W.P.A. Era Mural to return to River
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,î Frost said. ìThe 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.î Sally Buchanan, president of the River Foundation, said, ìWe 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.
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. Marys, 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 workshops designs, in 1937. Harris potteries participated in the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933; Texas Centennial Fair in 1936 in Dallas, where eight tile panels remain in the Hall of State; the New York Worlds 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.
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 in 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 and 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.