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  • Storytellers and Singing Mothers: Ceramic Artist Kathleen Wall’s Pueblo Heritage of Pottery

    A woman with dark hair and long dangly earrings concentrates as she forms the face of a clay figure with her hands.

    Kathleen Wall at the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    Photo by Karen Kasmauski, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    When she was twelve years old, Kathleen Wall’s batch of “storyteller” sculptures misfired in her father’s kiln in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, coming out slumped and warped. Still, her father placed them on his office shelf, which more than pleased his daughter.

    “I was super excited that I made them on my own,” she says. “I couldn’t believe I did it. And years later, if they had fired right, I would never have seen them again. I would have never known they existed.”

    Today, the collection is a time capsule, reminding Wall of her cohesive love for Pueblo pottery and her family.

    Storytellers are open-mouthed clay figurines originating from Pueblo Cochiti culture. While some fit in the palm of your hand, they represent something much larger: the preservation of Pueblo oral storytelling traditions through generations. Initially called “singing mothers,” they are often depicted handing down stories and wisdom, surrounded by babies.

    Wall remembers making her first piece when she was eight: her mother made a storyteller’s body, and she formed one of the babies. She learned by observing her mother and grandmother shape pottery at their kitchen table, and when she picked up the clay herself, it felt natural.

    “Many Pueblo kids have the same experience, so my experience is my cousins’. We watch while we’re visiting. We’re constantly seeing these women work pottery, and we absorb this. It’s not so harshly taught to us. It’s in our lifeways.”

    Close-up on an unfired, unglazed clay vase with four smiling figures along the edge.
    Photo by Craig Fergus, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Close-up on an unfired, unglazed clay figure of a woman holding a pot.
    Photo by Craig Fergus, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The practice of Pueblo women potters hasn’t changed very much, Wall explains. It’s a process of learning, teaching, and living with the earth. To collect clay, she brings large plastic buckets and a pickaxe to her favorite spot. It’s where she grew up on the south side of Jemez, an area near Albuquerque with prickly yucca and open views of the sky. Jemez also holds the remnants of a 700-year-old Pueblo village, its adobe walls blending into the desert.

    As Wall dries the damp clay, sieves it through mesh, and forms it into a moldable material, she often reflects on her upbringing. Her artwork is different from her mother and grandmother, but she still pays homage to them.

    “I don’t feel as though I have embodied their style so much. Definitely their color palette and mentality. My stuff is very different, but I think this allows me to not only give thanks to what they’ve given me, but to share some knowledge of my journey through their perspective.”

    During her 2016 artist residency at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, Wall honored her genealogy in an experimental way. Many Pueblo people are named for their geographic location, such as Wall’s grandfather Kal la, whose name alludes to a hill on the west side of her family’s village. For her project, Wall made sculptures of people with their landscape namesake painted behind them. 

    “I think that experience was one of the best ever. I got to really acknowledge our language and how we’re so connected to our language and our land, and it’s cohesive. It’s together. It’s just so neat how the things that we love so much, we end up naming our children.”

    A woman forms one of four spouts on a light brown clay jug shape.
    Photo by Mark C. Young, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Wall is a mother now, and her three children inspire her art and her teaching. Although they haven’t yet decided if they will take on pottery, they all grew up in her studio, learning the same way she did: through natural absorption. Wall concludes that she, too, is deserving of the title storyteller.

    “So much of my work does tell a story, and it’s not through sitting down and holding a bunch of babies anymore. It’s me talking about my work. In that sense, it’s contemporary now, but it is definitely derived from Pueblo culture and those traditions.”

    Wall was celebrated as the 2020 Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s Living Treasure and has exhibited her work at many galleries, including the Yale University Art Gallery. She wants to continue teaching Pueblo pottery with traditional methods and contemporary results. Her sculptures now are large, rounded, and have vibrant green stripes to represent the colorful body paint used by storytellers in Pueblo communities. While some figurines still teach babies, others smile on their own.

    As Wall embraces a long lineage of clay, she feels connected to her family and her own roots in New Mexico.

    “That’s the thing about Pueblo pottery: even though you’re away from it, even though you’re not completely with your people or your tribe, it’s something in you, and it’s very gratifying. And I really like to encourage all Native people to get with the clay that they live near. Just start making pottery wherever you are. It feels so good.”

    At the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Wall and her family are demonstrating the traditional Pueblo process of pottery making.

    “The whole idea of the exhibit is a sneak peek into the daily creative practice of Pueblo women,” she says. “I’m really happy my family gets to express their point of view, because usually it’s just me at the forefront, but my family is such a big part of my art.”

    A woman forms one of four spouts on a light brown clay jug shape.
    At the Festival, Wall is accompanied by her children and partner.
    Photo by Josue Castilleja, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Eowyn Stewart is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She recently graduated with an English major and a minor in art history, and she is interested in creative writing and anthropology.

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