Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ethel Harris' Mexican Arts & Crafts pottery

Ethel Wilson Harris was already the owner of a well-established decorative tile business, Mexican Arts and Crafts, in San Antonio when she became the local technical supervisor of the Arts and Crafts division of the WPA in San Antonio in 1939.  Her staff of approximately 60 local artisans manufactured decorative clay tiles; during the time of the shop’s involvement with the WPA the tiles would not be sold but offered to charitable and public organizations. 

The tiles from her WPA involvement are seen today in two plaques along the San Antonio River and in other locations. In 1937 she had copyrighted a book of designs and the full blooming maguey plant as her craftsman’s mark.  During the two years of her WPA work she modified the maguey to indicate that the work was for the WPA.
The modified maguey is in the bottom center tile and forms the letters WPA at the top and AC at the bottom for the Arts and Crafts division
This version of the maguey (seen above the letter "O") also shows the year of completion
Mrs. Harris was very involved in local preservation efforts.  After Mission San Jose was restored she requested permission to open a shop in the granary to make and sell decorative tiles and other native made crafts; this business would be known as Mission Crafts.  She was also affiliated with San Jose Potteries in the mid-1930's.

As a young widow she would move into an apartment in the western wall of the mission; this was permitted in an effort to prevent vandalism to the mission but also allowed her to live close to her shop.

In 1941 after San Jose was designated a National Historic Site she was chosen to be the park’s manager, making her the first woman to be appointed as the site manager for a Texas State Park. She would remain in this position until her retirement in 1963.   

In 1956 she built a house on adjoining property, living there until the early 1980’s.  The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, was designed by her son, Robert, to fit on a foundation she had already laid.  It is 2,000 square feet in size and built using frame, stone and concrete construction. The design is thought to resemble the "Usonian" style of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mrs. Harris closed her business in 1977 and passed away in 1984. Her tiles today are considered collector’s items.

Sources referenced and for further reading:

Fisher, L. F. (2007). Riverwalk: The Epic Story of San Antonio's River. San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company.

1 comment: