Susan Toomey Frost stimulates a second revival of San Antonio’s traditional tilework

“Benign Obsession” was the moniker she assumed on eBay, but, fortunately for San Antonio, Susan Toomey Frost’s obsession with the products of San Jose Tile Workshops proved anything but benign.

I first “met” “Benign Obsession” online, back when eBay was more fun because you could see the id of those you were bidding against, begin to understand their patterns and learn from an expert willing to warn you of forgeries lurking out there. Susan, in fact, became the leading expert on San Jose Tile Workshops; she literally wrote the book about them. The stunningly beautiful publication, Colors on Clay, was published by Trinity Press in 2009.

I was excitedly telling Sally Buchanan, then president of the San Antonio River Foundation, that I finally succeeded in purchasing a San Jose plate on eBay when she casually mentioned her friend, Susan, was looking for a home for an entire tile mural. I was thrilled to be near one plate, but an entire mural…. With miles of extended riverside trails in the planning stage, surely we could find a home for a Work Projects Administration ((WPA) era mural.

And Susan said, yes, of course, she would donate it to the River Foundation. 

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Privately commissioned by Mayor Maury Maverick, the 188-tile mural had been rescued by Susan from a home on Huebner Road that was slated for demolition. She flew in a tile preservationist from California to gently pry the mural from concrete and carefully stored the tiles for close to a decade.

“What I do,” Susan explained to me the other day, “is try to save their lives and get them in public view in a safe place.”

Architects from Ford, Powell & Carson came up with the ideal location within the project, directly below El Tropicano Hotel on the river, the point where the original Robert H.H. Hugman designed River Walk began and the new Museum Reach now extends northward. This also is directly below the spot where the mural was born – the Mexican Arts and Crafts shop operated in the old Nat Lewis Barn by Ethel Wilson Harris (1893-1884).

In Colors on Clay, Susan wrote that Harris became the technical supervisor of the Arts and Crafts Division of WPA in San Antonio in 1939. Sixty workers joined her existing crew of craftsmen in the workshop on St. Mary’s Street.

While I had long admired the two existing murals on the river resulting from the WPA program – the “Twin Cypress” mural on the stairway by the flood control gate at the northern end of downtown river bend and “Old Mill Crossing” now at the river level of Hotel Contessa by the Navarro Street Bridge – I had no idea of the quantity and diversification of the products resulting from the WPA program until reading Colors on Clay. In addition to the four spectacular 60-square-foot works – depicting a century of sports in San Antonio from Native American archers on Military Plaza in 1840 to high school football in 1940 – at the entrance to Alamo Stadium, here are other contributions Susan described:

Six weeks after Harris’s appointment, WPA workers were building a kiln to fire 500 sets of dishes for distribution to needy families….

Harris also supervised the wrought iron shop that forged lanterns, railings, table frames and other decorative and useful objects, including window grilles for the Spanish Governor’s Palace, a fountain in the form of lilies of the valley for the San José Burial Park, a wrought iron gate and window frames for the San Pedro Park bandstand, barbecue pits for Olmos Park, and fifty artistic foot scrapers for schools and city parks….

Because federal funding supported the program, charitable and public institutions in and around San Antonio received the products free of charge. City parks and golf courses, for example, received tile drinking fountains and 1,000 concrete and wooden benches carved with a Lone Star….

Susan’s search-rescue-and-return efforts have taken her on virtual and actual adventures throughout the country as she finds new homes in San Antonio and nearby for the tiles made here long ago. Her obsession with the project is only matched by her generosity: Texas State Centennial tables now live at the Witte Museum and the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University; a “Las Sombras” mural graces the cafeteria at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church; and soon works will be installed on the river behind the Witte Museum, at the Ceramics Studio of the Southwest School of Art, at the new theater at SAY Si and at the restored Women’s Pavilion in HemisFair Park.

And there is another mural, this one recovered from Indiana, that Susan has pledged to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project. It, too, is returning to just below its birthplace. During her lifetime, Ethel Wilson Harris operated San José Potteries next to Mission San José and Mission Crafts within the mission compound itself. The Mexican village scene will be installed at the portal reconnecting the historical ties of Mission San José to the river.

In 1943, the Texas Legislature recognized Ethel Wilson Harris for her role in “the revival and perpetuation of Mexican arts and crafts,” skills Spanish friars taught Native Americans long ago on mission grounds, skills almost lost as Americans rushed pell-mell into an age where machines mass-produced what once had been crafted carefully by hand.

This traditional art form from San Antonio’s past is now entering its second revival due to the efforts of Susan Toomey Frost. Her obsession is bringing the tiles home to roost before they were lost or all ended up hidden away from public view in the homes of wealthy Californians.