A Georgian sewing machine – Garden & Gun
WWhen Cathy Fussell began to sew, her hands were barely coordinated enough to hold a needle. She was only four years old at the time, but the following year she witnessed her first quilting bee. “All the women in my family sewed,” she says. “We just assumed I would, too.”
Now Fussell reigns as a quilting grande dame, following an idiosyncratic and distinctly southern muse. Born in 1949 and raised in Buena Vista, Georgia, she carries on the family tradition one dexterous spot at a time in nearby Columbus. “Quilts are about history, art, politics and stories,” she wrote in her mission statement, “and they’re feminized and demeaned. This is why I love quilts and quilt making so much.
In other words, these are not your grandma’s quilts. Each of Fussell’s creations reveals its own tactile bas-relief cosmology, often with mounds, crenellated rows of farmland, and “the streams where I misbehaved,” she says. “I see my quilts as celebrations of family, literature, history and the landscape.”
Storytelling comes naturally. She met her future husband, Fred Fussell, as part of Georgia State University’s folklore program, and from there they embarked on a vocation of cultural preservation, starting with jobs at Historic Westville, a former village where Cathy worked as a weaver and spinner. She later taught literature and directed the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians in Columbus.
When she retired in 2011, she devoted herself full time to quilting. Its elaborate designs can energize traditional styles, such as its freewheeling Georgian peach grill; echoing scenes from nature, as in his five intelligent coral snakes crossing a highway; and pay tribute to other artists, from Matisse to Columbus-born painter Alma Woodsey Thomas. Another of his quilts represents the story of William Faulkner As i die– “with that villain of Anse Bundren!” she says. A cartography enthusiast, Fussell also makes “topo” or topographic quilts based on maps from the US Geological Survey. One of his favorites, Snake Shoals on the Chattahoochee, shows a bend in the river using a “jeans” thread sprinkled with silver filaments to simulate water. “I have quilted the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River Basin so many times that I was able to do this in my sleep.”
In total, Fussell estimates that she made at least three hundred quilts – “I quit counting a while ago,” she says – working every day in her workshop at Swift Mill Lofts, near ‘a quilt made by her grandmother and great-grandmother in the 1930s. Her pieces won medals in jury competitions, including one for second place in hand quilting at the prestigious modern quilting show QuiltCon.
Fussell’s daughter Coulter, who earned a BFA in painting and drawing from Ole Miss, says she never thought of making quilts, “because what mom does involves so much mathematical precision, and I just didn’t think I had the mind for it. ”But fifteen years ago, a few samples caught his eye. “I said, ‘Mum, if I cut them out, are you going to sew them up? Since then, mother and daughter have collaborated and exhibited their work in joint exhibitions, and Coulter has opened a studio and store called YaloRun Textiles in Water Valley, Mississippi. “Cathy is a formalist whose job is precise: she draws with stitches,” says Ted Whisenhunt, who curated an exhibition featuring the two at Georgia’s Young Harris College. “Coulter’s work is made from scraps of donated fabric, sometimes painted by her. Other elements are superimposed, giving a collage effect. I see elements related to a Rauschenberg or a Klee.
Coulter sees himself as a point in time. “I am just the latest in a very long multigenerational story.”