who is considered by artists and scholars as a pivotal figure in twentieth-century Hispanic New Mexican art, was the first Mexican-American artist to exhibit at theMuseum of Modern Art, in 1936. Born in Bisbee, Arizona, to parents of Mexican descent, Barela moved to Taos, New Mexico, at age four. With little formaleducation (Barela remained illiterate throughout his life), he left home at age eleven to work as a migrant laborer. Returning to Taos in the early 1930s, he married andsettled in the nearby village of Canon.About 1931, according to local legend, a priest asked Barela to repair a broken wooden
(figure of a saint). Barela felt an immediate affinity with wood and began carving religious images. His works were not typical of the New Mexican
or makers of religious images, whose work replicated centuries-old polychrome prototypes. Barela’s unpainted sculptures, carved mostly from cedar, juniper, or pine, depicted traditional biblical and secular themes in an original manner that encompassed primitive, expressionist, and surrealist styles. As a matter of practicality, he created his carvings from single pieces of wood so that their appendageswould not break off.Barela’s subject matter, however, was not limited to religion. He delved deeply into the gamut of human feeling and experience, from a newborn child in a mother’stender embrace to a crippled old man hobbling toward death. He confronted personal hardships, including his longtime struggle with alcoholism, in stark, honest, oftenstartling images that addressed the complex web of his family dynamics. Many works are fixed in positions of entanglement or embrace, emphasizing the struggles of thehuman condition. Though usually fewer than eighteen inches tall, his stylized, distorted forms have a nevertheless monumental physical and emotional impact.In 1935 Barela’s work caught the eye of Holger Cahill, the director of the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration, who gave him a job. In1936 Barela’s work was included in an FAP show at the Museum of Modern Art, and his sophisticated, contemporary style was acclaimed by art critics nationwide.The press referred to Barela as a native Henry Moore, comparing his sculptures to the primitive art of Africa, Oceania, and Easter Island.
magazine deemedBarela “the discovery of the year.”Barela worked with the FAP until 1944, while his work was shown and added to permanent collections nationwide. Even Henry Moore was said to have collectedhis work. Barela, however, remained in Canon, selling his sculptures for small amounts of cash. He continued to nurture his modern vision with hundreds of sculptures, breaking further and further away from the
tradition that inspired his career.Sadly, many at home viewed Barela as little more than an illiterate alcoholic throughout his life. That changed after the artist’s death in a studio fire, as a newgeneration of Hispanic New Mexican artists adopted Barela as an artistic role model. In the twenty-first century, Barela’s works are valuable collector’s items, and hissingular style inspires traditional and contemporary artists alike.
Religious Folk Art; Santeros; Sculpture, Folk
Crews, Mildred, et al.
Patronciñio Barela: Taos Wood Carver.
Taos, N. Mex., 1962.
Gonzales, Edward, and David L.Witt.
Spirit Ascendant: The Art and Life of Patrociño Barela.
Santa Fe, N.Mex., 1996. Nunn, Tey Marianna.
Sin Nombre: Hispana and Hispano Artists of the New Deal Era.
Albuquerque, N.Mex., 2001.