From the Museum

Hispanic Heritage Month: September 15, 2012 – October 15, 2012

“Holy Family” Carving (MO 1956.328)


This pine carving, titled “Holy Family,” was created by artist Patrocinio “Pat” Barela in 1936 while he was employed by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

President Roosevelt created the WPA by executive order in 1935 to provide government-funded jobs for millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. The WPA included a Federal Arts Program (FAP) that employed thousands of artists like Barela on projects around the nation.

Pat Barela was born in Arizona in 1900. His family moved to the Taos, New Mexico area during his youth. Barela left home at the age of 11 to become a migrant worker, but returned to Taos in the early 1930s. He began carving during this period. Using local wood, he fashioned each of his distinctive sculptures out of a single piece of wood, using its natural shape and imperfections to dictate the form of the piece. In 1935, Barela was working as a WPA teamster and carving in his spare time when a local WPA official recognized the quality of his work and arranged for his acceptance into the Federal Arts Program (FAP). Barela’s work soon drew the attention of Russell Vernon Hunter, director of the New Mexico FAP. With Hunter’s support, his art became recognized around the country.

This sculpture was among several Barela pieces that were featured in a 1936 exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Time magazine reviewed the exhibit and called Barela “the discovery of the year.” Barela’s work was later featured at the New York World’s Fair, the M. H. de Young Museum, and the Portland Art Museum.

One of the prominent visitors at the 1936 MOMA exhibit was WPA director Harry Hopkins. Hopkins admired the “Holy Family” carving and expressed an interest in having it installed in his office. Eventually, the piece came into the possession of the President who gave it to the Roosevelt Library.

Learn more about this carving on our Digital Artifact Collection: Holy Family Carving

Patrocinio Barela in his home studio in Taos, New Mexico. Photo by Irving Rusinow. Part of the series Photographic Prints Documenting Programs and Activities of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Predecessor Agencies at NARA. ARC Identifier: 521861.