Teller family pottery
Legendary potter Stella Teller sits in her studio connected to her Isleta Pueblo home, her smooth, almost clay-like hands working agilely on an un-fired Navajo storyteller doll.
Beautifully lit by soft autumn light from the many large windows that overlook neighboring alfalfa fields and her apple trees, are a breathtaking collection of the 83-year-old artist’s pots, vessels and trademark storyteller dolls.
The joyful faces of little clay matriarchs meet the gaze from every corner, their mouths opening like blooming flowers, eyes closed like crescent moons, a chorus of clay children at their lap, all caught in a moment of story. The atmosphere is peaceful, feminine, thick with the gentle energy of creation.
Stella, who comes from a long linage of potters, explains that pueblo people have always made pottery, but historically it was for household use and has only gained fine art status in the last century or so.
In 1904, her grandmother traveled to the World’s Fair in St. Louis to demonstrate pottery making.
“I grew up with pottery making,” says Stella. “My mother, my grandmothers from both sides of the family worked in clay. That’s how they used to make their living.
“They used to take their things to the train station to sell. And when I was about 8 years old, I was part of the process which would be the sanding, slipping and shining of the pieces,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to play with the clay or paint.”
But it wasn’t until the 1960s, when she was in her 30s, that Stella decided to begin making her own clay and experimenting with pottery making as a way to supplement her income as a hairdresser. By the ’70s, she was working as a potter full time. Today, Stella is mother to four potters, Robin Teller, Chris Teller, Mona Teller and Lynette Teller.
Though the name Teller leads some people to believe Stella was the first to invent the storyteller doll, she says it was actually a Cochiti Pueblo woman in 1964, named Helen Cordero, who made the first storyteller.
Corder made the first doll, a male storyteller, to honor her grandfather who was the community’s storyteller. The dolls caught on and today, says Stella, each pueblo, and even each artist, have their own style.
For pueblos, she says, storytelling is vital to cultural preservation, which is why the dolls are so significant.
“Everything we learn is verbally. We do not have an alphabet, so that’s how we learn about everything is through stories,” she says. “As you grow up and hear all these stories, it just touches a part of your heart and everything that we do, a little bit of our heart goes into it …
“As Native Americans, we share stories and we all feel the same way, everything we do comes from the heart.”
“Our tradition is not written anywhere, so everything that we learn from our daily way of living, to the culture and tradition itself, is passed down through the oral method — storytelling,” adds her eldest daughter Robin.
“So over the years, each pueblo created its own particular style of storytellers, from human form to animal form, because that is the way the animals also pass down and teach their offspring.”
For Robin and Stella both, the stories that the dolls represent can come from day-to-day life, such as the Navajo dolls in which they incorporate rugs and lambs because those are part of Navajo culture.
The stories may also come from experiences that the artists have had, or from the way they have been taught to interpret their world.
“They’re stories that come to mind, they’re shared experiences from our past as far as our upbringing, our culture, our experience with friends, any type of life experience is what we try to express in our pieces,” says Robin. “Because as human beings I feel we tend to be so caught up in our every day lives that we tend to forget that we share similar experiences.”
On display in Robin’s home is a doll that she calls her “Spiritual Mother.” It is an elaborate piece with about 31 children and a plethora of animals, including a fox, dolphin, serpent, ram, eagle, cougar, bear, badger, butterfly and dragonfly climbing on a large female deity.
Also included in the piece is a bowl, representative of the sacred womb, and a ladder which symbolizes the journey our spirits take to learn compassion and empathy, which is, says Robin, what you take with you.
Painted on the back of the doll’s shawl is a mountain scene of Yosemite representative of the physical and spiritual environment.
“She takes on that physical form. In my imagination, that is what she looks like to me, our Spiritual Mother,” says Robin, adding, “each of the little children represents different versions of ourselves.”
The piece, says Robin, is to pay homage and appreciation for the cycle of life so it will continue. The piece itself took six months to complete.
All the potters of the Teller family use the same materials — hand-dug clay and natural pigment paints — but it is how they use them that differentiates their individual artistic styles.
The primary colors are red, black and white, with the red and white being the color of the clay itself and black being a dye made from bee-weed.
From those primary color sources, Robin was able to mix and achieve all the varying colors of her “Spiritual Mother” piece. She says she can make up to 15 shades of color from the primaries, but her mother mainly uses seven or eight colors.
Like her mother, Robin also came to pottery later in life. She says her younger sister, Lynette, is the “clay maker” of the family and at one point, when Robin was between jobs, her sister brought her a bag of clay and told her to “get to work, and that was it.”
“The storyteller craze has dwindled down a little bit, because everybody wanted a storyteller back in the ’90s,” says Robin. “But it’s still a form of expression for us, so it’s not something we’re just going to put to the side, it’ll be something that we’ll continue with our particular family.”
For more information on the Teller family potters, visit their website at www.tellerfamilypottery.com.
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