From red rocks to white hills and green fields, this is the place where Towa words ride the wind, reaching the ears of corn along the Jemez River, and the ears of the Walatowa people. Growing up in Jemez Pueblo with a love for art and words, how could Carol Lucero Gachupin not be destined to create storytellers?
Inspired by memories of her grandfather telling stories around the fire and dinner table, Carol specializes in storyteller figures made from hand-gathered clay and natural pigments, and recently gave a demonstration at Shumakolowa Native Arts, located inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
At the largest turnout for an artist demo to date, Carol made a storyteller while answering questions from the audience, and passed around pottery-making materials in their different stages – sticky, crumbly, gritty, fine, smooth – creating a sensory experience that helped observers connect with the tradition and skill of Pueblo pottery. She also provided attendees with a special gift – a pottery ornament with their name on it.
Carol says that people have a greater appreciation for the work that goes into traditional pottery-making after a demo. “It seems like they take more appreciation for how it’s made, and the value of it, the amount of time consumed from forming it, and mixing the clay. When you get the clay, dig it out, it’s like pure chocolate – it’s red earth clay. You have to let it dry, and then grind it, and then sift it to get all the roots and rocks out of it, and then you mix it with the white clay. When you do the red clay by itself, it’s so moist and so sticky that you can’t form it, so you have to use this other white mixture, put it together, and it forms the way you want it to form.”
If the red earth clay sounds like a lot of work, Carol also explains what goes into gathering the white clay:
“The white clay is really hard to dig out. It’s way up in the mountains, and when you go there, it’s kind of like a cave, and you have to go with someone because sometimes that whole thing can come down. If it’s already caved in, I just try to go a little ways in, and then try to dig, and take it out. Then I put it in buckets, or I take my sifter and sift it there, clean it.”
The red clay and white clay can only be gathered during the warmer months, as the ground is too hard in the winter. Many of the pigments are plant-based, and only grow at certain times of the year. This limited availability is a good reminder to appreciate what is around us at any given time. Carol says, “Everything is always a gift to us, from our spirits, from Mother Earth, that we’re blessed with our clay and our paints.”
Carol has refined her demonstration skills over the years, getting her start at the Portal Native American Artisans Program at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. She has traveled to Arizona, Colorado, California, and Florida to provide demonstrations. It’s a process that Carol enjoys.
“I like showing people what you can form from a clay. I would tell them every piece is always special, like you always get attached to a certain one, like maybe it looks like this person, or this one looks like me, or my grandma or my grandpa. You just get so attached to a certain one, and it’s really nice for people to know what you make from the ground. We have to dig our clay out, and we don’t just dig it out, we pray. We pray first before we dig our clay, and ask Mother Earth, because we’re so blessed that we have this clay, that we could form something with it, and make a living with it. Even our paints were all gifted, so we even pray with that, too.”
In addition to following her inspiration and creative ideas, Carol creates a range of custom pieces by request, including once making a Shriner storyteller for a retiring Shriner. In 2017, she was commissioned by the Missouri State University Museum of Anthropology in to create a giant storyteller for permanent exhibit at Mizzou North.
With all of her success now, you may be wondering where Carol got her start. She loved to draw as a kid, and attended drawing classes after school led by renowned artist Alfred “Al” Momaday, father of N. Scott Momaday, Ph.D., the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature. This early exposure is likely a factor in the highly creative and detailed painting on her storytellers and other figures.
Carol learned the art of pottery from her mother, Margaret Lucero, and acclaimed pottery artist Marie Romero. She learned from Romero while assisting her in a program teaching pottery-making to children. Her first piece was a wedding vase, but she soon moved into making storytellers.
As the years went by, she started forming Nativity scenes, and bears, cats, and frogs. “Every time you come up with a new idea, a new piece that you want to work with, it’s just a constant learning thing. Every day, every year, you learn something new or you find something, another paint, and think, ‘I didn’t know I could mix these two together.’”
Does Carol feel it’s important to involve kids in these traditional crafts for reasons beyond just keeping them occupied? “Yes, it’s very important, because as I was growing up I loved art and it’s good to keep it in our tradition. Weaving, pottery-making, sewing – all that stuff – we really need it in our village. Since we have all those materials that we were blessed with, it’s really nice to have younger kids learn from it, too.”
"Spring Maiden" by Carol Lucero Gachupin commissioned for the University of Missouri's Museum of Anthropology at Mizzou North. Photo by Timothy Tai.
Carol says planting the seeds of tradition at a young age is important, as it establishes a connection that they can return to later. “Yeah, you want to go out in the world and get a job, do this and that, but you want to come back home, knowing the fact that we’re still strong and can go back to our tradition, our pottery-making, our sewing, our weaving, or even our dances – everything – that’s really important to our people. I think our traditions are more important than anything.”
Learn more about Carol and see more of her work HERE >