Within Mexic-Arte’s bright turquoise main gallery, sketches and glazed tiles take you on a tour of immigrant collective memory from 1931-1977. The “San Jose tiles” of San Antonio, TX, a collection of tiles, pottery and hand-drawn drafts, reminisce themes to be expected in a Mexican artisan collection: rudimentary, folkloric and ideal. While the tiles are not visually spectacular or complex, there exists a beauty within the nature of the work, in its ease in expression, and for the history that can be witnessed along the lengths of the walls.
Ethel Wilson Harris, a native Texan, was living in San Antonio when she started ‘Mexican Arts and Crafts’ in a workshop near the San Antonio River. The name and location of her collective changed over the years but her efforts to give Mexican immigrants an artistic voice remained. With the help of Fernando Ramos as chief designer, her small collective gained notoriety after showcasing in the Chicago World Fair in 1933; The American public was intrigued by its exotic and distant neighbors.
Handmade tiles depicting Mexican landscapes, daily chores, festive parties and family life make up the bulk of the exhibition. The lines are simple but not to be misjudged. One of my favorite pieces is a tile called “The Candy Seller,” which transports me back to the time I lived in Guanajuato, Mexico. The vendor on the tile, similar to the man from whom I would buy chili mango candy, sits at his stand filled with brightly colored confections. Unaware of a buyer’s sweet tooth, he reads the Mexican newspaper “La Prensa” with furrowed eyebrows and an angry demeanor. We are reminded of how bittersweet life can often be.
So many times we feel the need to overanalyze and scrutinize images until we can no longer see them, but the simplicity here is refreshing. A land of hard work, varying geography, and an appreciation for simple but profound pleasures are organically portrayed in this collection. Love, memory, and past experience form the artists’ inspiration that was made possible by a woman set out to unite, collectively create and form a lasting impression on American society.
Mexic-Arte Museum is dedicated to enriching the community through education programs and exhibitions focusing on traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art and culture. Since its founding in 1984, Mexic-Arte Museum has been designated as the Official Mexican and Mexican American Fine Art Museum of Texas by the 78th Legislature of the State of Texas.
The Mexic-Arte Museum is located at 419 Congress Ave. “Colors On Clay” runs through March 27.