Coulter Fussell has always been an artist, but her true love is textiles. With a collection of vintage fabrics and materials and a downtown Water Valley studio, she creates one-of-a-kind quilts stitched with heart and history.
By Emma Kent
There was never a time in Coulter Fussell’s life when she did not want to be an artist. In her words, “it was just a matter of how to make it happen.” The Georgia native grew up surrounded by the arts. Her mother was a quilter and her father a museum curator.
“I learned how to quilt from my mother,” she said. “I picked it up just by watching.”
Always dabbling in one form of art or another, Fussell wasn’t tied to any medium in particular. She was always drawn to painting and working with textiles. When she had her first son, Fussell made her first quilt on her own.
“I’d always collected fabric and through the years I started working with textiles more and more,” Fussell said.
That sparked her love of quilting and led to the birth of yaloRUN Textiles, a back-to-basics quilt shop and experimental textile workshop in Water Valley. The space is a historic building in downtown Water Valley with floor-to-ceiling front windows and plenty of room for Fussell to work.
The studio and retail space was formerly a medical supply store with a much different vibe. Fussell spent eight months tearing the interior of the building down to the studs and then making it into a space that suited her.
“I wanted the building to be totally blank,” she said. “I wanted all of the color to come from the fabric.”
Inside, visitors will find vintage fabric and textiles everywhere. Some of Fussell’s creations are hung on the wall, and those still in progress are often spread out on the floor. People visiting yaloRUN can purchase items like handmade pillows, small embroidered items, knitted items, bundles of quilting fabric and other sewing supplies.
Most of the fabric at yaloRUN has been donated, and Fussell takes those materials and uses them in her quilts. Sometimes, she gets old quilts in the mail or she shows up to yaloRUN and people have left her material outside of the door. She even has a few pieces of fabric from the 1850s.
“Everything I have here is all old vintage fabrics, and almost all of it is from people here in town,” she said.
The only new fabric Fussell buys is muslin for the back of her quilts — but that’s how she likes it.
“I love old material,” she said. “I feel like when the material is old and used and faded it does all of the painting for you. It’s like half of the work is already done and I just have to put the pieces together.”
She spends the bulk of her time at the downtown yaloRUN Textiles studio. She’s there Monday through Thursday pretty much all day working on her quilts. She works on the floor, lying her quilts out and getting down on the ground to sew pieces together by hand. She lays the pieces out on the floor and comes up with the design by trying out different pieces of fabric together. Fussell usually works on several quilts at a time.
Fussell recently had a show at Southside Gallery in Oxford where several of her quilts were on display. Those pieces were more experimental. She used unconventional materials like Astroturf and order slips from Ajax Diner, where she waits tables. She’s been collecting order slips from her co-workers at Ajax and sewing them into her designs. For Fussell, the slips add an extra layer of meaning to the pieces they’re included in.
“Sometimes in my work I want to see a physical manifestation of what work is,” she said.
The order slips are colorful and intricate with their various styles of handwriting and pen marks.
“I love that they all look different,” Fussell said.
She was also recently awarded a $50,000 grant as part of the United States Artists Fellowship, an arts organization in Chicago that awards 45-50 grants each year to artists living in the U.S.
“That was surprising,” she said.
Last year, Fussell designed several quilts for Best Made Company, a men’s outdoor outfitter. The quilts she created for Best Made were inspired by states, and the company supplied her with pieces of clothing to take fabric from and incorporate into them. The design of the quilts was inspired by each state’s trade or agriculture and history.
That project pushed her to sew 17 quilts in six months, which was a challenge.
“It was awesome,” she said. “It really taught me how to sew fast.”
The most difficult part of Fussell’s process is composing the quilts. With the huge range of fabrics Fussell uses — from vintage florals to tulle — she has to find the right combination for each quilt.
Quilting does have limitations, and Fussell likes that there is only so much you can do with fabric.
“I like this craft especially because it has this set of methods, techniques and rules, and that edits things down for me. I like that as a self-edit,” she said. “I like to work within a box and decide when I do and don’t go outside of it.”
Although she’s made a lot of quilts, Fussell says she doesn’t have any favorites.
“I sort of like them and dislike them all in different ways,” she said.
She does do commissioned quilts, but she’s selective about those projects. Sometimes she gets requests for quilts made of sentimental fabrics or clothing, and she always wants to be sure people understand her creative process in working with those items. Each piece of fabric is special, and oftentimes, irreplaceable, so Fussell has to work with it wisely.
“I’m particular about the way I approach those,” she said. “It’s such an honor, but I want to use the fabric freely.”