By Amara Nash
If you were a friend or family member of Robert “Bob” Sailors, you likely received some very memorable holiday cards. Bob Sailors was a master weaver whose works graced the prestigious walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of the Chicago Art Institute, and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Montreal. He used unique materials such as cornhusks, copper wire, and unraveled metal pot scrubbers in his work. In addition to drapery and artistic hangings, he wove colorful and playful pieces of fabric to which he attached his annual holiday greeting. These cards carried a postmark from Cortez, Florida.
The 1912 Cortez Schoolhouse closed as a school in 1961, after which it was a private art league and gallery. In 1974, Bob Sailors purchased the property and transformed it into his studio and living quarters. The old classrooms on the west side of the building became a reception hall, store room, and work room respectively. The open auditorium accommodated a kitchen and living room area, and the stage, covered by a 40-foot wide woven curtain, served as his bedroom. True to the spirit of Cortez, Sailors made additional room dividers from fish net and bubble wrap, which provided insulation for both sound and temperature.
Also true to the spirit of Cortez, Sailors maintained the property as a community gathering place. He hosted open house events, allowed the Historical Society to use it for receptions and fundraisers, and offered it as a hurricane shelter should a large storm hit Cortez. Local residents may also remember the symphony and ballet performances he hosted on his lawn. He collaborated with the Sarasota Ballet, Manatee Ballet Ambassadors and Manatee Symphony Guild to bring these performances to Cortez, which attracted upwards of 250 people.
His desire to share what he loved was also reflected in the personal letters he sent. The Florida Maritime Museum has a number of these correspondences in their archives, including a note describing his newfound paradise. “The Village of Cortez is a very unique small fishing community...90% [of habitants] are or were connected to fishing…simple beautiful architecture…all the deep fried mullet you can eat…a great place to live and weave.”
Sailors continued to live and weave in the historic schoolhouse until his death of cancer in 1995, at age 82. He had prepared a final letter to go out to his contact list acknowledging coming “to the end of [his] warp” (a reference to the lengthwise thread in weaving) and encouraging his loved ones not to grieve, as he had a full and rich life.
After Sailors’ death, his estate was auctioned off and his looms, weavings, and personal artifacts were sold to community members and associates in the local weaving guild. The Florida Maritime Museum has a small collection of these items on permanent exhibit.