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Rural Missouri Magazine

An Unexpected Treasure
A surprise flea market find leads John Pottie to
a world-class collection of French and English silk art

by Bob McEowen

John Pottie, a Weston restaurant, hotel and bar owner (and West Platte High School track coach), displays an early 19th-century woven silk illustration of Joseph Marie Jacquard, the French inventor of a weaving loom guided by punch cards. Pottie says his collection of French and British silk art created on Jacquard looms is probably the largest and most extensive in the world.

Weston thrives on the unexpected. A historic community north of Kansas City, Weston invites visitors to explore its narrow streets, browse its shops and sample the local flavor at its restaurants.

Nothing could be more unexpected than what awaits travelers in two small storefront rooms located inside the 1845 Saint George Hotel. In fact, the artwork on display at the National Silk Art Museum would surprise devotees of fiber arts, no matter where it was found.

Inside this small museum are nearly 200 reproductions of masterpiece paintings and other illustrations, each woven in silk. Originally commissioned by 19th-century royalty and heads of churches, this artwork represents the pinnacle of the weaver’s craft. It also preserves a critical step in the march of technology that eventually led to calculators and computers.
The self-proclaimed National Silk Art Museum is actually the personal collection of restaurateur and innkeeper John Pottie, who purchased the Saint George Hotel in August 2008. He claims that his museum is “the most important and extensive exhibition of woven silk tapestry ever shown in the world.”

Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, interim chair of the Kansas City Art Institute’s Fiber Arts Department, doesn’t question Pottie’s assertion.

“It is mind boggling,” she says. “He has a range of work that is unlike anything else in the world. He has a few very important pieces that maybe only one or two exist anywhere.”

Pottie’s three-decade-long pursuit of the world’s best silk art collection began in 1980 while he was shopping at an antique mall. The sports memorabilia collector and former semi-pro billiards player found what appeared to be an illustration of an 18th-century French billiards scene. “I didn’t even know it was woven when I bought it,” he recalls.

When Pottie examined the artwork closer, he discovered it was not an engraving as he expected, but rather finely woven thread. Attempts to research woven silk illustrations hit dead ends as Pottie contacted museums and art schools in the Chicago area, where he was living at the time. Finally, a fellow billiards collectables enthusiast identified the piece as an example of Jacquard weaving.

Pottie's collection of 18th- and 19th-century silk art began with this depiction of a French billiards scene. Pottie did not realize the piece was woven until he got it home and examined the artwork more closely.

In 1804, French inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard adopted existing punch card technology to operate a loom. Just as early computers took instructions from punch cards, a card reader on Jacquard’s machine controlled the pull of thread on the loom. In fact, Jacquard’s loom is considered an evolutionary step in a chain of inventions that culminated with the first computers.

“It was Jacquard’s 1804 technology that led Charles Babbage to the calculator in 1840,” Pottie says. “In 1880, (Herman) Hollerith made the census counter with punch cards and, in 1939, IBM made their Harvard Mark I computer.”

By converting details of a painting to dots — much like the pixels of today’s digital photographs — it was possible to program a loom to reproduce artwork in fabric. It was a laborious process, requiring as much as three years of work to map out the details of a painting and prepare punch cards to recreate it.

Reproducing a painting in silk was so complex and time-consuming that only the wealthiest patrons — churches or monarchies, typically — could afford to commission the work. Consequently, much of the artwork woven into silk in the mid-19th century was religious in nature.

Some of the paintings in the collection are reproductions of well-known works of art. Others relate to no known original, leading Pottie to believe that some art is lost to history and preserved only in silk.

The National Silk Art Museum is located inside of Weston's historic Saint George Hotel. Photo courtesy of the Saint George Hotel.

Many of the works in the National Silk Art Museum are relatively small; 8 inches by 10 inches or smaller. The largest examples measure 22 inches by 33 inches. The looms in use in the mid 1880s allowed only one large panel, two medium-sized pieces, or perhaps a couple of dozen smaller pieces to be woven at once. As a result, examples of early silk art — especially larger pictures — are quite rare.

Examining early Jacquard weavings under a magnifying glass reveals incredible detail and subtle gradations in shades. “Every dot has 400 threads per dot, which is 2 million pixel quality, or like today’s very best high-definition television,” says Pottie, a member of Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative.

By the early 1900s, a number of companies in Britain produced woven silk art, which they sold as bookmarks and postcards. The National Silk Art Museum includes a variety of these more common products. One display presents a collection of postcards, each depicting a different European church on fire — a silken record of the damage caused by World War I. Another postcard shows Verdun, site of the longest battle of World War I. The inscription on the card reads “Kindest regards and best wishes from a sincere friend, France, December 1918.” It is signed by author Ernest Hemingway, whose “A Farewell to Arms” was inspired by his service in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps.

Pottie’s collection is the result of contacts made while traveling the U.S. and Europe throughout his career in the restaurant, hotel and beverage industries. He has befriended dealers and collectors and spends untold hours scouring antique shops and flea markets.

“I’m to the point where I can almost smell them when I walk in the door,” he says of his ability to find silk art. “I can walk into a big antique mall, and it’s like they jump out at you.”

The best silk art of the 18th century has resolution rivaling that a modern high definition television.

Pottie says he purchases silk art for nominal sums, often as little as $50 or $100. Similar pieces have sold at art auctions for tens of thousands of dollars. The largest pieces in his collection are essentially priceless, he says.

Because silk art is so unusual, owners often do not understand what they have or appreciate its significance, says Verbeek-Cowart.

“When it’s handed down from one generation to the next, communicating the value of these pieces is lost. People don’t recognize it as art,” she says. “In fact, because they are so fine, they look like engravings or photographs. Until you take them out of the frames and really inspect them, do you see that they’re made out of thread.”

To educate the public about silk art, Pottie, or one of the members of his hotel staff, guides each visitor through the museum, pointing out unique pieces and building his guest’s understanding and appreciation of this little-known art.

Pottie originally housed his collection at Charlemagne’s Restaurant, which he’s operated in Weston since 2004. Named for Charles the Great, founder of the French and German monarchies, Charlemagne’s is one of the most popular dining spots in Weston. But the owner — who claims to be a descendant of Charlemagne — says the restaurant would not have survived its first years without his collection on display. “Charlemagne’s does really well, but without the art as the draw, it would have never happened,” Pottie says.

A 2005 survey of restaurant patrons showed 7,100 came specifically to see the art. Of those, 3,300 had never been to Weston and 1,100 mostly foreign visitors had never heard of Missouri.

“Last year, we topped 14,000 people from 52 countries who came to see this art,” Pottie says.

The National Silk Art Museum charges no admission. And while the artwork does attract visitors to the hotel — which also houses Audrey’s Café and Valentino’s, a vaudeville-themed champagne and wine bar — the real payoff, Pottie says, is the opportunity to share his appreciation of this unique art.

The move to the Saint George promises Pottie’s collection a much more prominent display. But its current location is not the final venue, he says. Pottie envisions an even larger facility and, perhaps, some day appealing to Congress for official designation as a national museum.

Until then, visitors to Weston already can enjoy a most unexpected pleasure as they receive a personal guided tour of the museum and an education in the history and beauty of French and English silk art. And, Pottie says, he wouldn’t mind if visitors spent some time and money at his accommodations.

The National Silk Art Museum is located inside the Saint George Hotel at 500 Main St. in Weston. Tours are available during daytime business hours and during the evenings on weekends. For more information, call 816-640-9902 or log on to www.nationalsilkartmuseum.com.

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