Storyteller Figures from the American Southwest

Classroom Activities

This learning activity is broken down into four stages: planning the sculpture, constructing it, adding color details and a topcoat and self-assessment. 

Specific steps are determined by the type of clay used as some clays must be fired in a kiln in order to harden them and other clays are self-hardening. The type of clay used then determines the medium used to add color details. Terracotta or white clay that is to be fired in the kiln can be underglazed and then topcoated with clear gloss glaze or it can be painted with any kind of paint - watercolors work particularly well. Glazed pieces must be fired in the kiln for the glaze to become permanent and, perhaps, glossy. Self-hardening clay should be painted with tempera or watercolor paints. Self-hardening clay should not be fired.

Activity plan - Terracotta Clay Figures (See below for modifications for self-hardening clay)

Day 1 - Introduction and planning

  • Teacher - Tell about Helen Cordero and her innovative application of traditional clay figurines, inspired by her grandfather. Show examples. Ask students to think about people who have been important to them, i.e. family members, teachers, community members. Download, print, and distribute the Planning Document for Storytellers. Access the pdf document by clicking here.
  • Students choose a person who has been important to them in some way and sketch ideas for a figural sculpture that refers to that person somehow - keeping in mind the format of Helen Cordero's storyteller figurines (one large figure with smaller attached figures).

Day 2 - Construction of large figure/main character - The Storyteller

  • Setup - Cover the work tables with newspaper or old sheets. Put out dishes of water and clay tools. I prepare a 3" ball of clay for the students to start with, and then put larger blocks of clay out for the students to get clay as they need more. Prepare large plastic trash bag for storage of artworks (slit one side so you can get the sculptures inside easily).
  • Students get a 3" ball of clay and use their hands to pat out a base for their sculpture. The base should not be thinner than a pencil. They should use pencils or other pointed tools to write their names on the bottom.
  • Teacher - Remind students that clay is a very weak material and that it shrinks about 15% as it dries and is fired, so all clay projects must be made thicker and slightly larger to compensate. Also remind students that they must finish the large figure today. 
  • Teacher - Model all steps of the following procedure and reiterate the importance of the score and slip technique (see below), ensuring successful construction.  Parts not attached well will fall off when they dry, and they usually cannot be reattached. 
  • Students get more clay, and form the large figure first, beginninng with a flattened "fat sausage"-shaped body. Body parts that are thicker than 1" will need to be hollowed out to expedite drying time. Use a pencil or your index finger and do not seal up the hole; instead, hide it under the bottom of the sitting torso.
  • Students roll out two 6" coils, one for the arms and a thicker one for the legs. They bend each coil into a loose "U" shape and attach the arm coil at the top of the body where the neck will be, scoring the clay surfaces by scratching them with a plastic fork or toothpick. They make slip, liquified clay, by rubbing the area with a wet finger.  Slip acts as a "glue."  They jiggle the two parts together until they stick together - they stop "slipping" against each other. The leg coil is attached next, using the same score and slip technique, at the bottom of the body.  They use a fingertip to blend the coils into the body where the shoulders and the legs attach to the body. Last, they roll out a small oval head and attach it (score, slip, jiggle).
  • Students pause to rub a few fingertips of water into the coil arms and legs to keep them moist and workable, and then bend the ends of the legs for feet, bend the legs at the knees, bend hands at the ends of the arms and bend the arms at the elbows.
  • Students experiment with postioning the figure onto the base. Clay is inherently very weak so a sitting position is best for the figurines - very few will be strong enough to stand without falling over. Balance is an important consideration for any sculpture - sitting figures work best leaning slightly forward. If they are off-balance they may fall backwards, always during the night when you are not watching.  Students should score and slip the base and attach their storyteller.
  • Students pinch out a nose, add dots or lines, or both, for eyes, poke in a pencil to make the open mouth (this also helps the head dry faster), and then add other details such as textured hair and clothing (pockets, short sleeves, belts), using various tools.

This is as far as I usually get in a 45-minute art period. Students place their sculpture onto a slit open trash bag already set up on a remote table (you can't move it once the sculptures are inside), and drape one damp paper towel over it. We tape the bag closed, and I open it up and spray the sculptures with water every day until the next class. Students must finish the main figure in the first class. Over the seven days between the classes, the water will condense on the bag and the figures will harden enough that they are no longer flexible.

