Colors on Clay
The San José Tile Workshops of San Antonio
A study of the scenic tiles produced in San Antonio from the 1930s to the 1970s
Colors on Clay brings to life the rich artistry, designers, and styles that brought the colorful tiles, bowls, plates, and other wares produced by the San José Workshops in San Antonio, Texas, into prominence nationally. Intertwining art, personality profiles, and history, Susan Toomey Frost presents the first definitive account of this intriguing story.
Against the backdrop of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Great Depression, Ethel Wilson Harris and her talented designer, Fernando Ramos, became the driving forces behind three art tile factories—Mexican Arts and Crafts, San José Potteries, and Mission Crafts—known collectively as the San José Workshops, operating between 1931 and 1977. Together with the Arts and Crafts Division of the Work Projects Administration, they led the revival of a dying Mexican art in order to create tiles and artifacts that would become celebrated throughout the United States and prized in San Antonio and elsewhere for both public and private installations.
Harris, a savvy entrepreneur, recognized that San Antonio’s geography and culture created fertile ground for promoting traditional Mexican arts and crafts. She found inspiration for the workshops’ designs in scenes that spanned the Texas-Mexico border, creating lively depictions of Mexican folk culture and cowboy life. She hired and trained artisans to create work that followed her exacting standards for high quality of artistic rendition and
Fernando Ramos, Harris’s most talented and versatile employee, was responsible for the majority of drawings upon which the tiles were based. The work ranged from a simple portrait of a Mexican guitar player to complex scenes of festivals, fiestas, Mexican villages, and Texas ranch life. Larger scenes provided the basis for murals, tables, fountains, fireplaces, and other applications. In addition to his artistic talents, Ramos had a flourishing career as a dancer, performing internationally and capturing a number of film roles.
Susan Toomey Frost draws on years of scholarship and collecting to provide not only the historical context for the tiles and pottery, but also a thorough account of the production methods and sales techniques of the San José workshops. In recent years, collectors throughout the United States have created great demand for these works.
With more than 300 illustrations of tiles and related clay objects, as well as never-before-seen tile sketches and historical photographs, Colors on Clay provides a well-researched and lively documentation of a previously unexamined aspect of Texas art.
- Winner of the Texas State Historical Association’s Ron Tyler Award for Best Book (history & culture)
- Winner of the San Antonio Conservation Society Best Publication Award
“For four decades, beginning just before the Great Depression, Ramos' depictions of South Texas and Central Mexican life—from chile queens on Alamo Plaza to vaqueros on horseback trotting past snow-capped volcanos—adorned what has become known as San José pottery.”
— San Antonio Express-News
“Today, collectors around the world prize the Mexican-themed tile and the pottery that emerged from her kilns.”
— Texas Highways