Both the act of telling a story and the story being told are depicted through textiles, paintings and, yes, Native American ceramic storytellers in a new exhibition at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos.
It’s one of a series of exhibitions as part of this year’s 60th anniversary in which curators will be digging through the collections vault and bringing out works that haven’t seen the light of day in many years, according to Caroline Jean Fernald, executive director.
“Some of the watercolors have never been exhibited – they hadn’t been framed,” she said.
Storytellers: Teaching Heritage through Song and Story, which will be on view through July 17, is focused on traditional storytelling in northern New Mexico’s Hispanic and Native American cultures.
It originally was envisioned to include only the c eramic storyteller figures that grew up around the tourist trade to New Mexico’s pueblos, but Fernald said she expanded it to take in other art forms, resulting in a show of about 60 pieces.
Of course, those ceramic storytellers are a big part of it.
Before the tourist trade, most pottery among the pueblos was functional and often larger than would be convenient for tourists to take home with them from their trip, she said. Representational figures, such as a parrot, were made before then, but usually in the context of the shape forming a pitcher, bowl or other useful item.
Around 1900, some of the new-style figurines began to appear, starting with rough-hewn, gray, fragile “rain gods” from Tesuque Pueblo, according to Fernald. But the so-called gods weren’t really devotional objects – they simply were made to play into visitors’ assumptions of what Native American religion would involve, she said.
Cochiti Pueblo artists started producing figurines around the same time, many of them inspired by the outlandish characters – a bearded lady, a muscleman – seen with circus trains that toured through the Southwest, Fernald said.
But what really launched the storyteller phase was when Helen Cordero (Cochiti) started producing figures in the late 1950s of a grandfather or grandmother sitting with small children piled up on their lap. “She found it challenging to see how many tiny children she could pile on,” Fernald said. “They were really finely made.”
Other pueblos picked up the popular image, but often offering their own twist on the style – Zuni artists, for example, often depicted an owl with tiny owlets clinging to it, she said. At Taos Pueblo, the makers used the sparkly micaceous clay for the figurines, thus being less interested in painting them in the vibrant colors used other places.
The textiles included in the show are all pictorial, showing people, animals and scenes from daily life, but will represent two different types: the Hispanic embroidered colcha style and Navajo weavings.
A couple of the colcha pieces have particular local importance, coming from two sisters who lived at Carson in southwestern Taos County, Frances and Sophia Graves. They took old colcha pieces that were falling apart and, using the very old fabric, embroidered scenes from their own lives, including a wagon train traveling to the Southwest and a Native American attack on a wagon train, Fernald said. They also depicted a number of native plants in their embroidery, some of which were used for dyes in local textiles, she said.
The Navajo textiles incorporate “observations about daily life and the continuity of Navajo culture,” Fernald said, adding that many combine the traditional and the modern. A woman in traditional dress might be pictured with a modern vehicle, for instance.
“The paintings included as part of the exhibit were selected on the basis of their narrative quality – they would not require a lot of interpretation,” Fernald said, adding that they date from the 1930s to today. Those that will get some interpretation for non-local visitors, she said, include depictions of a matachines dance and a Penitente ceremonial procession on Good Friday.
“We have people on the staff involved in the (Penitente) community who approved the script of how the painting was explained,” she added.
Fernald, who said she came on board as museum director at the end of January, said she hopes to attract more visitors from northern New Mexico’s Hispanic and Native cultures.
“Anglo-American senior citizens are our bread and butter,” she said. “I want to work hard to try to expand that.”
She’s hoping some of the activities tied to the exhibition will help, including children’s story time at 1 p.m. April 9 and May 14, but especially a Community Music Day beginning at 1 p.m. April 16, when mariachi musicians and dancers will entertain.