To appreciate how the late Patrocinio Barela forever changed the santo tradition, it helps to know the very American life story of the artist himself. Born in 1900 to a Mexican-American copper miner, Barela left Taos during the Great Depression and, lacking schooling, traveled the States as an itinerant laborer. He came upon wood carving almost accidentally, after he was asked to repair the broken limbs of a saint-inspired santo sculpture in New Mexico. When he realized he had a talent for carving, the self-taught Barela embarked on an artist's career supported by Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration; in 1935, his work made it into the hallowed halls of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Barela was not a practicing Catholic and had no formal artistic training, so he approached the santero practice in a whole new way, stripping the form of its traditional religious elements and carving solid sculptures with no appendages to break off. Variously termed primitive and modernist, Barela's work offers strong, streamlined abstract and secular pieces, as well as religious scenes and icons -- the Angel of Death, the Temptation of Christ, the Sacred Heart -- created from his memories of biblical stories and carved in cedar and pine buffed to a rich sheen. The traveling show "Barela: Remembering an Artist of the People" features 40 of Barela's carvings along with sculptures by artists whose work he influenced, including his grandsons Carlos and Luis Jr. The show opens Friday at 11 a.m. (and runs through June 27) at the Mexican Museum, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Admission is free-$4; call 441-0404. (