Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ethel Harris and her Art Tiles

Ethel Wilson Harris was a Texas original. I remember her very well from my own childhood and adolescent years while I was growing up in San Antonio, where she was a civic force in her own right. When I knew of her while I was a high school boy in the 1960s, she was a woman then in her sixties and she had been a formidable personality in the Alamo City for almost four decades. When I participated as a teenager in work sessions for the Night in Old San Antonio to help make the thousands of cascarones sold by the Conservation Society at that event, there was Mrs. Harris seemingly in charge of all that she surveyed. Mrs. Harris also came to my high school to talk about Mexican American Arts and Crafts. When I visited the Mission San José with friends who lived nearby, she was there too, residing on the grounds in a house filled with the most colorful tile work imaginable. Artistic tiles such as those that decorated her kitchen were ubiquitous to me throughout San Antonio and served as decorative backdrops to my youth. These magnificant tiles and their distinctive motifs even decorated the gasoline station where my family traded on the way to my home. I took them for granted. I do recall that, as a young person, I vaguely knew somehow Mrs. Harris had something to do with making all these tiles. My incomplete youthful knowledge about those tiles, however, seemed at the time of little consequence to me so many years ago.

Photo by Light Cummins

Now I know better about Mrs. Harris and those tiles, thanks to a wonderful new book written by Susan Toomey Frost. This book, Colors in Clay: The San José Tile Workshops, was published this year by the Trinity University Press. What Frost doesn’t know about the San Antonio art tiles made by Mrs. Harris and her workshop probably is not worth knowing. This fine book is part biography of Mrs. Harris, part collector’s guide to the tiles, and part social commentary about San Antonio from the 1930s to the 1980s. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Texas arts and crafts, or in the larger history of art in this state. The book is also a gem because it has almost three hundred color pictures of these fantastic tiles.

Photo by Light Cummins

Ethel Wilson Harris, born in 1893 at Sabinal, Texas, grew up in San Antonio. Always interested in Mexican American artisanship, she opened in 1931 a pottery company called Mexican Arts and Crafts, Inc., employing local artisans and tile-makers to craft the colored tiles that are today so popularly identified with San Antonio. Over the years, she formed several other companies to produce these art tiles. In so doing, she singlehandedly created an artistic movement and examples of this tile artisanship can be found throughout the Alamo city and across the southwest. She gathered in her pottery a group of artisans that made these tiles true works of art. Although she was not an artist or craftsperson per se, Mrs. Harris supervised each step of the entire creative process that produced the handmade art tiles in her shop, from driving her station wagon out into the countryside on clay-gathering trips to mixing all of the pigments herself to insure the proper colors she desired. Mrs. Harris passed away in 1984.

The Witte Museum in San Antonio is hosting an exhibit on Ethel Harris’s tiles and Susan Toomey Frost’s book that will run until March 21, 2010. Click Here.

Susan Toomey Frost has a website that has more information about Mrs. Harris and the tiles. Click Here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

In Holiday Praise of Book Editors

In the midst of the holiday season, many people’s thoughts turn to books since they are a traditional gift at this time of year. I wrote a book that was published this year, so my thoughts also turn to book editors. They are the unsung heroes of the publishing world. It is impossible to publish a book without them and most, if not all, authors remain indebted to their editor. That has absolutely been the case for me with Julie Schoelles, who was the editor of my book Emily Austin of Texas 1795-1851, which was published earlier this year as part of the Texas Biography Series by the TCU Press. Julie currycombed that book, giving it the closest reading that it will probably ever have. “Working through each section,” she later wrote of her activities with my manuscript, “I practiced mechanical editing (focusing on mechanics and consistency of style) and occasionally substantive editing (focusing on content organization).” She found things that I thought had been clearly written, but which with my re-reading needed clarification and recasting. She took her task very seriously. Julie later recalled her work on this book and noted that: “One of my favorite aspects of editing Emily Austin of Texas was the opportunity to establish a collaborative relationship with the author. We communicated on a daily basis about the manuscript’s progress as he answered queries and approved suggestions, and we worked towards mutually agreeable solutions in the event that my editing choices compromised his intended meaning.” Julie also worked closely with the book designer, organized the illustrations, and wrote the advertising copy for the book. It is a pleasure for me to note that this book would not have been possible without the dedication, hard work, and thoroughness of Julie Schoelles. I suspect that every author who has ever published a book could say the same thing about their editor. Julie has moved on from the TCU Press to a position at the Penn State University Press. Texas’s loss is Pennsylvania’s gain.

