The American Trails Gallery is currently featuring a stellar show of Pueblo Storyteller pottery from the Cochiti Pueblo of New Mexico. The Cochiti people have been potters for centuries, and over time have evolved their style and repertoire to meet the demands of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The first storyteller figure was created by Helen Cordero, who, in her early 40s, had been a traditional potter of the Cochiti Pueblo but had grown discouraged with the quality of her work. She began to move away from pots and to experiment with the figure, developing the first storyteller art piece from an aesthetic root in the traditional "singing mother" motif of the pueblo people. According to Cordero, she created her first storyteller piece in about 1964. This development birthed a creative movement that has since become one of the most important aspects of the ongoing artistic legacy of the Cochiti pueblo people.

The seminal storyteller figure that came out of Helen's experimentation was based on Cordero's own grandfather, Santiago Quintana, who was himself a great storyteller in the spoken word tradition of his clan. The figure is of an old man with grandchildren climbing onto his lap to listen to his stories.

Cordero believed that a male doll was more true to the history of her own clan, as males were the traditional storytellers in the Cochiti tribe. As time went on, other artists started making their storyteller dolls and adapting them to their own beliefs, family histories, and heritage. While the most famous storyteller doll is a male, the range today includes males, females, and often clowns or animals.

The male dolls are identified in part by their headgear, which can be anything from a hat to a bandana. As the art form continues to grow in a contemporary cultural environment, the storyteller figure has also been seen holding a blanket, a drum, or other culturally specific items, instead of children — this is considered an important development as a means of expanding the visual history that is emblematic of pueblo life.

Since much of the history of indigenous Native Americans has been handed down by way of oral tradition, as opposed to in writing, the storyteller doll might be considered a critical visual aid to the elders’ vocal interpretations of myths and fables.

Helen Cordero died in 1994 at the age of 79, but not before she had been honored as a National Heritage Fellow. Her work can now be seen in many important public and private collections, including in the Smithsonian Museum.

American Trails has been a force in the national gallery scene for nearly three decades, and was originally based on the Ashland Plaza before moving to a large new location on East Main Street. In addition to the pueblo pottery, the space features a diverse range of work by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including weavings from the Navajo and Zapotec, carvings from the Hopi, Zuni, Haida, Kwakiutl, Inuit and Oaxaca, ceramics from many of the other pueblos in the Southwest, handmade historic and contemporary jewelry from the Zuni, Santo Domingo, Navajo and Taxco peublos.

In addition, the gallery has, in its holdings, the most significant and largest collection of historic basketry in the Pacific Northwest; a collection that includes work by the Pomo, Maidu, Hoopa, Karok, Wintun, Shasta and Modoc peoples.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.