ONCE THERE WAS A FATHER FROM MEXICO, a skilled curandero who could find powerful medicine in the most barren deserts. He moved to Arizona with his wife in the first few years of the 20th century, but after his second son, Patrociño, was born, he found himself a widower. When Patrociño’s father heard that a healer was needed in the northern New Mexico town of Taos, he and his children headed east.
Life in Taos wasn’t easy. Winters were cold, and food was scarce. The curandero’s second son never learned to read or write, but through hard physical labor, he grew up strong. He laid railroad tracks, mended fences, herded sheep, and split rocks with sledgehammers. He patched the pale pink adobe walls of Taos Pueblo—where he met his wife—and in the summer, he went to Colorado to harvest peaches. More than anything, though, the man was a storyteller, one who carved his stories into slabs of cedar and pine.
The man struggled, and watched others struggle. In the houses he lived and worked in, he was surrounded by santos, wood sculptures of beloved saints and members of the Holy Family, and he became skilled at carving them. In time, his work drew closer to familiar subjects—life transitions and expressions of love, but also moments of confusion and distress.
The man liked to spend time at the bar of the Taos Inn, where he traded carvings for stiff drinks. When the man was in his mid-thirties, a curator from the Works Progress Administration wandered into the bar. The WPA man noticed an unpainted wood sculpture, elegant and peculiarly modern, being used to prop open a screen door. The barkeep must have been bemused when asked about the doorstop and the man who carved it. The man was a sheepherder, farmer, and fence-builder named Patrociño Barela.
Patrociño, who barely spoke English, soon found himself packing up carvings for transport to New York City, where a cutting-edge exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called New Horizons of American Art would feature his work, thrusting the Taoseño into the artistic stratosphere of 1936. Time magazine interviewed him, and the art world glitterati showered him with titles. The media called him a “true primitive,” the creative “discovery of the year,” a “naive genius,” the “Picasso of the West.” Patrociño Barela was a star, albeit one placed in the realm of folk art.
A century later, Barela’s work stars anew in With the Grain, an exhibition of northern New Mexico wood-carvers at the New Mexico Museum of Art, in Santa Fe. On view through September 4, With the Grain showcases work made by generations of wood-carving families, whose newer practitioners expand upon the legacies of storied carvers like Barela and famed Córdova sculptor José Dolores López.
Christian Waguespack, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art, says the exhibition elevates wood carving to the higher plane it deserves. “These artists don’t get shown enough, and they almost never get shown in a fine art context,” Waguespack says. “If we take time to examine the differences and similarities between folk and fine art, we make room for new conversations and new perspectives.”
Many carvers were also santeros who created religious pieces that were mainly used as teaching tools and thus considered a lesser form of art. “Seventeenth-century Franciscan monks weren’t preaching to people who knew how to read, and paintings of saints made them more approachable,” says Patrociño Barela’s great-grandson Daniel Barela, a featured artist in the exhibition who also serves as the executive director of Taos Historic Museums.
Placing santos and retablos—devotional works painted on wood or tin—in family homes and chapels was a well-established practice in Taos by the time Patrociño Barela became a working santero in the 1920s, but his subject matter set him apart from his forebears and peers.
“Patrociño changed the platform by telling stories that were personal to him and his community,” Daniel Barela says. “He was interested in carving saints, but just as interested in carving regular people.” Take Patrociño’s 1950 carving Worries, which is rendered from a solid chunk of wood. A figure crouches with one hand resting on his head, while the other cradles a knee—maybe. Limbs are indistinct and amorphous. It’s hard to tell where a leg ends and a walking stick begins. The figure’s face, however, with its heavy brow and deep-set, closed eyes, is an unmistakable portrait of anxious concentration.
Although Christianity isn’t always an obvious theme in Patrociño’s work, spirituality was and is essential to the Barela family carvers’ creative practice. “I grew up Catholic, and religion is a big part of the work I make,” says Daniel Barela. “But I also like to highlight humanity. The struggle story appealed to Patrociño, and it appeals to my generation of carvers, too. We aren’t afraid to talk about sad things.”
For the exhibit, Waguespack chose a number of pieces that don’t evoke religious themes. He also focused on unpainted works, to help direct the viewer’s focus to the wood itself and to the ways in which it inspired the artists’ carvings. Cedar is especially beloved by New Mexico carvers for its durability and plentiful supply, and for its brilliant color striations.
