45. Singing Mother FigureAs members of the Cochiti Pueblo, both Helen Cordero (1915-1994) and Damacia Cordero lived in a territory located in the middle Rio Grande valley (Hayes and Blom 1996:60). Puebloan people have always made figural sculp- tures-fetishes for ceremonial purposes, effigies and even figures as stand-ins for babies desired by women hoping to conceive-along with their ceramics for everyday use (Babcock in Turner 1982:59-60). "There is no description of any Pueblo ceremony-curing, hunting, rain, fertility, etc.-or any altar that does not include both ceramic vessels containing water and sacred meal and effigies, ceramic and otherwise" (Babcock in Turner 1982:59). Babcock has argued that all Southwest Puebloan ceramics are seen by their cre- ators to have a voice (Babcock in Turner 1982:58).
Cochiti is recognized as the pueblo with the strongest long- standing tradition of making figurative sculpture, as well as the most prolific (Babcock in Turner 1982:60). After 1885, fewer animal effigy vessels circulated, the quality of figures declined, and the repertoire of Cochiti figures changed to reflect the Anglo presence, expanding to figures of tourists, priests, circus acrobats and cowboys, some in caricature style (Babcock, Monthan and Monthan 1988:17-18). "Singing Mothers," depicting a woman with an open mouth hold- ing a child, or children, were made at Cochiti prior to 1930 (Babcock, Monthan and Monthan 1988:16). Between 1920 and 1960, a few of the Cochiti potters, including Damacia Cordero and Helen Cordero, crafted "Singing Mother" fig- ures (Babcock, Monthan and Monthan 1988:20).
In 1964, a man named Alexander Girard bought one of Helen Cordero's singing mothers and asked her to make him another one, but this time larger and holding more chil- dren. As Helen began to work, she repeatedly thought of her grandfather, Santiago Quintana, as he went about telling his stories. Her grandfather was "a gifted storyteller and a leading member of the Koshare society...[and] the valued informant for several generations of anthropologists: Bandelier, Curtis and Benedict" (Babcock in Turner 1982:70, note 23). Her first "storyteller" was based on her grandfather, and had five children on his lap, but soon Helen was making pieces that had 30 or more tiny children clinging and climbing all over the storyteller (Babcock, Monthan and Monthan 1988:21-23).
Helen's storytellers were distinctive from singing mothers because they were male and had more children listening to the adult. She added closed eyes-as if the storyteller were planning his next words (Babcock, Monthan and Monthan 1988:24). Helen thought of her storyteller figures as male because among the Cochiti it is the men who are the sto- rytellers, not the women (Babcock in Turner 1982:70, note 24). The term "storytellers" is now commonly applied to all such figures, regardless of gender. Helen's happy memories of her grandfather became the inspiration for many storyteller figures, and sparked a Cochiti Pueblo effigy tradition. There are many types of Cochiti figures made today, perhaps the most famous are those made with sophisticated flair by Virgil Ortiz (born 1969).
Damacia Cordero's exceptional figure is lively yet stopped in time, as if in the midst of sharing a great verse. Damacia was introduced to pottery around 1920, learning from her mother, Lucinda Suina. Damacia made singing mothers prior to Helen's breakthrough, and she joined the ranks of story- teller creators in the 1970s (Babcock, Monthan and Monthan 1988:42, 128). Although both employed the same rolled-coil method, Damacia's work differs from Helen's in that her figures have a smokier, more venerable look resulting from her outdoor firing technique (Hayes and Blom 1996:60). Most storyteller figures have a smoothed slip coating with distinct polychrome painting. On this figure, the outdoor firing plays up a semi-rough texture, adding to the illusion of age. Overall, Damacia's figures have upturned faces, with a forward, eager posture. Babcock, Monthan and Monthan have described them as distinguished by minimal modeling of the children, and by "their straight, elongated torsos; long, arched noses that extend from the hairline; and protruding ears, exaggerated to the point of resembling fins or wings" (Babcock, Monthan and Monthan 1988:43).
Damacia's figure is emotionally evocative, even for those outside the Cochiti community. Looking at it leads the observer to wonder about the prayer or story being told, the traditions being passed on, and the histories being solidified for future generations.
-Erica Aten (Augustana 2012) AR-343, and Kaitlyn Babicz (Augustana 2010) AR-343
Damacia Cordero (1905–1989, Cochiti, New Mexico), Female Storyteller, with fire clouds, guaco and mineral paints on cream slip, n.d. Ceramic, hand formed and outdoor fired, The Olson-Brandelle North American Indian Art Collection, Augustana College, (19-265 COC) 2005.1.19