In 1943, the Texas Legislature recognized Ethel Wilson Harris for her role in “the revival and perpetuation of Mexican arts and crafts,” skills Spanish friars taught Native Americans long ago on mission grounds, skills almost lost as Americans rushed pellmell into an age where machines mass-produced what once had been crafted carefully by hand. Now, a tile mural created some 70 years ago at her Mexican Arts and Crafts workshop on the banks of the San Antonio River is returning home.

The 120-tile mural depicting colorful scenes in a Mexican village was rescued from a former Maverick family home being demolished on Huebner Road. Susan Toomey Frost purchased the mural and hired a tile preservationist from California to painstakingly remove the tiles from their setting in concrete. After searching seven years for the right place for the public to enjoy the mural dating from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) era, Frost has donated the decorative art tiles to the San Antonio River Foundation.

“For many years a small group of artisans, led by an astute businesswoman named Ethel Wilson Harris, created thousands of colorful bowls, plates, tiles and other pottery products that are enjoying immense popularity today,” Frost said. “The Maverick mural is a tribute to those artisans and to Mrs. Harris. It belongs in a place where current and future generations can admire and enjoy it, and I am pleased that the San Antonio River Foundation will be giving it a proper home.” Sally Buchanan, president of the River Foundation, said, “We will be working with the consultant developing a Public Art Master Plan for the River Improvements Project to identify an appropriate spot for this important San Antonio artifact demonstrating the craft traditions revived by Ethel Wilson Harris.” The River Foundation is seeking funds to install the mural, as well additional donations of tiles from other collectors to incorporate as accents in the area selected for the artwork. The River Improvements Project is in the final design phase, with construction starting in late 2006.

A Ford Foundation Fellow while at the University of Texas Austin and a former staff writer and photographer for the San Antonio Express, Frost has taught English and linguistics at four colleges and universities in Texas and in Mexico, including San Antonio College and Trinity University. The passionate collector now living in Austin is the leading authority on San Jose decorative art tiles and pottery, the “family” that includes works produced by Mexican Arts and Crafts and other workshops led by Harris.

Frost’s research identifies Harris as the founder or president of three prominent potteries: Mexican Arts and Crafts from 1929-39; San Jose Potteries next to Mission San Jose in the mid-1930s; and Mission Crafts, which operated in Mission San Jose from 1940-77. Harris moved to the mission in 1939 when she became the first manager of the park. The tile-filled home she built on the site in 1955 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recently was restored to serve as The Discovery Center for San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

Born in Sabinal in 1893 and raised around her father’s hardware business on Military Plaza in San Antonio, Harris founded her tile contracting business in the 1920s with encouragement from her husband Arthur. Her first workshop – Mexican Arts and Crafts – was housed in an historic barn on the river at 1002 North St. Mary’s, where El Tropicano Hotel now stands and the starting point of the Urban Reach of the River Improvements Project. Harris received permission from the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1933 to lease the granary at Mission San Jose to market her shop’s wares to tourists.

Harris copyrighted the maguey as her signature craft mark, along with many of her workshop’s designs, in 1937. Harris potteries participated in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933; Texas Centennial Fair in 1936 in Dallas, where eight tile panels remain in the Hall of State; the New York World’s Fair in 1939; and, finally, San Antonio’s HemisFair in 1968. Harris’ tiles and pottery were sold throughout the country, including Marshall Fields in Chicago and Fred Harvey gift shops in the west.

In the late 1930s, Harris became technical supervisor of the WPA arts and crafts division in San Antonio. Some 60 WPA artisans joined Harris’ staff at the Mexican Arts and Crafts workshop on St. Mary’s, according to Frost. The WPA- period provided San Antonio with several large tile works, including two in the river bend: the “Twin Cypress” mural on the stairway by the flood control gate at the northern end of downtown river bend and the “Old Mill Crossing,” temporarily behind a plywood barrier erected for construction of a new downtown hotel by the Navarro Street Bridge.

The largest of the W.P.A. tile murals can be found above the main entrance to Alamo Stadium – four 60-square-foot works depicting a century of sports in San Antonio from Native American archers on Military Plaza in 1840 to high school football in 1940.

A newspaper article by Ed Elmendorf published while the mural was being created describes the distinctive cuerda seca method employed in the tiles’ design:

…the outline is traced, by means of carbon paper, on the blank tiles. Here Fausto Berrones and Elpidio Cardenas…apply the color…First, they must draw in the outline of the figures, using a pigment that has a higher melting point than the colors. The colors are put on with a syringe-like applicator….the kiln is large enough to handle the 192 squares in each mural at one time, thus insuring uniform glazing….baking serves to fuse the colors into a lustrous glaze, although the outline first applied on the tile will not fuse and spread at this heat, preventing the colors from running together.

A former president of the San Antonio Conservation Society who fought hard to preserve many San Antonio landmarks and traditions, Harris died in 1984 at the age of 90.

San Antonio River Foundation
P.O. Box 830045, San Antonio, TX 78283-0045