Patrociño Barela: I Stand On My Own Feet

Founders Gallery

August 12, 2023 – February 11, 2024

Lee acerca de esta exhibición en Español aquí

The Roswell Museum pays homage to one of the most legendary, yet underrecognized creators of modern art in New Mexico’s history. Patrociño Barela’s short, but prolific, career transforming chunks of wood into abstract sculptures, touching on both spiritual and secular themes, is celebrated in the first of a series of exhibitions exploring the output of groundbreaking artists who made significant artistic contributions to our region. A commonality between Patrociño Barela and the Roswell Museum is our shared connection to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a US federal government agency designed to support the arts during the Great Depression. The creation of the Roswell Museum was financed, in part, from WPA support as a federal art center in 1937. By then, Barela was not only already a WPA artist, he had also already received early acclaim for his WPA-funded sculptures exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the 1996 book Spirit Ascendant: The Life & Art of Patrociño Barela, artist Edward Gonzales and curator David L. Witt wrote about the artist, “A man of humble origins, Barela overcame immense hardships to create some of the most powerful art to come out of New Mexico.” The exhibition Patrociño Barela: I Stand On My Own Feet is on display in the Roswell Museum’s Founders Gallery from August 12, 2023 to February 11, 2024.

Like many details about Barela’s history, his exact date of birth is unclear. Based on many accounts of those who knew him in his lifetime, he’s estimated to have been born in Bisbee, Arizona sometime between the years 1900 and 1904. In the El Palacio magazine winter/spring 1996-1997 article "Patrociño Barela: Expressionist Carver," Carmella M. Padilla explained Barela was born “to Manuel and Julia Barela, an itinerant Mexican laborer and his Mexican-American wife. In 1908, after the deaths of Julia and their infant daughter, Manuel moved Patrociño and his elder brother, Nicolas, north to Taos in what was then the Territory of New Mexico… after arriving in Taos, Manuel turned from sheepherding to a new vocation as a curandero, a traditional herbal healer.” Allegedly, Manuel became sought after for his cures for a range of ailments including burns and gunshot wounds by mixing his own homeopathic remedies with medications commonly available from local drugstores. Padilla continued that Patrociño “was twelve when he packed up a few belongings and left… his first journey came to an end in Denver when he was discovered unconscious by a policeman and placed into foster care. He lived a brief time with an African-American family who taught him some basic English before he continued on his way.” 


Patrociño Barela, Arguments, Circa 1950s, Carved Wood, Anonymous Gift in Honor of Virginia & Edward Lujan, Photograph by Addison Doty, Courtesy of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum.

In a 1956 interview with Lenore G. Marshall for Arts Magazine, Barela shared additional information about his early life and how he got his start with woodcarving: “My daddy he sent me to watch goats in the hills. I go here, there, nine years, dig potatoes, coal mines, work in WPA, haul dirt, ate breakfast, went out. One day the priest showed me old figure of Saint Angelo, broken, he say, ‘Pat you think could be fix?’ I say, ‘Padre, we can try.’ We work all night and fix. That santo was done in joints, pieces put in with pipe. I came home and lay on bed and think how you can make it so it is in one piece. All one. I can not sleep all night. Next day after work I eat supper quick, go out where I got pieces of wood. I choose some with no knots, and I begin with pocket knife. My wife call, you no going to sleep? I no answer her.” 

In a close-looking guide accompanying the display of one of Barela’s sculptures, the Ackland Art Museum explains “Santos are traditional representations of saints or other religious figures usually through wood carvings in the round (bultos)… Barela himself was a self-taught maker of santos. This tradition was brought to the American Southwest by Spanish colonists of the seventeenth century.” Traditionally, bultos are made by joining together multiple pieces of wood that are carved individually and are then painted once assembled. Each of Barela’s bultos are one solid carved piece of wood, such as cedar. Not using paint, most of his sculptures showcase the natural color of the chosen wood as well as any other unique features such as knots. Patrociño Barela’s sculptures are “in the round,” meaning that viewers can only gain an understanding of an object’s full significance by seeing it from multiple angles. 

