Weaving a Life
Defining moments in life can change the course of events forever.
For John Pottie, his moment happened while he was strolling through a Milwaukee antique mall in 1980.
Pottie didn’t know then what he knows now: his find that day was created on a mechanical loom using keypunch-card technology that led to the birth of the information age and the invention of the calculator and computer. And it’s all enshrined in downtown Weston, Mo.
HOW IT STARTED
A lack of knowledge about woven silk art launched John Pottie's 30+ years quest to collect it.
Pottie, a former Wisconsin restaurateur who moved to Platte County, Mo., in 1992, was an avid pool player and collector of pool, billiards and bar memorabilia. At that antique mall in Milwaukee, he spotted what he thought was an engraving of Victorian men and women playing billiards. Thinking that it would be a welcome addition to his collection of shot glasses and beer steins, he brought it home.
On closer inspection, he realized his $50 purchase was a tapestry made from finely woven silk thread. That sparked his interest in learning more about silk art. He visited libraries, museums and art institutes throughout the Milwaukee and Chicago areas, but came up empty-handed.
“There was no information, period,” says Pottie, 67.
That lack of knowledge triggered what became a more than 30-year passion for what he calls a lost art form.
After two years of learning virtually nothing, in 1982 Pottie sent a copy of his find to a journal for billiards aficionados. Finally, he hit pay dirt. He learned that the piece was an example of Jacquard weaving. By 1983, when he bought his tenth silk piece — a scene depicting a puppet show — he says he made the decision to go “after everything and eventually have a museum.”
For the next 20 years, Pottie collected woven silk tapestries, mostly French, and stored them in a spare bedroom at his house. In 2003, he decided to display 75 pieces in the second floor of Charlemagne’s Restaurant, which he owned at 616 Thomas St. in downtown Weston. He also displayed several pieces in the dining area. After a while, people began visiting the restaurant more for the art than the food.
COLLECTING ART ... AND FANS
Over the years, Pottie has amassed, primarily by spending nominal sums at auction houses and flea markets, what he claims is the largest collection of Victorian and Renaissance silk art in the world. The National Silk Art Museum outgrew Charlemagne’s and then its second home in Weston, inside the Saint George Hotel at 500 Main St. Last summer it moved to a former Bank of Weston building at 423 Main St.
Pottie says the collection has more than 350 pieces, but he can’t give an exact number.
“There are two reasons for this,” he says. “I get started counting and then get interrupted, and the other reason is that I’m accountable to my wife for how many I have.”
Much of the artwork is religious in nature because it was commissioned by churches.
His wife, Venessa, is an environmental scientist and the museum’s director of research and acquisitions.
Pottie has big plans for the museum. He wants to expand to the upper floor of the old bank building, and he’s working to make the museum an affiliate of the Smithsonian. He hopes to finalize that process in the first quarter of this year.
Smithsonian affiliation would allow Pottie to add the Smithsonian name to the museum, and would help with foundation funding, seminars and classes and textbook publishing.
The museum also recently reorganized as a 501(C3) organization, the Museum of Fibre Arts, Inc. His daughter, Adrienne Haake, is president of the corporation.
Like the art he’s amassed, Pottie's life has evolved into a tapestry rich in color, diversity and vintage perspectives.
KANSAS CITY'S BACKYARD TREASURE
Just what is so special about Pottie’s collection that brings visitors from around the nation and the world?
To Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, professor and chair of the Fiber Department at the Kansas City Art Institute, the answer is simple: it’s a treasure in Kansas City’s backyard.
“He definitely has a collection that’s worth showing, preserving, highlighting and showcasing,” she says. Calling the collection “mind-boggling,” Verbeek-Cowart initially did not believe what she was seeing when she first saw the tapestries in Pottie’s restaurant.
“It was a strange sensation because you look around and you think, ‘This is not possible. Things don’t make sense that here, in this little restaurant up in the attic, is this amazing collection,’” she says, adding that Pottie himself is amazing. “The time and energy he has invested to actually build his collection is astonishing. It’s his life’s work and his passion. It’s a super great example of what you can do when you’re passionate about something.”
