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Barela’s legacy

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Posted: Monday, July 14, 2014 1:26 pm | Updated: 12:28 pm, Wed Jul 16, 2014.

Descendants show at market

Scattered among the formally posed, painted bultos (carved wooden santos) at Spanish Market are a handful of expressionistic figures that seem to flow organically from the wood itself. 

This signature style, created by Patrocinio Barela (1900-1964; also known as Patrocino or Patrociño Barela), is now carried forward by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Barela was a self-taught artist who made waves in the mid-20th-century art world, then faded into obscurity like too many Hispanic artists of his day.

The wood itself was Barela’s inspiration. He extracted images of santos, scenes from everyday life and even a fair amount of erotica. His art explored the human condition, from the spiritual to the painful to the humorous.

Barela was unaware of the expressionistic art movement, yet his style resonated with that genre and earned critical acclaim when he was included in a Federal Art Project exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. A Time magazine review referred to him as the “discovery of the year.” 

The accolades did not translate into immediate financial success. Pieces that Barela sold for $30 to $50 now sell for up to several thousand dollars and are prized by museums and collectors.

Barela’s descendents are reviving his legacy by embracing his style and educating others about their heritage. Robin Farwell Gavin, chief curator at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, said, “Patrocinio was rightly heralded as a visionary in the 1930s, and the art of his descendants is no less imaginative. Using Patrocinio’s work as a springboard, they refine and expand upon his handling and interpretation of both the material and subject matter, bringing the art form into the 21st century.”

Luis Barela Sr.

Luis Barela Sr. did not take up his father Patrocinio’s art, but eagerly shares memories.

“My dad used to get a piece of cedar, and he could focus right away on what he was going to do with it. He was that good that he could look at a piece of wood and know,” Luis said, adding that every image had a story. If he made a piece with 23 faces, he would tell from one to 23 what it means. It had a meaning, his work. It had a story.” 

Luis enjoys recounting how a man once scorned Patrocinio for having so few tools. “The guy told him, ‘That’s nothing. I’ve got three or four thousand dollars worth of tools.’ And my dad turned to him and said, ‘Do you know what? The other tools that I’ve got, they’re up here (pointing to his head). I don’t need more tools. I’ve got all the tools that I need.’”

Luis Barela Jr.

Luis Barela Jr. taught himself to carve at age 19, inspired by an exhibition of his grandfather’s work. He studied photos of Patrocinio’s carvings, and gave his first piece to his father. “He gave it to me for Christmas, and it looked like my dad’s work,” Luis Sr. said.

“I’m always trying to keep it looking like my grandfather’s style,” Luis Jr. said, “so if somebody sees it and they know Grandpa’s carvings, they’ll see the resemblance. So I’ve never really wanted to go away from that style.”

Luis Jr. showed at Contemporary Hispanic Market for 16 years prior to jurying into Spanish Market in 2012.

Carlos Barela

In 1988, Carlos Barela’s employer learned about his heritage and insisted that he was meant to carve, even helping him acquire his first piece of wood. His employer told him, “that’s the beginning of your wood-carving career,” and it was.

Carlos soon understood his grandfather’s passion. “He got addicted, and I can vouch for that,” Carlos said. “You get a certain energy. When I first started carving, I could hardly wait to get off work and go home and get in my garage and start carving again.”

Carlos juried into market in 1993. He has a bent for innovative work and enjoys pushing the limits. “Like my grandfather, I’m always breaking the rules,” Carlos said. 

Patricia Barela Rael

Patricia Barela Rael began carving in earnest four years ago, when she was giving a presentation for an exhibition of Patrocinio’s work and decided to carve a piece for that. “It felt really good. I felt my grandfather close to me. I felt like he was there inspiring me and nudging me along to finish what I had started.” Patricia said.

Patricia’s favorite subject is mother and child, which she carves without faces. “I do mother and child because it’s close to my heart,” Patricia said. “It’s just the feminine in me, because this really is an all male art, or has been, anyway.”

To date, Patricia has not shown at market, but she is usually at the booth of her husband, Daniel Rael. 

Daniel Rael

Daniel Rael began carving around 1980 and juried into market in 1997. “My dad was a mechanic, and I’ve always like to work with hand tools,” Rael said. “So I traded screwdrivers for chisels and wrenches for gouges and chisels, saws and knives.”

Rael learned by watching his brother-in-law Carlos Barela and wood-carver Ernesto Salazar. “You observe someone who works with tools, and you learn by practice,” he said.

Rael’s repertoire includes contemporary work, but his focus is on religious subjects. “I like telling Bible stories in wood, taking a scene from the Bible and giving it some expression and sharing that with other people. So there are aspects of a ministry within my work as well,” he said.

The next generation

Daniel Barela

Daniel is the only one of Luis Jr.’s children to pursue a carving career. He is the traditionalist of the family, with no desire to do abstract work.

“Now that I’m older, I appreciate more about keeping the tradition going — my great-grandfather’s tradition, but also the traditions of the Spanish colonial, making santos and kind of spreading the word of the Catholic religion,” Daniel said. “When people do come in here [to the Barela Studio Gallery], we give them our story and try to educate them about our unique history that we have.”

Roberto Barela

Carlos’ son Roberto Barela carved his first bulto at 11, learning the basics from his father and uncle. “I feel I’m still growing as an artist. I’m still changing certain things in my style, still calibrating myself. And I always see it as a challenge to do better work all the time.”

Roberto is now mentoring his younger cousins. “Now that I’m growing up, and I’m more of an established artist, I realize the part that I contribute to the community, preserving the heritage. You don’t really see too many people our age that are preserving tradition the way we do.” Both he and his father started in the Youth Market and now show at Spanish Market.

Barela Studio Gallery, in Taos, is open by appointment. Call 575-779-5720 or 575-779-3852. 

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Today’s New Mexican, July 22, 2014

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