Her Story of Now

Mud Woman Rolls On
Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara, American)

Students will tell a story or recount an experience that they believe has importance and relevance to contemporary society and their community. Students will support their opinion with appropriate information and follow an age-appropriate writing process.

Intended Age Group
Elementary (grades K-5)
Standards Area
Language Arts
Lesson Length
Two 50 minute lessons

Students will be able to:

  • interpret information and draw conclusions about a work of art;
  • identify important issues surrounding current events in their lives or their community;
  • recall elements of a story structure;
  • use details to support a main idea;
  • use a multistep writing process; and
  • invent and create a story to share with an audience.


  1. Show students images of Mud Woman Rolls On and ask them to describe what they see. Ask if they can guess what materials were used to make the sculpture. Share pertinent background information with students from the About the Art section.
  2. Share that this work of art is inspired by Pueblo storyteller figures, which are an art form associated with the artist’s region and culture of the American Southwest, specifically the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. You might ask students to locate this area on a map and discuss if they have ever been there or have a connection with this part of the United States.
  3. Ask students what they think this work of art is about. Point out that Mud Woman Rolls On has four children cradled in her lap. Invite students to imagine what this mother may be sharing with her children.
  4. Roxanne Swentzell wanted to use this work of art to tell a story to all of its viewers, the story of how all generations are connected and how all human beings are connected to a larger human experience. She believes that this is a story that very much needs telling at this time. Help students brainstorm as a class or in small groups to come up with examples of this human connectedness and why now is a good time to tell this story.
  5. Ask each student to write a story that they feel needs to be told now. It could be something inspired by their interpretations of Mud Woman Rolls On or by the discussion they had about human connectedness. Research shows that students are more engaged when they feel invested in what they are doing. This can be achieved by allowing students to give examples of compelling stories or tell a story that is personal or from their own family or ancestry. Or, students could recount an experience that was meaningful for them and that they feel is important to share now. Maybe students feel they should share a story about environmental concerns, safety, or any recent event they feel is important to discuss.
  6. Students should follow a writing process appropriate to their age and level of ability, such as the following: prewriting, which could include brainstorming or making a list; writing a rough draft, paying attention to composition rules; editing; revising; and writing a final draft. Provide scaffolding as needed for students to feel successful. All students have a story to tell and shouldn’t feel limited by language acquisition or developmental issues. Younger students might need to tell their story to a scribe or simply draw their story in pictures. Students should include all parts of a story, such as characterization, a setting, a plot, and descriptive details that support the main theme of the story.

Day 2

  1. Provide time for students to complete their stories as needed.
  2. When finished, students should share their stories. They could read them aloud to each other or display them on a bulletin board. You might consider inviting parents in for a special story time where the students read stories to their parents. Students should use agreed-upon rules for discussions and carry out the appropriate role of speaker or audience member.


  • About the Art section on Mud Woman Rolls On (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • Color copies of Mud Woman Rolls On for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • Optional: Map of the United States
  • Pencils and/or other writing implements
  • Lined paper for writing
  • Access to a word processor


CO Standards
  • Social Studies
    • History
    • Geography
  • Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals and themes
  • Understand people and their relationship with geography and their environment
  • Visual Arts
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Mud Woman Rolls On

Roxanne Swentzell, Santa Clara, American, 1962-
Born: Taos, NM
Work Locations: New Mexico
About the Artist

Roxanne Swentzell was born in Taos, New Mexico in 1962. Her mother was a potter, writer, and scholar from Santa Clara Pueblo, and her father was a New Jersey native of German descent who was a philosophy professor in Santa Fe. Growing up in Santa Fe, in a household that was filled with clay and artwork, Roxanne took to art-making at an early age. As a child, she struggled to express herself verbally. In order to let others know how she was feeling, she would sculpt small figures that represented her emotions.

Roxanne attributes much of her success to guidance from her family, particularly her mother, Rina, and her uncle, Michael Naranjo, a blind sculptor. From 1978-1980, before graduating high school, she attended the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Today, she spends much of her time at Tower Studio, twelve miles north of Santa Fe. Continuing her interests in nature and preserving the earth, Swentzell founded the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, “a research and education organization that relates to permaculture…a way of looking at the world based on the laws of nature.”

Swentzell believes that it is extremely important for her work to have a direct connection with reality. Her art must be a full expression of herself and her experiences and observations of life. She says, “I learned to listen to myself and not be so influenced by what other people wanted me to make. I am going to present the world through my eyes—and not as somebody told me I was supposed to.” She also aims to communicate with all people through her artwork—both Native and non-Native—about the things we share as humans. “With my sculptures I try to reach people’s emotions so they can remember themselves,” says Swentzell.

What Inspired It

Artist’s Statement on Mud Woman Rolls On, written by Roxanne Swentzell:

I propose creating a piece that is made from different forms of “mud.” A large female figure holds a few smaller figures (her children). This style of figure is known as a Storyteller. Pueblo Storytellers are about how knowledge is passed down through generations.

