By Nick Worth
For the past 75 years, Holbrook has been home to an artist whose work has been seen and appreciated by millions worldwide. It is entirely possible that more photos of his artwork exist than virtually any other known artist, yet his name would not be familiar to the average person.
Severo Barela has been painting business signs and billboards since sometime in the late 1950s, and his iconic work has put a stamp of identity on the City of Holbrook and the Route 66 and Interstate 40 corridor. In fact, in a casual walk through Holbrook, it seems as though it’s impossible to turn a corner in town without seeing some of Barela’s work on display.
“I came to Holbrook when I was nine years old,” said the 84-year-old Barela. The year was 1939, and the future sign artist was already exhibiting his talent for drawing and painting, though sometimes at inappropriate moments.
“I was always drawing pictures in school,” Barela laughed. “The teachers would get mad at me and say, ‘This is not an art school.’”
He never had any formal training in art.
“People would ask my dad, ‘Where did your son go to school to learn this?’ and the answer was nowhere,” said Barela. “I guess I had a natural talent. I’ve been doing this all my life.”
When he got out of school in Holbrook, Barela’s first job was as a dishwasher. Then he worked for the city for a while digging ditches.
“They didn’t have all the power digging equipment back then,” he said.
He then started driving trucks, including gasoline trucks, before going to work for Babbitt Brothers, where he spent six years as a truck driver. It was during this time he got into sign painting.
“I was painting signs on the weekends and making pretty good money, so I gave notice at Babbitt Brothers,” said Barela.
He initially went to work for Blunck’s Sign Company doing billboards along Route 66 and in town, but soon went out on his own.
Barela said this was in the late 1950s or early ‘60s. “I was in my 30s or 40s,” he said.
He ended up painting a huge number of signs in Holbrook and the vicinity. His work was featured on sign boards, billboards and buildings of Babbitt Brothers, the Phillips 66 station, Hatch’s car dealership, Heward Motors and “various restaurants in town,” including Joe & Aggies, Romo’s, Tom and Susie’s, the Holbrook Pizzeria and Jalapeño Poppers, among many others. His work for the Butterfield Stage Company can still be seen on the large billboard located at the intersection of Navajo Blvd. and Hopi Drive.
He also worked for such well-known Route 66 businesses as Jack Rabbit and Ortega’s.
“I did a lot of work for Armand Ortega in Lupton,” said Barela. That was in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
“I also painted signs for his brothers Gilbert, Aggie, Danny and Dennis, and their father, Max Ortega.” Barela noted that Max Ortega gave all his sons their own store and he painted for all of them.
Asked about his work at Jack Rabbit, Barela said he did some painting there when the business was owned by state senator Glen Blansett.
Barela said Jack Rabbit’s famous “Here it is!” sign was already in place for many years before he did some work there, “but I did touch it up,” he said.
Many of the other tourist attractions Barela did sign work for are still around, such as Geronimo and the Painted Desert Indian Center.
In Holbrook, one of Barela’s most visible projects is the Rainbow Rock Shop on Navajo Blvd. south of Hopi Drive. Barela painted all the dinosaur statues that fill the yard of the shop, as well as the large dinosaur mural, all the small signs for the shop and yard, and the caveman family with cutout faces, where tourists can pose to get their pictures taken.
His work can also still be seen in ads he painted on barrels for the Hashknife Pony Express, which are still used at the Navajo County Fair Rodeo each year.
Barela said a lot of his work went away about 10 years ago when vinyl signs came into widespread use.
“That really killed our business,” he said.
Throughout the years, Barela has also painted murals for homeowners and has done a lot of painting for the churches in town, including the Catholic, Baptist and Assembly of God.
“The churches buy the materials and I donate one-half of my labor,” said Barela.
Throughout the years of painting signs around town, though, Barela admits he had trouble with alcohol.
“I should be a wealthy man by now, but I drank a lot of it away,” he said. He is sober now and runs twice-weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I help people now,” Barela said.
As for his sign-painting business, Barela is mostly retired. His son Mike has now taken over the work and also hangs the newer vinyl signs.
Barela said he has also trained his grandson Jimmy in how to paint, and he does some house painting and sign work.
“I don’t climb high ladders anymore,” said. Barela. “He (Jimmy) does that.”
Even though his sign painting days are, for the most part, over, Barela’s life work has made a lasting contribution to the popular image of Holbrook and the historic Route 66 area.
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By Nick Worth