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WATER VALLEY — YaloRun Textiles is a wild and intriguing intersection of 1970s sewing patterns, quilts, taxidermy, New York City and the National Museum for African American History and Culture.
Coulter Fussell, a 39-year-old artist and native of Columbus, Ga., is at the center of it all. In 2011, the painter-turned-quilter opened Yalo Studio, a jewel box of a gallery on Main Street, with friend Megan Patton.
Then, a series of serendipitous events took place: New York artist Mary Lapides, who summers in nearby Coffeeville, walked into the studio and struck up a partnership with Fussell. The two began a summertime artist residency program at Yalo Studio.
Four years later, New York artist Susan Cianciolo walked through the door.
“We really hit it off and shared a similar aesthetic in terms of textiles. I had done some quilts that were just weird, and I thought, ‘Who would ever like them?’” Fussell said. “Well, Susan liked them.”
From that initial meeting came the decision by Cianciolo, Fussell and Kiva Motnyk, yet another artist out of New York, to open YaloRun Textiles, part quilting and knitting studio, part craft store. Fussell then spent months renovating the building — rent costs $425 a month — before its doors opened in 2015.
“I wanted to make it bare — paint the walls white, leave the floor bare and have a bare wood ceiling — so that any color in this place at all came solely from the fabrics that were in here,” Fussell said. “I really wanted it to be nostalgic and approachable, back to basics — a store where all you need is thread and scissors and a needle and some fabric.”
But as is the nature of creative ventures, YaloRun Textiles’ mission has changed since its establishment a year and a half ago.
“The front has turned into a place where I collect vintage fabrics and patterns and old notions and then show some of the high-end stuff from studios in New York,” she said. “So you can still come in here and get the supplies to make a quilt, but in no way is this ever going to be anything like a Michaels or a Jo-Ann (chain craft and fabric store).”
Fussell has Water Valley to thank for that. She has received an outpouring of donations from locals. The offerings have been both practical and odd: church pews, a washing machine and dryer, deer taxidermy, tables and enough fabric to suffocate an entire closet.
“About every three or four days, I’ll get to work and there will be a huge bag of fabric in front of my store,” she said.
As if they sprout legs at night, strips of those fabrics have wandered all over the back half of the shop. Some lie in piles, others sit alone, and fewer still are stitched together and will become quilts. The mess is a sure sign of a studio well used, whether by Fussell herself, her intern or students of the spring and fall quilting workshops led by her mother, Cathy Fussell, whose career in teaching and nearly 50 years experience with quilting have groomed her for the job.
As awareness about Fussell’s work grows — driven by increased interest in both Water Valley and quilting — that studio space is being taken over by commissioned pieces. People are gravitating to her unconventional style and use of natural dyes from native plants such as sumac berries and coreopsis.
“For me, it just became a natural progression of my life as an artist: I went to textiles, and now my textiles are starting to go back into painting. I’m using paint even more,” Fussell said. “Some of my quilts get weirder and weirder the more I do them so that they become unusable as a quilt.”
Though that technique ventures from that of Fussell’s mother, Cathy sees the value in it.
“She gives very respectful nods to pattern repetition — to the history, the tradition — but she doesn’t let the minute details bog her down,” Cathy Fussell said. “She brings a painterly approach to quilting. She has an eye that is trained but not confined.”
It’s that vision in Fussell’s quilts that has inspired many to trade in their sentimental fabrics for a work of Fussell’s art, which often deserves to hang on a wall rather than be used as a blanket. One woman brought in her late father’s clothes — seersucker suits, military uniforms, jean jackets from the’ 70s — which Fussell is working into a meaningful wall hanging.
“A lot of my work is inspired by the visible history of the fabric,” she said. “Any type of evidence of life before it got to me and whatever mystery that brings along is what I try to pull out in my weirder pieces.”
On another occasion, David Buford brought Fussell 15 quilts his grandmother, a native of Water Valley, made long ago. Fussell decided to display them, several of which are made with worn denim from old work clothes, in both Yalo Studio and YaloRun Textiles.
Fussell’s studio was one of only two stops in Water Valley for a group of academics participating in a symposium on Clothing and Fashion in Southern History, hosted by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. The quilts caught the eye of a visiting textile curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Now the Smithsonian is obtaining those quilts as well as the woman’s sewing machine and some of the Bufords’ family photographs to be seen in the museum — a piece of Water Valley on display for the world.
It’s those people and stories that inspire Fussell as well as the “the internal silent process of making what’s in your head come out into a form outside in the world,” she said. “And other artists. I spend a whole lot of time looking at paintings. I look at a whole lot more paintings than I do quilts.”
The internet, she said, is a constant source of inspiration. And, according to both Fussell and her mother, it’s partly to thank for the resurgence of quilting in the United States.
“Quilting conferences, held at various locations around the country and sponsored by various entities, are drawing thousands and thousands of participants,” Cathy Fussell said. “Universities are offering graduate degrees in quilt studies. There are quilting TV shows, quilting cruises . . .”
Fussell believes there’s something else at play, too.
“I think that every few generations there’s a sort of ‘back to what Mama taught you’ movement,” Fussell said. “It happened in the ’70s. It happened in the ’30s with quilting. There’s tons of quilts out there from the 1930s.”
Indeed, Fussell’s mother taught her everything she knows about quilting on a 221 Singer Featherweight — a family heirloom from 1942.
“Quilts aren’t simply the use of fabric scraps to make a bedcover,” said Cathy Fussell. “And quilting never has been just that; that’s a myth. Quilting has always been a complex endeavor, an art form, a creative space where women could go without much interference from men.
“Quilts are about history and art and politics and stories and patience and beauty and community and economics and place and expression and freedom and transition and family and warmth — and love.”
People like Coulter Fussell are the very kind of bold, out of the box, thinkers we need to push Mississippi off the bottom.
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