For many years a small group of artisans, led by San Antonio entrepreneur Ethel Wilson Harris, created thousands of colorful bowls, plates, tiles, and other pottery products reflecting a national interest in the arts and crafts of Mexico. American antique and art collectors, including the Rockefellers, turned their attention to Mexico as it emerged from the horrors of a political revolution begun in late 1909. In the 1920s, the Mexican mural movement led the battered republic into an artistic and cultural renaissance unequaled in the history of the Americas. Prominent museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, mounted exhibitions of Mexican arts and crafts in the 1930s and 1940s. Buildings and furnishings with Aztec-Mayan motifs dotted the United States. Latin dances became a national craze, and Mexican themes on American dinnerware, tablecloths, and figurines were widespread. The tiles, panels, and tables with a so-called Mexican theme most highly prized by contemporary collectors are those produced by workshops begun in the 1930s by Ethel Wilson Harris.
In 1939 Harris became technical supervisor of the Arts and Crafts Division of the Work Projects Administration in San Antonio. The operation produced several large works of public art that survive today. Harris moved to Mission San José in 1941 when she became the first manager of the park, a position she held for more than twenty years. The tile-filled home she built on the mission grounds in 1955 is in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service, with additional funding from other sources, restored the house and integrated it into the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
Harris copyrighted the maguey cactus—a genus of agave cactus—as her signature crafts mark, along with many of her workshop’s designs, in 1937. Prominent San Antonio artist and educator Amy Freeman Lee called Harris in 1940 “San Antonio’s most expert technician in the ceramic craft of making tiles. . . . she has done more to encourage interest and to aid the development of this art than any other individual.” In 1943 the Texas legislature recognized Harris for her role in “the revival and perpetuation of Mexican arts and crafts.” Harris was cofounder of the forerunner of Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA), held at La Villita on the River Walk during Fiesta week each April. NIOSA is the major fund-raiser for historic preservation projects for the San Antonio Conservation Society, of which Harris was president in the early 1950s.
Harris’s pottery operations participated in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934; the 1936 Texas Centennial Fair in Dallas, where eight tile panels decorate the Hall of State; the 1939 New York World’s Fair; and Hemis Fair ’68 in San Antonio, where one of her tile installations survives. Amid the complicated relationships of San José workshops and WPA projects, the one common thread was Harris, who managed to juggle these different businesses while attaining her lifelong goal of promoting Mexican arts and crafts and developing a generation of artisans. Harris died in 1984 at the age of ninety-one.