Classes with longer art periods can continue on - forming the listeners, skipping the bagging procedure.

Day 3 - Forming the listeners 

  • Students construct the smaller figures - the listeners - using a different method, pinching and cutting the head and limbs from one piece of clay.  First they roll a grape-sized lump of clay into an oval, then roll one end between their fingers to make a pear shape. They flatten the wide end of the pear slightly, to obtain a paddle shape.  The handle of the paddle (narrow part) is the head. Using a clay tool or popsicle stick, they make three short cuts in the wide end of the paddle to get the arms and legs.  They can also use a tool to define the shape of the neck and chin.  They roll and smooth the arms legs and head and then add eyes, hair and other details.  Details can alternatively be painted in with underglaze later.
  • Students experiment with where to add the listeners, draping and twining them around the large figure is best, then students use the score and slip technique to attach each listener. If the large figure is stiff - leather hard - it is best to have the listeners wrap their arms around the main character's neck, arms or legs. That way, even if the listeners don't stick well (you cannot stick wet clay to drier clay, it just won't work) they will stay on. Another strategy is to attach the listeners to the base around the large figure or to not attach them at all, but this presents issues with knowing whose is whose - too many loose tiny figures with no names on them. Glazing under the figures will stick them to the base after the sculpture is fired, or you can attach them with the gel medium if you are not glazing.
  • Students continue to form and add listeners, following the same procedure. Last, they add details that will support their theme - the person in their life who inspired this sculpture.

Finished sculptures need to dry slowly or they may crack. Group them together and gently lay a sheet of newspaper over the whole mass for a few days. They will need at least a week to dry, maybe more, depending on their thickness.

Clay artworks must be bone dry before they can be fired. To check this, hold one up to your cheek, or inner arm - it should feel room temperature. If it feels cool it is still damp inside - wait another few days to fire.  Moisture turns to steam at the high temperatures in a kiln, and the faster moving steam molecules make the work explode - this is bad. (Same process that pops corn.)

Day 4 - Underglaze details and glaze topcoat on fired works - bisque ware.

  • Setup - Cover the work tables with newspaper. Put out dishes of water, small and medium size brushes and underglaze sets. Stage dishes of clear glaze and large brushes off to the side. Prepare a spot for glazed works to dry. Not glazing?  Put out paints, brushes and dishes of gloss medium.
  • Teacher - Show examples again switching the focus to glazing, and demonstrate the application of underglaze and clear glaze topcoat.  Goal - adding underglaze details while leaving a lot of the terracotta clay body showing. Stroke on the underglaze until you get the desired intensity of color. Two coats of clear glaze should be applied after the underglaze has dried; the first coat must dry before the second is applied. 
  • Students add underglaze details such as hair, clothing, shoes, jewelry.
  • Students paint on two layers of clear transparent glaze, trying to avoid getting glaze on the bottom of the base. They take glazed works to designated spot for drying.

Load the kiln and fire when the pieces feel dry to the touch.

Activity plan - Modifications for Self-Hardening Clay

Self-hardening clay does not stick to itself well - very often the parts drop off as they dry or with the slightest pressure, so additive sculpture, adding on parts, is problematic with this material. 

A good, workable strategy to get around this problem is to model the figures out of one lump of clay - see example on the right.

  • Students make the base as above and label it. They get another 3" ball of clay, a small handful, and form first a ball, then an oval, then a pear. They flatten the wide part of the pear to form the paddle shape. They cut into the paddle to separate arms and legs from the torso. Then they refine the body parts, bend knees, feet, hands and elbows. They pinch out a nose, add dots or lines, or both, for eyes, poke in a pencil to make the open mouth (this also helps the head dry), and then draw on other details such as scratched textured hair and clothing (pockets, short sleeves, belts), using various tools.
  • Listeners can be made the same way using smaller amounts of clay. Sit them on the base or in the arms of the larger figure, or wrap them around the arms, legs and neck of the larger figure. White glue will work with this clay, and can be a good backup material for attaching dry loose parts.
  • Clay sculptures should be placed somewhere to dry. When dry, they can be painted with water based paints, trying not to soak them too much with water. After this dries, they can be topcoated/sealed with gloss medium.

Self Assessment of Clay Figures

Students will next assess their work with the aid of the Self Assessment Document. To download the document so you can print and distribute it, click here.