In 1936, Patrociño Barela emerged as one of America’s most important artists, when he was featured in a show of Federal Art Project artists in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He was the first Mexican-American artist to receive such a high degree of recognition. When Barela made his debut on the national scene, Time Magazine hailed him as the “discovery of the year.” The New York Times cited his work for showing “real force... there is crude, honest, personal expression in the small carvings,” and the Museum of Modern Art proclaimed him the “most dramatic discovery made in American art for the past several years.” Indeed, Barela’s carvings in native juniper wood depict deep psychological and mystical insights into the human condition. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote of his work, “... for wholehearted depth of purpose his figures have a comment to make on the age which is like a breath of fresh air.”
Born in Bisbee, Arizona, Barela arrived in Taos with his brother and their widowed father in 1908. For the next three years, Barela worked as child laborer, then left his family to begin a long period as an itinerant laborer in New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. In 1930, beginning of the Depression, he returned to the Taos area and married the following year. Work became scarce. When he could not find other employment, Barela carved wood; when he did find work, he often stayed up all night to carve. In 1935, his work came to the attention of Vernon Hunter, head of the New Mexico Federal Art Project. Hunter invited Barela to transfer to the FAP, where he could carve full-time, and soon Barela’s work attracted notice in an exhibition in Santa Fe.
Driven by the undeniable need to create, Barela’s art transcends time and place. His work comes from the roots of the land and the Hispano society of New Mexico, showing individuals bearing the struggles of life. While Barela did not remain a part of the national art scene during his lifetime, he became a legendary figure because of his deep spirituality and monumental talent as an artist. Today in New Mexico, nearly every santero (an artist who creates sacred images) recognizes Barela as a major inspiration. The impact of his carvings is visceral rather than intellectual, capable of calling up tears or laughter or wonderment.
Although his work was gallery represented in the 1950’s, Barela also bartered his carvings for food, liquor, or supplies. He was not fully literate, and he spent much of his life working on the farms and ranches of the Rocky Mountain states. Barela lived and died in poverty; his tragic death by fire took place in the workshop where he had carved some of the most profound art of our time.