Published September 28th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
WESTON, Missouri – It started with a trip to an antique mall and a $50 bid on what John Pottie thought was an old print.
Now it’s his life.
As Pottie went to reframe the piece, he discovered the detailed billiards scene he’d bought was, in fact, a woven piece of silk.
Inspired by the unusual find, Pottie visited libraries and museums looking for information on the piece and the artform. He came away empty handed. It seemed no one knew anything about the silk art piece he’d stumbled upon.
Forty years later he’s the founder and curator of The National Silk Art Museum in the bed-and-breakfast town of Weston, located just 40 minutes north of Kansas City. Since his first find, Pottie has devoted himself to discovering and preserving the history of this intricate and technical art form.
“Forty-one years (of) primarily research,” Pottie said about his life in the field. “The bulk of this was collected before there was such a thing as the internet.”
At the start, Pottie would scour yellow pages for auction houses, art galleries and antique malls, then send in requests for silk pieces and wait for a response.
It was to Pottie’s benefit that little knowledge existed on the artform. He was able to collect pieces at a fraction of their worth. He found some pieces for as little as $10, and built a museum that now boasts more than 500 works of silk art.
Many of the pieces are one-of-a-kind works. Others had never been displayed prior to arriving in Weston.
The frames on Pottie’s walls are more than just intricate pieces of art. They also represent the early history of technologies we use every day.
Pieces in the museum were made with the jacquard weaving machine. The machine (invented in the 1700s) was fed lines of handmade punch cards which would inform certain levers to lift or lower depending on the pattern. Punch cards were used in the same way to program the first IBM computers and store data.
In the center of his lobby, Pottie has a large jacquard loom hailing from Dresden, Germany. Burn marks on the legs mark the city’s bombing during World War II.
“Without this little device right here, you’d have no laptops, no cell phones. That’s where it all started,” Pottie said.
Of course, the machine was only part of the process. Artists still had to labor for weeks to turn an oil painting into the detailed silk pieces Pottie has preserved.
First, artists would turn the paintings into “cartoons” with grids of tiny dots, which would then be converted to punch cards, sewn together by hand, and fed through the weaving machines. This effectively allowed for the automation of weaving which had previously been a long, costly production.
While this technology allowed for automation, it was still a lengthy, and by no means easy, process. For a silk weaving about the size of a piece of computer paper, Pottie said it would take 24,000 individual punch cards, hand stitched together, to inform the machine.
Just imagine the headache if one got out of order.
“They’re rare,” Pottie said. “With that process, production is limited because with that many punch cards hand sewn together, that’s a disaster 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 had the collection on display since 2003.
This is how Pauline Verbeek, chair of the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute, first saw Pottie’s collection.
Verbeek said she was shocked when she saw the collection for herself after a neighbor recommended she make the trip.
“I have to say I was … not just in awe, but dumbfounded,” Verbeek said. “Because it’s not what you expect to find when you understand textiles.”
Most people, like Pottie when he first started, are clueless as to the true value of these pieces. Verbeek knows the history of the technology and the amount of labor behind each of Pottie’s pieces, so it was even more shocking when she saw Neyret Frères’ woven postcards on his walls.
“It’s pretty significant what this collection is,” Verbeek said.
Recently, Verbeek worked to help create an enlarged version of a tapestry to go alongside a current weaving exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Many people don’t understand the intricacies of tapestry construction, so the model is meant to explain the detailed process. Tapestry art is more popular than Pottie’s silk pieces, and on a larger scale, so she imagines it’s difficult for many visitors to understand the significance of Pottie’s collection just from looking at them.
“They look like paintings … if you did not look at it under almost a microscope because it is so fine, it is so detailed,” Verbeek said.
Pottie’s passion for the art and the research he’s done makes him a great teacher to visitors.
For those who have hours to spend in the museum, he can tell a story behind every single piece.
For example, consider a small piece depicting French woman Charlotte Corday. Pottie recounted the story of Corday, a French republican journalist who was executed on the guillotine during the French Revolution, for assassinating the head of the democratic press.
That’s what it’s all about for Pottie. He not only acquires the pieces, but finds their story. He has some silk art pieces that have outlived their original oil paintings. Others are the tapestry versions of paintings hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or locally at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Prior to the pandemic, Pottie would have visitors from all 50 states and other countries. On an average week he’d see hundreds of visitors.
“If you’re into history, this is the place to be,” Pottie said. “Victorian and Edwardian art, this is the place to be.”
Just about everyone who stumbles into this museum will find something to connect with.
His vast collection features French, German, Spanish and English weavings. He has a silk woven postcard sent from Ernest Hemingway during his time in France, bookmarks with football players, former presidents, romantic scenes and biblical stories.
Two years after he’d first bought the billiards scene that started it all, Pottie finally learned the piece was by the English silk weaver, Thomas Stevens. Now, Pottie has a whole gallery of Stevens’ works in his museum.
For the time being, Pottie is the living textbook on silk art. His books on textile history come nowhere near the knowledge he’s collected. As Pottie ages, he hopes to create a textbook of his own to get his knowledge beyond the museum walls.
In addition to the textbook, he hopes to further establish a digital version of the museum to serve as a research and reference base of the collection.
“That way my information that I’ve accumulated will be somewhere online for somebody,” Pottie said.
Pottie’s collection is important for the history of this art. Verbeek said she hoped one day more people would be able to see the collection, worldwide, without having to physically travel to Weston.
“There’s a jewel hidden in Weston,” Verbeek said.
The collection spans a period in art history that Verbeek said was unique and controversial. While the jacquard machine was an incredible innovation, it also put some traditional weavers out of business.
It’s come full circle now as Verbeek teaches students how to program a computerized jacquard machine in her textile lab. The very machine that served as a basis for early computers can now be automated by a computer.
“It is interesting to see where that technology now finds us,” Verbeek said. “We’re full circle in that development.”
She even has some students who are able to understand the technology based on their computer skills, and without any weaving instruction. The technology and the equipment is important not only for textiles but also for the conversation around digital tools in artmaking.
“It now is rekindling a renewed interest in textiles,” Verbeek said.
Pottie’s museum in Weston is sure to offer a bit of reflection, even for those with no knowledge of textile art.
The National Silk Art Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and 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.