For Pottie, what’s amazing is the look of awe on visitors’ faces when they step inside the museum.
“They don’t know what they’re getting into,” he says.
And no matter where they come from, their reactions are pretty much the same. Most are simply wowed.
Visitors get a free tour and a history lesson on French silk tapestry, based on works by major artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. They learn that silk tapestry, the art of weaving silk threads into an image for decorative purposes, is a precursor to photography.
They also gain an understanding that the keypunch-card technology used to create the works was the beginning of the information age that led to the invention of the calculator and computer.
BEGINNINGS OF THE INFORMATION AGE
Admittance to The National Silk Art Museum is free. Private tours are available.
According to Pottie, in 1801, French inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard first used an automated loom with existing keypunch-card technology to successfully mass produce fishing nets. Cards streamed through the loom’s mechanism, dictating which threads would be placed where.
In 1804, he adopted the technology to create patterned textiles. That technology led Charles Babbage to create the first calculator—an analytical machine – in 1840. In 1939, IBM created the first large-scale computer.
“I always tell people that when Lewis and Clark were sitting in Weston battling mosquitoes, Jacquard in France was computerizing the loom,” Pottie says. “That was the beginning of the birth of the information age.”
But Jacquard was never involved with producing portraits or landscapes. That task fell to weaver Francois Michel-Marie Carquillat, who in 1839 became the first person to successfully copy masterpieces on a mechanical loom as a major means of reproduction, an art form for which only the French were successful, Pottie says.
Reproducing a painting in silk on a mechanical loom required a laborious, intricate and complex process that only the wealthiest families, royalty or churches could afford to commission. Some pieces are reproductions of renowned paintings, while others haven’t been traced to an original, leading Pottie to believe that some of that art is lost forever and preserved only in silk.
By converting details of a painting to dots, much like pixels in televisions or digital photographs of today, the mechanical looms were programmed to reproduce artwork in fabric. Every dot the size of a pencil point depicted in the pictures has 400 threads of woven silk. It took 7.4 miles worth of punch cards to recreate the pictures, involving three years of production set-up time.
“You’ve got 7.4 miles worth of cards hand-sewn together, so if a string stretches, it’s over. If there was a snag or a pull or a tear, it’s over,” Pottie says. “They weren’t made for resale, so they weren’t concerned about production.”
He believes the true artists were the designers who created the keypunch cards.
“It’s kind of like an artists’ workshop. They’re the ones who never get recognized.”
MUSEUM INSPIRES AWE
One of the museum’s many admirers is Jim Black, owner of Black’s Frame Shop in Smithville, Mo. For about five years, Black has worked to repair the tapestries’ original frames or reframe them with materials typical of the era. He also replaces old mats with acid-free ones to prevent threads from disintegrating.
Black’s work allows him to get a close-up look at a tapestry, front and back.
“It’s absolutely amazing, the detail that is in it,” he says. “When light shines off of it at different angles, you see the different tones and colors that you don’t see in any other type of art. It’s an art form that people have not really recognized. They don’t understand the detail and what it takes to do it.”
By converting details of a painting to dots, much like pixels in digital photographs of today, mechanical looms were programmed to reproduce artwork in fabric. Every dot the size of a pencil point depicted in the pictures has 400 threads of woven silk.
Pottie has dedicated his life to making sure museum visitors understand and appreciate the process. Over the years, the museum has continued to inspire awe, mainly because of the tapestries’ three-dimensional characteristics and intricate weaving. Visitors to the museum, which includes a small gift shop and a library in which half of the books are more than a century old, often are curators, historians, weavers and others interested in art.
In 2004, one such visitor was the assistant curator of the Louvre, Pottie recalls. She called the museum a mini-Louvre and said the collection should be back in France.
But Pottie has no such plans. The tapestries are remarkable examples of an art form of a bygone era, and he likes the idea of the extensive collection of French art having a home in, of all places, Weston.
“They were here 150 years ago, some of these pieces, and they’re going to be here another 150 years from now,” he says. “So all I am is just a mere caretaker.”
For more information, visit nationalsilkartmuseum.com