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WESTON, Missouri – It all started with a trip to an antique mall and a $ 50 deal on what John Pottie thought was an old print.
Now it’s his life.
As Pottie went to reframe the room, he discovered that the detailed billiard scene he had purchased was, in fact, a piece of woven silk.
Inspired by the unusual find, Pottie visited libraries and museums in search of information about the piece and the art form. He left empty-handed. It seemed that no one knew anything about the silk artwork he had come across.
Forty years later, he is the founder and curator of The National Museum of Silk Arts in the bed and breakfast town of Weston, located just 40 minutes north of Kansas City. Since his first discovery, Pottie has dedicated himself to discovering and preserving the history of this complex and technical art form.
âForty-one years (of) mainly research,â Pottie said of his life in the field. âMost of this information was collected before the Internet existed. “
At first, Pottie scoured the yellow pages of auction houses, art galleries, and antique malls, then sent in requests for pieces of silk and waited for a response.
It was to Pottie’s advantage that little knowledge existed about the art form. He was able to collect coins at a fraction of their value. He found pieces for as little as $ 10 and built a museum that today boasts over 500 works of silk art.
Most of the pieces are unique works. Others had never been exposed before arriving in Weston.
The frames on Pottie’s walls are more than just intricate works of art. They also represent the history of the technologies we use every day.
The museum pieces were made with a jacquard weaving machine. The machine (invented in the 1700s) was powered by lines of hand-made punch cards that instructed certain levers to raise or lower depending on the model. The punch cards were used in the same way to program the first IBM computers and store data.
In the center of her lobby, Pottie has a large jacquard loom from Dresden, Germany. Burn marks on the legs mark the bombing of the city during WWII.
âWithout this little device here, you wouldn’t have laptops, no cell phones. That’s where it all started, âsaid Pottie.
Of course, the machine was only part of the process. Artists still had to work for weeks to turn an oil painting into detailed pieces of silk that Pottie kept.
First, artists would turn the paintings into “cartoons” with grids of small dots, which would then be converted into punched cards, sewn together by hand and passed through weaving machines. This effectively enabled the automation of weaving which was previously a long and expensive production.
While this technology allows for automation, it was still a long process and by no means easy. For a silk weave the size of a piece of computer paper, Pottie said it would take 24,000 individual, hand-sewn punch cards to inform the machine.
Just imagine the headache if one of them breaks down.
âThey are rare,â Pottie said. “With this process, production is limited because with so many hand-sewn punch cards, disaster is waiting to happen.”
In 2013, Pottie opened the museum in what was once the downtown bank.
Previously, he owned a German cuisine restaurant in Weston where he exhibited the collection since 2003.
This is how Pauline Verbeek, president of the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute, saw Pottie’s collection for the first time.
Verbeek said she was shocked when she saw the collection for herself after a neighbor recommended she take the trip.
âI have to say I wasâ¦ not just amazed, but stunned,â Verbeek said. âBecause it’s not what you expect to find when you understand textiles. “
Most people, like Pottie when he first started, have no idea what these coins are really worth. Verbeek knows the history of the technology and the amount of work behind each of Pottie’s pieces, so it was even more shocking when she saw the woven postcards of Neyret FrÃ¨res on her walls.
âIt’s pretty important what this collection is,â Verbeek said.
Recently, Verbeek worked to help create an enlarged version of a tapestry to accompany a current weaving show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Many people don’t understand the intricacies of tapestry construction, so the template is meant to explain the detailed process. The art of tapestry is more popular than Pottie’s silk pieces, and on a larger scale, so she imagines that it is difficult for many visitors to understand the importance of Pottie’s collection just by looking at them.
âThey look like paintingsâ¦ if you don’t look at them almost under a microscope because it’s so fine, it’s so detailed,â Verbeek said.
Pottie’s passion for art and the research he has done make him an excellent teacher for visitors.
For those with hours to spend in the museum, he can tell a story behind each piece.
For example, consider a small room depicting the French woman Charlotte Corday. Pottie told the story of Corday, a French Republican journalist who was executed on the guillotine during the French Revolution, for assassinating the leader of the Democratic press.
That’s what it’s all about for Pottie. He not only acquires the coins, but finds their history. It has a few pieces of silk art that have survived their original oil paintings. Others are the upholstered versions of paintings hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or locally at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Before the pandemic, Pottie hosted visitors from all 50 states and other countries. On average a week, he saw hundreds of visitors.
âIf you’re in history, this is the place to be,â Pottie said. âVictorian and Edwardian art is the place to be.â
Almost anyone who stumbles upon this museum will find something to connect with.
Its vast collection includes French, German, Spanish and English weavings. It has a woven silk postcard sent by Ernest Hemingway during his time in France, bookmarks with soccer players, past presidents, romantic scenes, and Bible stories.
Two years after first purchasing the billiard scene that started it all, Pottie finally learned the piece was from English silk weaver Thomas Stevens. Now Pottie has a whole gallery of works by Stevens in his museum.
For now, Pottie is the living manual of the art of silk. His books on the history of textiles are far from the knowledge he has accumulated. As Pottie ages, he hopes to create his own textbook to extend his knowledge beyond the walls of the museum.
In addition to the manual, he hopes to further establish a digital version of the museum to serve as a research base and reference for the collection.
âThat way my information that I have accumulated will be online somewhere for someone,â Pottie said.
Pottie’s collection is important to the history of this art. Verbeek said she hopes that one day more people will be able to view the collection, all over the world, without having to physically travel to Weston.
âThere is a hidden gem in Weston,â Verbeek said.
The collection covers a period in art history which, according to Verbeek, was unique and controversial. While the jacquard machine was an incredible innovation, it also put some traditional weavers out of business.
The circle is complete now that Verbeek is teaching students how to program a computerized jacquard machine in his textile lab. The very machine that served as the basis of the first computers can now be automated by a computer.
âIt’s interesting to see where this technology finds us now,â said Verbeek. âWe have come full circle in this development. “
She even has students who are able to understand technology based on their computer skills, and without any weaving instruction. Technology and equipment are important not only for textiles but also for the conversation around digital tools in artistic creation.
“It is now rekindling a renewed interest in textiles,” said Verbeek.
The Pottie’s Museum in Weston is sure to offer a bit of thought, even for those with no knowledge of textile art.
The National Silk Art Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and is located at 423 Main St. in Weston, Missouri.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.