Barela moved back to the Taos area in 1930. For a short period of time, Barela used his horses and wagon to haul dirt and supplies and other services for the Depression era Federal Emergency Relief Administration before he was offered a unique, albeit lower paid opportunity to pursue his art with the WPA’s Federal Art Program (FAP). Ruth Fish was the first WPA official to recognize Barela’s artistic potential and his good fit with the ethos of the FAP initiative, but it was ultimately Russell Vernon Hunter who made the artist’s participation in the project possible. On October 30, 1935, Hunter was appointed the Director of the New Mexico division of the FAP and he remained in that position for the entire duration of the program until it was discontinued in 1943. Aside from general WPA affiliation, the Roswell Museum and Barela also share direct connections to Hunter. After the end of the WPA, Hunter would later become the Director of the Roswell Museum. In Spirit Ascendant Gonzales and Witt wrote “To introduce the novel concept of government support for the arts, the best Federal Art Project artists were shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Of the thousands employed, 171 artists were selected with 400 works for the museum show. Barela, represented with eight carvings, had more pieces in the show than anyone else.” As a result, Barela’s name and overwhelmingly positive reviews of his work were published in national and regional publications coast-to-coast. “The overwhelming praise for Barela,” Padilla explains, “prompted inquiries to [Russell] Vernon Hunter and Holger Cahill, the national director of the Federal Art Project, from commercial art galleries in New York interested in showing the artist’s work. Because Hunter feared that big city business dealings would intimidate Barela, quashing his artistic integrity and creative spontaneity, he discouraged Cahill against such a move; Cahill agreed. Barela apparently was never apprised of the New York offer, and he was never to be presented with such an opportunity again.” Instead of “protecting” him as they supposedly intended, Barela’s white WPA supporters effectively stole from him any opportunity to support himself financially from his artistic practice in the future. Without financial opportunities to sell his sculptures, Barela returned to itinerant employment to support his family, often away from home, for a period of twelve years. This made it difficult for the artist to devote time to his artistic expression through wood carving.

Archives of American Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons_2_web

Patrociño Barela & son with several sculptures, Circa 1936, Unidentified Photographer, Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid-1950s, three of the strongest supporters of Barela’s artistic practice paid homage to him in a book. Poet Wendell Anderson, poet and printer Judson Crews, and photographer and writer Mildred Tolbert Crews produced the book Patrocinio Barela: Taos Wood Carver. About it Padilla said “All of his life, Barela had been branded with the stigma of being illiterate, but on the pages of the book, and in many other subsequent articles written by Crews, the artist’s words poured out like poetry.” One example provided the inspiration for the title of this 2023-2024 exhibition at the Roswell Museum. Barela is quoted as saying “Before idea come, I got my head, but no use; just sitting, dreaming all (the) time. When I find my head, a notion comes from the air. (This) is where I planted the future for me, which has been the art I discover. I put my right hand to my head, surprised. I stand on my own feet. I didn’t know I had those brains to develop such things as I have discovered for my future, so I planted that tree which you know is straight and full of life.” 

Barela continued creating works and trying to sell them until his final days. His friends and the few local collectors buying his works recalled that he did indeed sell some works directly to galleries in Taos. In many of their opinions, Barela sold his works at prices beneath their actual value, but they also acknowledge this was likely due to dire financial need. On October 23, 1964 in the evening, Barela was carving in the shed he used as a studio that was approximately 100 feet from his family’s modest home. A little after 3:00am the next morning, Padilla explains “a fire had engulfed Barela’s wood-filled work place, consuming the structure, the artist’s tools, and the worn metal bed where Barela slept. There was much speculation about the cause, but whatever the circumstances Barela was dead.” The artist’s eldest son, Luis Barela, Sr. is quoted in Spirit Ascendant as saying “He carved until he died… At the end he couldn’t see very good, but he could feel.” 

Many young artists in the Taos area and beyond came to Barela’s studio while he was still alive, observing how he carved wood and looking up to him as a role model. Padilla has said of these young admirers “Their interest debunks the myth that Barela’s work was not appreciated by his own people, and when he died, praise from them, from other artists, and from art aficionados intensified as everyone remembered that Barela had been an artistic genius living in their midst.” Barela’s legacy can be seen in the work of his grandsons, Luis Barela, Jr. and Carlos E. Barela as well as his great-grandsons, Eric and Daniel Barela. Several contemporary sculptors cite Barela as a major source of inspiration, including José Benjamin Lopez, Luz Martinez, and Luis Tapia, among many others.

The 2023-2024 Roswell Museum exhibition Patrociño Barela: I Stand On My Own Feet is dedicated not only to the artist Barela, but also Edward Gonzales and David L. Witt. Without the immense thoughtfulness, research, and effort they poured into creating the 1996 book Spirit Ascendant: The Life & Art of Patrociño Barela and the subsequent traveling exhibition, this 2023-2024 exhibition at the Roswell Museum would not have been possible. As the beginning of a series of exhibitions exploring the output of groundbreaking artists who made significant artistic contributions to our region, this show marks a renewed dedication to collaborating with regional peer institutions. Included in the exhibition are the two works by Barela from the Roswell Museum’s collection. We are deeply grateful to the Albuquerque Museum, the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, and the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque for generously loaning to us several additional Barela sculptures as well as painted portraits of Barela by other artists for this exhibition. We hope this effort and collaboration will help the collections of regional peer institutions to reach new audiences and create new opportunities for dialogue with our community in Roswell.


Patrociño Barela, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Circa 1950, Carved Wood, Anonymous Gift in Honor of Virginia & Edward Lujan, Photograph by Addison Doty, Courtesy of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum.

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Patrociño Barela, The Pain that Comes with Life, Circa 20th Century, Carved Wood, Anonymous Gift in Honor of Virginia & Edward Lujan, Photograph by Addison Doty, Courtesy of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum.