San José Tiles and Pottery
Susan Toomey Frost
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"San José" is used generically to include several makers of similar-looking art pottery and tiles made in San Antonio. The premier workshop was Mexican Arts and Crafts, which operated downtown on the banks of the San Antonio River from 1931-1941. Its founder, Ethel Wilson Harris, copyrighted a book of designs in 1937 and registered her characteristic "logo" -- a maguey cactus in full bloom. In 1941 the workshop changed its name to Mission Crafts when it moved to within the walls of Mission San José, where gifted artisans created tiles and pottery until 1977.
Their products are commonly confused with those of the nearby San José Potteries, which operated from 1934 to 1945. SJP executed relatively few designs in large numbers and of varying quality when it operated on its own. Its best work was made when the company was under the supervision of Harris, who became technical supervisor for the Arts and Crafts Division of the WPA projects in San Antonio in 1939.
Being imitated is a sign of success. The popularity of "Mexican" designs tempted others in San Antonio to adapt and or directly copy work done in the workshops run by Harris. These included the potter Harding Black and an artisan named Mamie Sandoval at the Southern Company.
For a few years, a Mexican brick factory known by its acronym -- Ladrillera Monterrey, S.A. (Lamosa) -- produced very similar tiles and tables as well. The operation was supervised by a tile technician from California who had helped establish the potteries in San Antonio. Lamosa designs were marketed in the United States and are quite collectible today.
Let the buyer beware!
The increasing popularity of the San José workshops encourages some art pottery collectors and dealers to confuse or misrepresent what they're buying and selling. Be aware that almost any tile maker today can produce pieces that mimic vintage designs. Most of these reproductions and re-creations of vintage pieces are not marked. When the tiles are set in attractive frames, you cannot easily see that the new clay is different from the clay used in the original. As an example, click on the thumbprints below and then again to enlarge the resulting images. You'll be able to see the differences in the outlining and glazes and to compare the clays showing through the old and new tiles:
Vintage 8" Tile Reproduction 6" Tile from California
Painted (not glazed) copy
from Tlaquepaque, Mexico
It's easy to fool and to be fooled, but as long as you're satisfied that a piece is worth what you're paying for it, enjoy it.
Six bullfight scenes were spaced between black tiles with a red-orange border at a neighborhood shopping center in San Antonio. The decorated tiles were grouted in concrete when these photographs were taken. The fragile clay tiles were damaged when someone crudely sawed them out in an attempt to sell them. This is just one example of tiles on San Antonio buildings that have been lost.
Want to know more about San José?
Click on the thumbprints below, and then again on the resulting images, to read an article by Kathryn Jones published in the October 2004 issue of TEXAS HIGHWAYS. The second article by Christopher in the San Antonio Express-News describes a rescued WPA-era mural now installed on the San Antonio River Walk:
My article on San José published in the journal TILE HERITAGE is still available for purchase from the Tile Heritage Foundation.
All the best, and happy collecting,
Susan Toomey Frost