This piece is telling us a story; a story about generations and our connection to the Earth.

When asked to create a piece for the entrance of the Native American Exhibit section of the Denver Art Museum, I wanted to start the viewer off with a perspective of Earth and Mother. Having a “Mother” made of mud/clay starts the exhibit off in an appropriate beginning to our Native world. To have human figures made of clay is in itself part of the theme. We are all from this Mother, all from this Earth: made of her and will return to her.

The Storyteller will be in the form of generations. The Mother holds the largest child, who’s holding the next child, who’s holding the next and so on. I love the perspective of understanding that we all come from the Earth, generation after generation; an endless family of life passing on the seed. (Which itself is a story written into our genes.) We are the mothers of the next generation and the daughters of the last. Male or female........in the Pueblo world, we are “Mothers” (nurturers) of the generations to come in a world that supports life. It is always good to remember…to nurture life, for it is our work now as it was for our parents and ancestors that came before us and it will become the work of our children. When we nurture life, we take care of the Earth and each other so life itself can continue.

I will mix the medium of the piece with raw unfired mud plastered over a basket-like structure with parts of the features sculpted with fired earthenware clay. Some of the mud will have straw in it, and other parts, different clay pigments to create color. I find these different forms very interesting to create as an artist and also I love the thought of creating a piece that could actually melt down into mud if dumped into water. Just as all of us will return to the Earth, so will this Mud Woman one day…purposefully. To create a fine arts piece for a Museum out of raw mud creates a new consciousness in the world of art and links two very different cultures, the Western World with the Native American world. I am very excited to help to make this bridge.

As the “Mother” figure is very large, the children will be more human size. This helps the viewer relate to the Mother as their Mother and the children as themselves. From this perspective the viewer sees their place in creation clearer. They view themselves in the context of generations from the beginning of time into the future, all connected. To hurt one part of the chain of life is to disrupt the flow that nurtures the generations to come. I believe this story is certainly one that needs telling at this time.



Mud Woman Rolls On is a site-specific work of art. The DAM commissioned Roxanne Swentzell to create this piece as part of the opening installation of the new American Indian art galleries on the 3rd floor of the North Building. Roxanne started working on the piece January of 2011 and continued to work for the next nine months, traveling to Denver from New Mexico to work for three or four days straight once or twice a month. Swentzell completed the piece in September 2011.


Panels plastered with clay and enhanced with straw form the backdrop for this piece. The backdrop was created by Roxanne’s sister, Athena Steen, and her husband, Bill Steen. The Steens are authorities on straw bale houses and have created crossover art/architecture pieces for museums, as well as private clients.

Size and Location

Mud Woman is nearly 11 feet tall and located in the elevator lobby of the DAM’s American Indian art gallery. This is a permanent piece in the museum’s collection and the first object a visitor sees when they walk out of the elevator. It was important to Roxanne that this sculpture communicate a feeling of love to the visitors walking into the gallery and that people would be able to relate to the size of the sculpted children, who are being embraced by Mud Woman.

Straw Wattles

Mud Woman Rolls On was Swentzell’s first attempt at creating something larger than life-size. In order to build a structure so large, which would last a long time and support a lot of weight, Swentzell used straw wattles (long tubes of straw used most commonly for erosion control) for the base of the sculpture. Using a straw base is a standard practice for adobe construction and using flexible wattles (instead of rigid, square-shaped straw bales) allowed Swentzell to “coil” the tubes in a way very similar to how she would coil clay. If you look closely, you can see where some straw is still exposed.

Children and Motherhood

Mud Woman is holding four children and, in turn, each of the children are holding one another. This idea of the mother (nurturer) with children around her is based on the Pueblo Storyteller tradition and was an important inspiration for Swentzell. As she explains in her artist’s statement, “Pueblo Storytellers are about how knowledge is passed down through generations.” It is also interesting to note that this project took nine months to complete, the same amount of time it takes for a child to be born.

Different Colors and Types of Mud

The mud (a combination of dirt, sand, straw, and water) used to make this piece comes in a variety of colors. Roxanne Swentzell carefully selected the type of mud to use for each of the figures based on their look and their location. For example, the second smallest child is a grayish green and the dirt used to make the mud that covers this figure came directly from an area behind the train station in downtown Denver. Other mud ingredients were either purchased or dug up from areas surrounding Santa Fe, New Mexico. When looking at the sculpture up close, one can see the subtle sparkle of micaceous clay that covers the surface of the mother figure. All of these examples were meaningful choices made by the artist.

Grass Hair

Swentzell used a variety of different grasses, dyed different colors, for Mud Woman’s hair. This feature emphasizes that Mud Woman is made entirely of organic, natural materials. In this detail, you can see how the ends of the “hair strands” are shafts of grass.


Roxanne Swentzell often infuses her sense of humor into her work. This particular detail shows where Roxanne chose to write her signature. When visitors walk around the piece and find this detail, most think it is delightfully “cheeky.”

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.