A pietà by Taos-based carver Daniel Rael is a celebration of color and form, with a starkly contrasting palette that puts cedar’s many-hued beauty at the forefront. Mary is wrought in warm, deep reddish-brown, while the son she supports is mostly composed in creamy beige tones, interspersed with wispy red-orange streaks. Even the sculpture’s base, a sienna-toned square with sand-colored patches, testifies to the medium’s nature.
These color variations are hard-won for carvers. Unlike pine or oak, cedar grain clumps together and requires attentive carving, lest you hit a vein of differing width or texture and accidentally chip off too much.
A wall-hanging pine carving of Patrociño’s from 1948, The Garden of Eden, is a visual departure from the in-the-round work he’s better known for. The rectangular composition is split into two scenes. On the left, Eve reaches for an apple presented to her by a cloaked figure whose bottom hem gives way to a serpent’s tail. On the right, an angel casts Adam and Eve, their faces contorted with shame, out of the garden. Tension is broken by an almost whimsical overlay of breezy leaves arching across the top border of the composition.
Córdova-based carvers like Ricardo López were similarly bewitched by the Genesis apple tree. In López’s 1980 Tree of Life, the titular form veritably bursts with branches. At first glance, the tree appears covered with leaves, but upon closer inspection, one discovers dozens of tiny birds. Some are arranged in positions of watchfulness, at the tree’s base, while many others face outward from leafy perches, wings back, heads pointed upward, as if frozen in the moment before liftoff. “The trees in these types of carvings are usually massive,” Waguespack says. “Adam and Eve are part of the story, but they’re not the main attraction, and sometimes they’re not there at all.”
Though santeros have historically been mostly male, women like Sabinita López Ortiz, a granddaughter of famed Córdova sculptor José Dolores López, have been picking up the chisel for decades. Her 2014 Tree of Life showcases a precise, delicate style. The Adam and Eve figures appear protectively sheltered by a fence-like leaf barrier. Between the figures, pale leaves from the outsized, many-limbed tree are interspersed with deep-red cedar apples.
Across the decades of carvers, Waguespack says, a modernist spirit prevails. The hyper-angularity and brooding palette of a painting by Cady Wells—a Southwest contemporary of Patrociño’s—aligns seamlessly with the sloped curves of a poignant mother and child that Patrociño carved in the 1930s. The unassuming twin forms embrace lovingly, their curved bodies emerging from a rough-hewn base. Confident in its unadorned emotion, the sculpture’s gently rounded forms pleasantly contrast with the sharper lines of the figures’ noses and brows.
“Patrociño never went to Paris to check out what other artists were doing,” Waguespack says. “He was in a silo and still made these really modern compositions. He was extraordinarily observant. He was good at watching people live their lives, and it shows in his work.”
Patrociño was exposed to art that spanned continents, says Daniel Barela. “When he traveled up north to Colorado to harvest, my grandfather stayed with African American farmers, and he would have seen their style of wood carvings. African art contains a lot of storytelling and reverence for ancestors, and those themes would have resonated with Patrociño.”
Following his inclusion in Time in 1936, the fanfare, according to Patrociño’s great-grandson, died down. Meetings with gallery representatives were challenging. Patrociño felt the art world didn’t take him seriously and wouldn’t sell his work. Despite recognition for his creative achievements, financial security wasn’t always a given. But his role as influencer in the world of New Mexico wood carving is indisputable.
“My great-grandfather used to say that the wood told him what to carve,” says Daniel Barela. “The carving is already in there and knows what it wants to be. It’s our job to bring it out.”
SEE THE SANTOS
The High Road Artisans studio tour, held annually in September, offers a rare opportunity to visit practicing artists’ studios.
Arrange a visit to the Córdova studio of Sabinita López Ortiz. 505-351-4572
Check out the contemporary santeros at Santa Fe’s annual Traditional Spanish Market. The summer show, July 29–30, features work in a range of mediums from hundreds of adult, teen, and child artists in the unique northern New Mexico tradition.
Also in Santa Fe, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art’s permanent collection of nearly 4,000 items includes an extensive array of santos.
The Museum of International Folk Art, in Santa Fe, holds a prominent collection of santos, on view in the spacious museum’s Hispanic Heritage Wing.
In Taos, the Millicent Rogers Museum houses santos, retablos, and other regional artworks, including pieces by Barela and the Córdova carvers.
Casa San Ysidro: The Gutiérrez/Minge House, in Corrales, displays historic and contemporary santos, as well as a range of Spanish Colonial furniture and weavings.