Patrociño Barela, Carver

Recounting the life of Taos woodcarver Patrociño Barela.

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It has been said that Patrociño Barela became a Santero during an inspired night in 1931. His stylized and distorted forms carved from cedar or pine have been called the best of primitivism, or, viewed somewhat differently, the finest of self-taught modernism. His technique didn't come from study or training but rather from innate ability; and what Patrociño created was indeed, true art. In the words of Patrociñoo's biographer, David Witt, great art, art with a spiritual basis cannot be defined—or confined—with much surety.

The life of Patrociño Barela, like the carvings he made, is a little mysterious, a little sad. According to Barela, he was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1908, although some writers have placed his birth as early as 1900. He probably came to Taos County around 1911, yet WPA Federal Art Project records claim he was found wandering in Denver when a young boy. Those same WPA documents recorded that his mother died during his infancy, but Barela told others that he was four when his mother died. We do know that school never "took" with Pat. He would not, or could not, learn to read or write.

Barela carvings

Patrociño Barela
Cedar Woodcarvings
1938-1941

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 Taos.

Red Crane Books of Santa Fe has published a major biography of Patrocino Barela — Spirit Ascendant: The Art and Life of Patrocino Barela remote 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.


Thanks to Stephen Parks, writer and owner of the Parks Gallery remote in Taos
and to David L. Witt.

Photograph courtesy of The Harwood Museum of Art remote Taos, New Mexico.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 8


Related Pages

Beauty and the Best: Millicent Rogers Museum article
Hispanic Arts and Crafts Tour of Northern NM article
The National Hispanic Cultural Center of NM article
New Mexican Furniture Through Time article

Marco Oviedo, Carver article
Santos of New Mexico: A 400 Year Tradition article
Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article
Straw Art in New Mexico article


Collector’s Resources

Peter Eller Fine Art & Appraisers rem By Appointment Only | 505-268-7437

Santa Fe

Castillo Gallery | 505-351-4067
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art rem 750 Camino Lejo on Museum Hill | 505-982-2226
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244

Taos

Harwood Museum of Art | 575-758-9826
Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462

RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED September 24, 2007

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