The practice of carving images of saints in wood has been a Northern New Mexican tradition for hundreds of years. The pieces are known as santos; their carvers are santeros.
Patrocino Barela of Taos, New Mexico is perhaps the most famous of all who practiced the santero tradition. However, instead of producing images of saints found in the calendar of the Catholic Church like most santeros, Barela carved stylized pieces reflecting the process of human life, from childhood to old age.
Barela’s mother died when he was very young, and his birthdate remains uncertain (1900 – 1904). He never attended school for more than a few weeks at a time, and could not write. He worked as a miner, farmhand, steelworker, and on the railway, and he found his calling as a carver of sacred objects in 1931, repairing a figure of St. Antonio.
Eventually Barela’s wood carving was recognized around the U.S. for its cultural richness. He was hired during the mid-1930s by the Works Progress Administration in Taos. Subsequently a number of his sculptures were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in an exhibition of WPA art. His work was represented in Life, Time, and in the New York Times. Today Barela’s work is a part of many museum collections and has been the subject of numerous magazine articles, reviews and exhibitions.