In Memory: Fran Potter

People can come into your life at magical, meaningful times, and this was certainly true of my relationship with Fran Potter.  I was just embarking on the transition from Montessori school to unschool homeschooling—a learning adventure for which my mom was the great champion.  As a family physician, she was confident in teaching math and science, PBS and museums were our frequent friends, the local public library knew us quite well, and her mantra of “I will find you art and music teachers” was a foundation of rounding out the experience.  I was just entering the equivalent of 7th grade and on the cusp of turning 13 years old.

When I was 11, our family had spent 10 months living in Arizona, soaking up the Southwest vibe that felt almost like another country compared to living in Wisconsin.  I’d fallen in love with the look of Southwest indigenous arts, as we’d taken every chance we had to visit museums, ruins, and historic places.

Back in Wisconsin two years later, Mom was looking through the enrichment courses listings for the Madison Area Technical College and found “Navajo Rug Weaving” as an option.  “Would that be of interest to you?” she asked.  I was emphatically excited by the idea, even though I had extremely limited weaving experience.  I came from a home of knitters, crocheters, sewers, and embroiderers, but no one was a weaver.  Mom had found a tutorial video on VCR about Navajo weaving during our Arizona time, and we’d made small frame looms to dabble in the technique, but that was the extent of our experience.

Fran and Laura with tapestry
Fran and Laura with round loom
Fran's tapestry

Essentially, I was a clean slate for the weaving process, which Fran later said is helpful in her students, as often those with previous weaving experience struggle more to adapt to the methods and techniques of Navajo tapestry.  Signing up wasn’t simple, however, because I was less than 18 years old, and Fran had to meet me first before making special approval.  Happily, I was accepted, and there began a 5 ½ year extensive apprenticeship with this amazing master weaver.  Above is an image of one of Fran’s large phase three chief blanket pieces, one of the only images I have of the tapestry she wove.

We met once a week for several hours in the basement of a church, with everyone hauling in their projects for the sessions then taking them home again.  I was a generation or two (or so) younger than any of the other students, but they soon became a host of extra grandmothers in this creative community.  We met for the fall semester, took a short break over the holidays, met for the spring semester, and then Fran taught at other locations during the summer, including Seavers and The Clearing in Door County.

When I began working with Fran, some of the other students had been with her for a decade (a few of them still working on the same project), and it soon became apparent that I was a quick study.  Fran began walking me through all the different Navajo techniques that she had learned—from raised outline to double weave, saddle blanket twill to pictorials, and even working on a Navajo round loom.  This was a unique and invaluable experience that kept me challenged.

Fran offered a slate of classes through MATC during the week, including Tuesday afternoons and evenings, Wednesday mornings in Mendota, and Thursday afternoons and evenings back at the church.  I was in the Thursday afternoon group, but several semesters in, the MATC staff told us I couldn’t re-register for that class because it was during school hours and I was a minor.  “But we’re homeschooled!” my mom objected.  They were unmoved.  When we consulted Fran, she offered “Oh, just sign up for the Thursday evening group and come to the afternoon one,” her eyes twinkling.

When my family moved up north to the farm, I didn’t want to lose taking classes with Fran.  So, on our monthly voyages back to Madison for the library, music lessons, theater, and other cultural events, I would hit all five sessions that week, then head north again.  Needless to say, a TON of weaving happened that week!  It also gave me a chance to meet all the different groups and see their projects as well.

It takes a special kind of person to teach tapestry weaving well, but not only did she teach us how to weave—she taught us a reverence for the work, its history, and its people.  She had a tremendous calm about her and a love for these textiles that infused who she was and how she shared her time with students.  Not only was Fran a weaver but she also restored Navajo textiles in her home.  When one was complete, she would bring it to class and tell us about its history, the materials and dyes used, and stories of the designs.

She’d share stories such as how a particular red in a piece was cotton instead of wool, how the weavers had unraveled the red cotton bags that held the coffee beans at the trading post, carded the fibers back into fluff, spun them, then woven the new yarn into their rugs.  Her goal in all this was to help students learn to value these pieces, their makers, and the lineage of these textiles.  She felt that if students could experience what it took to make a Navajo tapestry, they would value the work of indigenous weavers much more than before. 

Once, we went as a whole class group to a museum where Fran was having a solo show of her work (which was amazing to experience with her as tour guide, as she almost never shared what she was weaving in class).  As part of the show, we were each given a copy of her artist’s statement, which I have kept all these years.

Fran's Statement

Many of the restorations she worked bore the scars of abuse:  torn warp and weft from chair legs scraping across it on the floor, mice and insect damage, etc.  She even rejected a restoration gig because the owner was determined to put the textile back on the floor under the dining room table once complete, and she couldn’t bear the thought of being an agent for continued abuse of the beautiful tapestry.  It was an extremely lucrative offer they gave her, but she turned the client down.  She stuck to the principles of her efforts being towards the greater value of the medium and makers.

Fran was very active in the Navajo weaving community, spending time on the reservation learning from Diné women.  “Not everyone wanted to teach me,” she recalled when I spent an afternoon interviewing her in her home studio during my graduate studies.  “You had to find the women who were willing to share.”  Her husband Ross, an architect, sometimes had work in the Southwest, which facilitated extensive stays.  These intimate connections allowed Fran to be able to source churro yarns for us to use in class from the Navajo reservation, which were not accessible to others in the late 1990’s.  

Fran helped curate exhibits at the Heard Museum, as well as consult American Girl doll company when they were designing their Navajo doll and her loom.  Fran brought a plastic prototype for me to try in class, since I was her youngest student.  She kept insisting that wood be used for the looms, but the company was set on using plastic, much to Fran’s disgruntlement.

I didn’t know that my grad school interview would be the last time I would see Fran.  Within a few years, she let go of teaching the MATC classes, then all her classes.  A mutual friend noticed it was taking forever for her to finish one piece, which was not like her.  I’d write letters and only receive a short card back during the holidays from Ross, then no cards at all.  I learned from the mutual friend that Fran was suffering from advanced dementia, had moved to a care facility, and was no longer verbal. 

This last summer, Fran passed away.  I just learned about it from the caring mutual friend this past week.  What Fran has added to the weaving community has come to a close.  She’d made an illustrated poster in the 1980’s but had written no books on the topic.  Her books were her students, and as the youngest very motivated member of that cadre, I realized that a significant portion of that oral knowledge lived in me.

I honor Fran’s legacy, her sensitivity, her dedication to helping this technique flourish and find respect, and her deep encouragement of students and clients to value and honor this textile tradition. 

Great teachers change us.  They challenge us, inspire us, help us learn to see and think deeply.  They encourage us to reach beyond what we thought was possible and gently nudge us to always improve while embracing the process as a journey.

I will miss Fran dearly, but I also know that her efforts and care live on in my own teaching practice.  Know, my dear friend, that you will never be forgotten, and the work carries on.

Hugs towards heaven.

Laura Berlage. 

Fran and Laura