ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The spicy fresh smell of cut cedar and juniper wood is the first thing you experience when you walk into the Barela family woodcarvers exhibition at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos.
Then you notice how the muted light travels along the smooth flowing lines and intricate details of the wood sculptures and retablos, evoking for some a deep sense of spirituality and peace.
Grandsons Carlos and Luis Barela, along with other family members, are reviving a glorious tradition of art as divine inspiration begun by their grandfather, the late Patrocinio Barela, who became a prolific carver during the Great Depression.
His carvings are on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., helping to bring this exquisite ancient art form to people all over the country and the world.
Lynne Swaniek of Vancouver, British Columbia, said the smell of the wood was enticing as she entered the exhibition room housing “The Tradition Continues: Barela Family Carvers,” continuing through Nov. 30.
“As you walk into the room and you smell the wood and the resins, there’s the sense of smell that is first captured, and then you see the very dramatic pieces so beautifully carved and executed,” Swaniek said.
“It’s a very positive, and quite a religious, experience I would say for many people; it’s beautiful in the workmanship, but also in the peaceful feeling it evokes,” she said.
Patrocinio Barela began the tradition of carving from a single piece of wood using only hand tools when he created art as part of the Works Progress Administration’s arts program.
The Millicent Rogers exhibition features artwork by Barelas’ children and grandchildren, displaying a rich variety of different styles and subjects, including traditional santos and contemporary works reminiscent of the feminine figure, said Cindy Brown, a representative for Carlos Barela.
As grandsons of Patrocinio Barela, Carlos and Luis Barela have led the revival of this rapidly fading northern New Mexico tradition. They, like their grandfather, carve from a single piece of wood using only hand tools.
“After grandfather died (in 1964 in a tragic studio fire), it was another 16 years before another Barela picked up the chisel again,” said Carlos Barela of Taos. “It would have been really tragic if this tradition would have died.”
A humble man from Taos, Patrocinio Barela was recognized by contemporary New Mexico santeros as a master woodcarver whose carvings were deeply expressive of the Indo-Hispano heritage of northern New Mexico.
The same experts called him the “Picasso of the West,” his carvings marked with distinctive fluid shapes that appear to emerge from deep within the wood. His legacy continues with the current generation, including his grandchildren and their children and grandchildren, collectively known as the Barela Studio Artists.
Carlos Barela said he was moved to revive his grandfather’s legacy by a “freak occurrence” when he had to take a break from his job as a pipe fitter and plumber because of a broken ankle in the mid- to late 1980s. One weekend he was invited to a barbecue by a man named Forrest, who then showed Barela a sculpture done by his grandfather.
“He told me, ‘You know that you’re supposed to be doing this,’ ” Carlos said. He noted that he had always admired Patrocino’s work but had never picked up the chisel.
Inspired by the man’s words, Carlos went home and began carving, mimicking his grandfather’s style.
“I believe this man Forrest was an angel and that he put the piece of wood into my hand, and I haven’t stopped since,” Carlos said. He added that he has encouraged and instructed his 24-year-old son, Roberto, whom Carlos said has already surpassed him in ability.
Meanwhile, Carlos’ brother, Luis, explains in a more worldly sense his re-introduction to the art.
“I had always liked to draw, but I decided to try carving in the late 1980s or early 1990s and I found it very relaxing,” Luis said. “I liked the physicality of it; it’s a very natural, very original form of art.”
Mindful that the early santeros and carvers in New Mexico created wood sculptures and retablos as objects of devotion and beauty, Luis said he feels he’s continuing something very spiritual.
“I begin to carve a piece and sometimes I can’t believe how beautiful the feeling is, or how beautiful the form is that begins to emerge from deep within the layers of the wood.”