His teacher, Maggie Gusdorf, remembered him
as a "shaggy, shy, uncared-for little animal." Patrociño
dropped out of school and, during the 1920s, he drifted around
the Southwest, working as a sheepherder, coal miner, railroad,
army camp and farm hand, before returning in 1930 to live in
Canon, east of Taos. He married a widow with four children and
they had three children together. It was the following year that
Barela became a Santero. He described it himself in a 1954 interview
with writer Kit Egri contained in the book, Patrociño
Barela, Taos Wood Carver:
"In 1931 I started to carve though I
can't write my whole first name. The first thing I carve is
the Sacred Family. I saw an old santo—all broke. All
joints. I get it into my head—better if it is solid in one
piece. I don't sleep thinking what kind of figure can do it.
On the second day I am hauling dirt with horses and wagon.
The next night I start to do a piece. I work 'til about two
o'clock in the morning. I have faces, arms and then lie down
to sleep. The next night I work more. "
For the next 33 years he worked prolifically.
He carved religious figures and figures of men and women expressing
the complexities of family life. Some of his ideas came from
Bible stories he had heard as a child, others just welled up
from his unconscious. Patrociñoo often said that the subject
of a work was determined by the piece of wood itself, that the
story was already there and his job was to carve away the cover
from it. Each carving told a story, or part of a story. For example,
the story he felt behind his sculpture called Four Figures,
the Same Family, is typical:
"These figures you look at—all
one family. They are father, a mother and two sons. One whole
family. But for sure they are four different minds that cannot
get along. They cannot get along no matter what. The father
or mother decide. This I know in what I see, right or wrong,
in my own days I been passing through."
He worked for the joy of it, for the meaning
it gave his life. He worked despite the fact that most people
in Taos considered him a bit loco."Once, when I was away
from home my wife get sick and her sister tell her it is because
of my carvings stored in our empty house. So my wife sell them." Patrociño
was always poor. Although galleries and agents who recognized
the value and validity of his carvings were eager to handle his
work and provide him with some measure of financial security,
he chose a different path. He peddled pieces as he made them,
carrying them around town wrapped in brown paper.
Patrociño Barela was thin and wiry, standing
barely five feet tall. His face was seamed with wrinkles, his
left hand a mass of scar tissue from the countless times his
sharp chisel slipped. Little Patrociño, who usually carried
a warm smile on his face and the weight of the world on his shoulders,
was in many ways always a little boy. He never developed the
accepted ways of adulthood—using reason and intellect to
make his way in the world. Rather, his life and his art were
ruled by passion and emotion. And as a child escapes into a world
of make-believe, Patrociño drank Tokay wine.
The end came for Patrociño on a cold
night in late October 1964. He had probably come home late, drunk,
fallen asleep and dropped his cigarette onto the resinous cedar
shavings that covered the floor. The workshop burst into flames
that quickly spread to the adjoining woodpile and a nearby garage.
When the intense flames were finally extinguished, firemen found
Patrociño huddled in a corner.
It was a tragic death. But since his death he
has gained the respect of those who once ridiculed him. Perhaps
more important, a whole new generation of wood carvers has benefited
from his example and his genius. That generation includes his
grandson, Luis Barela, whose carvings are imbued with the spirit
of his grandfather.
A fine group of Barela's early sculptures is
displayed in the Harwood Museum of Art on Ledoux Street in
Red Crane Books of Santa Fe has published a
major biography of Patrocino Barela — Spirit
Ascendant: The Art and Life of Patrocino Barela 1996. The authors are Edward Gonzales, an accomplished
painter who resides in Santa Fe; and David L. Witt, a
writer and former curator of the Harwood Museum in Taos. Foreword by Max Evans, introductory essay by Rudolfo
Anaya, photography by Michael O'Shaughnessy and Murrae Haynes.