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Storyteller dolls express tradition.

Our school was in the middle of a month-long focus on Native American Indian art and culture. The main showcase was filled with artifacts indigenous to various tribes, and many speakers and artisans had visited our classrooms. I was looking for a three-dimensional project that my fifth grade art classes could explore. My first thought was to have students create their own versions of the colorful Kachina dolls I had seen displayed. However, when I mentioned Kachina dolls to the teacher who was coordinating the program, she discouraged me. "Kachinas are regarded as intermediaries between the spirit world and man," she explained. "It is looked on as a sacrilege for non-Indians to make three-dimensional representations." We both felt that respecting the traditions of the culture we were examining was essential to the success of the program. Being a very knowledgeable as well as sensitive coordinator, Ms. Braverman promised to help me find another project. The very next day she brought in a book by Barbara A. Babcock and Guy and Doris Monthan called The Pueblo Storyteller.

Working with clay and telling stories are two time-honored American Indian traditions. In the early 1960s, several artists began merging these traditions into a new art form by creating images of seated storytellers with small children clustered around them. These "little people" have become world-famous collector's items. A few elements are common to most of the dolls. The large figure, no more than 12" (30 cm) high, usually has closed eyes and an open mouth, and wears traditional clothing patterns and jewelry motifs. Squash blossom necklaces, moccasins and hair tied in butterfly knots are common. Some storytellers have as many as thirty children modeled around them.

I knew the children would be inspired by the wonderful illustrations in the storyteller book, but I was uncertain about the material to use. I wanted the students to experience the joy and freedom of modeling, without the frustrations which often accompany building, drying, firing and glazing clay. I decided to use plasticine. It is available in a rich array of colors and is simple to work with. I divided one pound sticks into eight small cubes, and put a variety of colors on a tray which I set in the center of each of the six long tables in our artroom. Plastic carving sticks and some toothpicks were the only tools provided.

My introduction was brief. I showed a number of illustrations and explained the concept of the storyteller doll and how they were links in the chain of Pueblo culture. The students were instructed to make two attached figures. A larger figure should be telling a story to a smaller one.

Within moments there was an explosion of creativity in the classroom as the little cubes of peach and turquoise clay took on a life of their own. The children's attention to detail was impressive. The figures were embellished with earrings, ribbons, sunglasses and sneakers. There were and reclining on lounge chairs. There were rabbit and penguin figures as well as a family of boa constrictors. The scale of the figures was often charming. The larger figure sometimes measured 3" (8 cm), while the smaller figure was no bigger than a pea. Of the more than 175 students who participated in the project, no two storytellers were the same. Every child had an original idea and executed it successfully.

I filled an 8' x 4' (244 cm x 122 cm) showcase in the hallway of our arts wing with our storyteller dolls. Everyone who saw them, loved them and wanted to know more about what they represented and how they were made. It provided my students not only an opportunity to display their talent but to pass on newfound knowledge.

The enthusiasm of the children, the quality of the finished product and the respect for Native American Indian culture expressed in the work made this a most memorable and rewarding project.

Inez Okrent teaches elementary art at Haven School District 65, Evanston, Illinois.
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Title Annotation:making Pueblo Indian storyteller dolls
Author:Okrent, Inez
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1991
Previous Article:African-American art.
Next Article:American folk art in the classroom.

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