahead since the velvet underglazes are transparent and light colors will not show up if painted over dark colors.
  • Discuss some possible ways to paint the Storytellers using designs such as plaids, stripes, flowers, and the traditional symbols used in Pueblo pottery.
  • Have the children apply the underglazes to the Storytellers.
Note: After the underglazes dry, fire the figures in the kiln again.

Children's Storytellers in a library display.
  • It’s important to emphasize and monitor the safe use of the needle tools.
  • The coils need to be at least a half-inch thick so they are strong enough to be blended into a smooth surface.
  • Velvet underglazes do not need to have a final coating of glaze which makes them very suitable for this project. Remind the children that they must plan ahead since these underglazes are transparent and light colors will not show up if painted over dark colors.
  • For the Storytellers in this lesson that are painted in the traditional style, the children used terra cotta and velour black underglazes on Amaco Versa clay. A less traditional approach could also be taken, such as the blue bird and the gray elephant below, or the calico cat in the library display above.
  • Are the additions to the Storytellers sturdy and carefully attached?
  • Discuss the different approaches used to decorate the Storytellers.
  • Have the children create stories that their Storytellers might be telling.
What the children might say...
  • How many offspring do I need to make?
  • Birds have such skinny legs. I’m afraid they will break off.
  • If I make all my bears brown, they won’t show up.
  • I want all my cats to be the same color.
  • I’m going to put this baby owl on the Storyteller's head.
What you might say...
  • You can decide how many offspring you would like to attach to your Storyteller; however, it is important to make each one strong enough so that all of its parts will hold together.
  • Bird’s legs will be fragile, but you can give them strength by making them with a thick coil that is not too long. To attach the legs, make a hole in the Storyteller, slide in the coil, and meld the connection together with extra clay.
  • Try using colors that contrast to help the offspring stand out.
  • Instead of changing the color of your cats, try changing the patterns on them.
  • Attaching the offspring in such a playful manner lets us appreciate how much fun it must have been to listen to the Storyteller's tales.
Click to view this lesson in a printer-friendly format.