Visit Julie Schoelles website by clicking here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ranch Gathering: Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raiser's Association

Nancy Hudgins, State Representative Larry Philips and me
I recently spoke to a Ranch Gathering sponsored by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raiser’s Association, one of the oldest organizations in the state. This group was founded after the Civil War and has advanced the interests of the cattle industry ever since. The TSCRA provides insurance plans for members, maintains a force of special rangers to guard against rustling and other criminal activities, hosts workshops, and provides general support for the southwestern cattle industry. It also publishes the “Cattleman Magazine.” Each year the cattle raiser’s association organizes Ranch Gatherings at various locations at which members assemble, visit with each other, and trade impressions about their mutual interests. This year locations included the King Ranch, Duncan in Oklahoma, and a north Texas meeting hosted by the Hudgins family. The Hudgins Ranch is one of the oldest such operations in the area north of Dallas, going back well into the previous century.

Rancher Pete Hudgins, right, presents an award
Pete Hudgins served as host for the dinner. A group of fine cooks served a special beef dinner to over a hundred attendees the likes of which would be impossible to obtain in the finest steak houses of the nation. Eldon White, CEO of the TSCRA and a number of his staff attended. Mr. White gave an update on the association’s activities while Larry Gray, the chief special ranger and head of the association’s Law Enforcement and Theft Services Division, reported on recent developments in his office. Rancher Joe Parker, incoming president of the Association, also attended and brought greetings from the TSCRA board of directors.

State Representative Larry Phillips also spoke to the group, after which I served as the banquet speaker. I surveyed the cattle heritage of Texas, with special emphasis on the history of the industry in north Texas. It was interesting for me because, as I talked about many of the important figures in the development of this industry, I saw in the audience direct descendants of some historical personages I was discussing. One of the things that I did note was that ranching connections in Texas sometimes ran along lines of family lineage, and the composition of the audience drove home that point. I was gratified to learn that the ranching community in Texas has a deep and abiding interest in the history and heritage of Texas.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TSHA Celebrates Important Anniversary and Launches the Texas Almanac

Last night the Texas State Historical Association celebrated the first anniversary of being headquartered on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton by hosting a reception that included a book launch for the new 2010-11 Texas Almanac. This event drew an enthusiastic crowd of UNT administrators, faculty, and friends of the university in addition to TSHA board members, supporters, and others interested in furthering study of the state’s history. Guests included UNT Provost Wendy K. Wilkins and Texas State Representative Myra Crownover. Gayle W. Strange attended in her capacity as a TSHA board member and as a former member of the board of regents of the University of North Texas. Karla K. Morton, the 2010 Poet Laureate of Texas, was also in attendance. The staff of the Portals to Texas History project was also on hand.

Former TSHA President Fran Vick (above left) welcomed attendees during a short program for which she served as master of ceremonies. Provost Wendy K. Wilkins (above center) spoke on behalf of the University of North Texas, reaffirming the school’s strong and significant support for the TSHA as a member of its campus community. TSHA executive director Kent Calder (above right) responded, reviewing the accomplishments of the association since its move to Denton in the fall of 2008. These have included the completion of impressive new office space, the creation of a endowed chair in Texas history to be shared with the university’s history department, the publishing of the new edition of the almanac, the continuation of all the association's programs in education and outreach, successful maintaining of all TSHA academic programs, and setting the organization on a much stronger financial base. All in attendance agreed that the THSA looks forward to a bright and very promising future at the University of North Texas.

The reception concluded with book signing by the editors of the new edition of the Almanac. Editors Elizabeth Alvarez and Robert Plocheck (above) were on hand to greet the attendees and signed many copies of the new edition. Below, I pose as the current Texas State Historian for a picture with Karla K. Morton, the 2010 Poet Laureate of Texas.