From the Vault: Patrociño Barela, the WPA, and the Roswell Museum

Aug 27, 2023

by Aaron Wilder, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum

© Roswell Daily Record

“Untitled (Sinners in the World)” by Patrociño Barela, 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


I want to start by thanking my colleague Cloe Medrano, registrar at the Roswell Museum, for writing the last edition of the museum’s monthly “From the Vault” column on Alice Baber. This month, I would like to focus on the sculptures of Patrociño Barela as well as on the Roswell Museum’s connection to Barela through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a U.S. federal government agency designed to support the arts during the Great Depression. The creation of the Roswell Museum was financed, in part, by WPA support as a federal art center in 1937.

Barela told his friend and Taos Modern artist Kit Egri about the earliest stages of his life, which is quoted in the booklet, Patrocinio Barela: Taos Wood Carver, published in 1955 by Judson Crews, Mildred Tolbert and Wendell B. Anderson, “I was born … in Bisbee, Arizona ... . There were two children. My mother died when I was four and my sister before that. My father left Bisbee and came to Taos … . I had no school. In 1931 I started to carve, though I cannot read or write my whole first name.”

In a 1956 interview with Lenore G. Marshall for Arts Magazine, Barela shared additional information about how he got his start with woodcarving (Vision Editor: The following quote is reprinted exactly as it was published at the time): “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)… 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. Not using paint, most of Barela’s sculptures showcase the natural color of the chosen wood as well as any other unique features, such as knots.

For a short period of time, Barela used his horses and wagon to haul dirt and supplies 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). After a colleague brought Barela’s work to Russell Vernon Hunter’s attention, he immediately recognized the artist’s talent and made the artist’s participation in the project possible. Hunter was appointed the director of the New Mexico division of the FAP in 1935, and he remained in that position until the program 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 become the director of the Roswell Museum. The FAP recruited artists nationally and not only paid them but also provided unprecedented public exposure to their art through public projects. In the 1996 book Spirit Ascendant: The Life & Art of Patrociño Barela, artist Edward Gonzales and curator David L. 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.”

In the El Palacio Magazine winter/spring 1996-1997 article, Patrociño Barela: Expressionist Carver, Carmella M. Padilla explained, “The overwhelming praise for Barela prompted inquiries to (Padilla: 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.”

As Gonzales and Witt explain in Spirit Ascendant, “Ultimately, Barela was one of the last artists to be let go from the Federal Art Project; his contract was terminated in 1943. By then, Hunter’s actions to protect Barela from potentially unscrupulous New York art dealers had succeeded all too well—not only was Barela not exploited, he was forgotten outside of New Mexico. Although Barela did not stop carving, as a result of these circumstances, he never got a New York dealer in his lifetime. He went back to herding sheep.”

In the mid-1950s, poet Wendell Anderson, poet and printer Judson Crews and photographer and writer Mildred Tolbert Crews produced the book Patrociñio 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 … 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 (Padilla: the) time. When I find my head, a notion comes from the air. (Padilla: 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.”

The exhibition Patrociño Barela: I Stand On My Own Feet is on display in the museum’s Founders Gallery through Feb. 11, 2024. Included in the exhibition are the two works by Barela in 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 us several additional Barela sculptures as well as painted portraits of Barela by other artists for this exhibition.

For more information about the Roswell Museum, visit

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