Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Andi Sherrill Bedsworth | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Water Valley artist Coulter Fussel earns top honors for her quilts.
Coulter Fussell’s quilts are not the traditional heavy cotton bedclothes your grandmother had, or the pristine patterns seen in quilt shows. There is a painterly quality to her work that evokes mood and atmosphere similar to an abstract painting. Fussell, a resident of Water Valley, is also a painter — but currently it’s her quilt work that’s garnered recognition. Earlier this year she was named a 2019 United States Artist Fellow in Craft, which includes an award of $50,000.
Fussell has worked as an artist since graduating from the University of Mississippi in 2000 with a B.F.A. in painting. She is the owner of YaloRUN Textiles, an experimental textile studio and supply store in Water Valley. In recent years, Fussell has offered workshops there in textile design, native-natural dying, and quilting with both traditional and experimental techniques.
United States Artists, based in Chicago, was formed in 2006, in response to NEA budget cuts and after a study showing that although Americans valued art, they did not value artists in the same way. The group, initiated by leaders of the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmusen and Prudential foundations, gives unrestricted awards to chosen artists to enable them to concentrate on their work. Fellowships are awarded in many disciplines including arts, architecture and design, craft, theatre, writing, dance, film and music.
Besides creating art quilts and running her studio, Fussell is raising two young sons and waiting tables at Ajax Diner in Oxford. The award will afford her the luxury of a few more precious hours of creative time.
“They want you to do whatever you need to do to concentrate on your work,” Fussell said. “I can drop one waitress shift and have days of uninterrupted time in the studio.”
Fussell begins each of her quilts by confronting piles of fabric in her studio — moving, adjusting, editing and creating compositions. Her father was a museum curator; her mother is also a quilter, and the combination of a background steeped in art and traditional quilting is evident in Fussell’s quilts. She stitches, stencils, paints and dyes, often using nontraditional methods and mostly donated clothing and fabric.
“People bring their mother and grandmother’s stashes that they don’t know what to do with,” Fussell said.
Fussell fearlessly manipulates fabric to create compositions that are both simple and moving at the same time. Straddling tradition and modern aesthetics, the pieces can stand alone as artwork hung on the wall or be equally comfortable on a bed. Her designs are driven primarily by the fabric in front of her.
“Ideas develop in the studio,” Fussell said. “They are never there before I have fabric. I don’t sketch, I don’t plan. Fabric first, the rest follows.”
When Fussell creates quilts for clients, she first considers how they want to use the quilts. Those created for use on a bed are washable. Others utilize techniques best suited for quilts meant to be displayed as art.
“I approach quilt-making the way a painter approaches a painting,” Fussell said. “I think about light, depth, distance and not pattern. I spend a whole lot of time in the studio moving big pieces of fabric around on the floor until I come up with a way to get from one side of the work to the other that makes some sort of aesthetic sense.”
Depending on the complexity of the quilt, each of Fussell’s pieces takes anywhere from a week to several weeks to create.
“I sew pretty fast at this point,” she said. “All my work is hand quilted and most of the quilts have a good bit of hand piecing as well. I prefer to hand quilt and I know I always will.”
Fussell hasn’t given up on painting. She has canvases primed and ready, but right now she’s embracing the challenges of painting with fabric instead.
“It’s really hard and I spend as much time editing out fabric as [putting] fabric in,” Fussell said. “I really focus on taking out pieces of fabric that feel too obvious or border on unintentional gimmick and that, in my care, takes a lot of brain work. That’s my favorite part. Where I’m making wordless decisions based on some deep, deep down practiced and developing sense of beauty and considering the future possible hazards of technical construction. All I’ve ever learned comes together in that stage.”
Fussell’s quilts were also honored with a South Arts award in 2017. Learn more about her work and studio at yaloruntextiles.com.
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