Story and photography by Karen Ott Mayer
Only a select few receive a United States Artists fellowship. This year, quilter Coulter Fussell of Water Valley is among the artists selected to receive the $50,000 award.
More than a decade ago, my first meeting with the young artist Coulter Fussell occurred in her Yalo Studio located in Water Valley, Mississippi. A sliver of a building located on the historic Main Street, the small space afforded the young mother and artist a place to paint and sell her art. She renovated the space herself with babies in tow, always calm and easy going.
Several years ago, she shifted her focus from painting to the textile arts and returned to her earliest creative origins: stitching. For the last five years she has stitched together a living for her family and clients in her new YaloRUN Textiles studio and workshop.
A year ago, she received an email stating she had been anonymously nominated for a United States Artists fellowship.
“You have to be nominated in order to apply. When I first got the email, I actually wondered if it was a joke,” she says.
With her father’s encouragement, she applied and didn’t think about it again. In early 2019 while waiting tables at Ajax in Oxford, Mississippi, her phone rang. She recognized the number but was too busy to answer.
“When it rang again, I thought these folks were awfully persistent about telling me I didn’t get the award,” she says with a laugh. She ducked into the back alley to return the call. A group greeted her on speaker phone. “They told me I was chosen to receive this artist’s award for $50,000, and they all started clapping and shouting. I started crying.” After a few moments, she did what her practical and likeable disposition required: “I told them I had to get back to my tables!”
Fussell, nominated anonymously in the craft category, received one of the United States Artists (USA) fellowships given annually to artists working and living in the U.S. Each year, the organization chooses 50 artists to receive the unrestricted $50,000 award. Founded in 2006 by the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmuson, and Prudential Foundations, USA has given over $25 million in unrestricted $50,000 awards to more than 500 artists in all disciplines at every career stage. Other notable Mississippians – poet Beth Ann Fennelly and the late writer Barry Hannah – were past USA-award recipients.
Fussell’s work has quietly gained recognition through her partnerships with other experimental textile artists, particularly the New York City Thompson Street Studio run by Susan Cianciolo and Kiva Motnyk. In 2017, Fussell was named runner-up for the new Southern Prize, given by the Atlanta-based organization South Arts. She received $10,000 for placing second in that competition.
Her studio could be mistaken for a retail space, but Fussell doesn’t sell from the studio. Nevertheless, she encourages fabric and clothing donations.
“People are always dropping something at the door. I’m the place where people bring their mother’s and grandmother’s things because they want to see them used,” she says.
She has even accumulated more than 30 sewing machines through donations. “I may use one or two but I prefer to hand stitch more than 80 percent of the time.” In the morning before the day starts, in the evening after her kids sleep, the single mom has a needle in hand.
In her studio, a colorful mélange of fabrics covers the floor and chairs, creating a cheerful gathering in every free corner. She painted the walls white and laughs when she remarks the building has no central heat or air.
She repurposes whatever people bring from jeans and vintage curtains to antique embroidered pieces. It’s a far cry from what she first thought of needlework.
“My mom is an accomplished quilter in Georgia. That’s my mom’s quilt she made in 1967 and I took to college,” she says pointing to a vintage piece hanging on the wall. “I was a tomboy and wanted to be an artist. Mama and I made quilts together in high school. She let me go but added her technical skill. I thought the fabric store was so boring and had no interest in quilting!”
Fussell began taking more interest after an ironic turn of events. “A friend of mine started talking with my mom about quilting and they were having so much fun, I decided I wanted to join them!” With a degree in art from the University of Mississippi, she explains the reasons textile art differs from painting.
“It’s the same method but different application. Painting is harder because there are no rules that I can grasp. Textiles allow me to self-edit, and I like the way the craft edits your work for you.”
Fussell can cut, piece, sew and produce an original quilt in about two weeks. She accepts commissions, especially from clients who have sentimental fabrics or cloth they want to repurpose.
As far as the award, Fussell takes it in her graceful stride like everything else. “I’ve worked really hard to get it and it’s nice to see it happen. I just always thought things are going to work out. I don’t have a plan B because I don’t want to do anything else.”