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Women In the Arts: Cathy Fussell

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

*Our goal for this series is to shed light on the many different ways local women are working behind-the-scenes to advance the arts every day - no matter what other roles they may also be juggling.

If you want to learn about anything that's happened the arts in Columbus, Ga. over the past forty years, I'd send you directly to Cathy Fussell. (Well, and her husband Fred.)

After a lengthy career in education, Mrs. Fussell found herself retired and ready to dive back into sewing and quilting - handcrafts she'd fallen in love with decades ago. What she discovered? Just how deep her passion for quilting runs, how many ways the industry has changed, and, in many respects, how much farther the world's appreciation of quilting as an art form still has to come.

Read on to discover the brilliant mind that is Cathy Fussell. She was kind enough to answer our questions for this series, but don't worry, we've got plans to dig deeper into her process, and hope to be regular visitors to her studio in The Lofts at Swift Mill for many years to come.

Q: How did you get into sewing?

A: Well, my mother was a great seamstress and my maternal grandmother was a great seamstress. I grew up in Buena Vista and almost every woman I knew sewed. It was a source of pride for everybody. They kind of had a thing going where they competed against each other, you know? On Easter, all the kids would show up in their Easter dresses made by the mamas. It’s just the way it was.

In my own family, there was a great deal of attention and pride and swapping of knowledge about quilting. My maternal grandmother lived in North Louisiana, so we would travel out there a couple of times a year and she would show us the latest techniques she’d learned from her home demonstration club. We're talking rural people here, there was just not a lot of other opportunity for entertainment.

Anyway, I grew up with sewing all around me. Then, when I was a teenager in the sixties and went off to college, it was a way to still relate to the women in my family. If we couldn't talk about politics or anything else, we could always talk about sewing.

Now, my mother got me started sewing buttons on my daddy's handkerchiefs when I was about four years old. Just as a joke, but the joke took with me. I always loved it from the beginning, but I didn't find quilting until I was a teen.

Q: Really? Who got you into it?

A: I was about 19, and my best friend's mother was our school librarian. She took up quilting in a sort of revivalist way. Along the Back-to-the-Earth Movement in the sixties, there were people doing all kinds of handcrafts. So this best friend's mother started quilting.

Now, keep in mind I’d had quilts all around me all my life, but my own mother had not quilted. She might make costumes and sew us some clothes, but she didn't quilt. So I watched my best friend's mother quilt, and I just became fascinated with it and I started to quilt, too. She never told me how to do it, I just sort of picked up things from her here and there along the way.

Q: What did you major in in college?

A: I majored in English, but I didn't want to teach right away. I'd taken a lot of courses in folklore and was interested in textiles. I mean, when I was in college, I was really into crocheting. I kind of taught everybody in my dorm at UGA.

Q: Really? How fun.

A: Yes. I’ve always said I crocheted my way through college. But I’m kind of not kidding. (Laughing)

My first job out of college was at Westville. I was hired to be a spinner and weaver at the village, and I didn't know how to spin or weave. They brought in somebody else for me to apprentice under. So I did.

I learned how to spin and wave and I realized that spinning and weaving, while they are really incredible crafts, they were not what I wanted to do. It was really the other handcrafts I was more interested in, sewing and quilting. So I decided to stick with those instead.

Q: Did you keep quilting all throughout your life then?

A: Well, yes and no. I’ve always kept quilting, but I started teaching English when my kids went to school. And of course when that happened, I was not able to devote as much time to my quilting as I wanted to because I was teaching and raising kids and all that.

But I did quilt during that time, you know. I probably produced about a quilt or two a year.

Q: Even during that busy season of life?

A: Yes. I would come in from school and as a way to decompress, I’d plop down in front of CourtTV.

Q: CourtTV?

A: Yes! It’s wonderful. It’s like a podcast. You don’t have to watch, you can just listen unless something’s happening that you need to see. And since I’d get home about four o'clock in the afternoon, it was the perfect time for the California cases to come on. So we're talking Menendez, Simpson, the big stuff, the good stuff. So, I’d plop down for an hour or two to decompress and quilt. I got a lot of quilts in that way. It was just a real mental solace for me. It was a way I found to decompress from the energy that is the classroom all day.

So that went on for years and years. And then finally, you know, I taught at CSU. When I retired, I just immediately just started quilting again. I began quilting for hours every day, just because I've wanted to for so long. I had a ton of things I wanted to make. I had to do a lot of catching up in terms of technique, and just practice, practice, practice because I'd not had the time to quilt for so long.

Q: Have you enjoyed quilting in retirement?

A: Oh, I love it! I was a lone wolf quilter though, so I needed to hone my skills. I spent a good bit of time right after I retired, just trying new things. That's when I began working on the map quilts, and playing around with new techniques. Sure, I made some mistakes, but I really was just going at it for hours every day and having fun.

Q: What surprised you the most about picking quilting up full-time?

A: People's interest in my work! At some point I started showing my quilts and people started buying them! Now I've got six exhibits, six good exhibits lined up in the next few year or so.

Q: Six?! That's a lot. Congratulations.

A: I know, it's crazy! It's keeping me busy. The business the clerical part of my business is keeping me busy, too. I spend a lot of time just communicating with folks. I mean, even right before you got here, I was communicating with this woman over in Alabama who's coming Sunday to do a story about this one quilt.

Anyway, some of the shows I have lined up right now? I've got a show right now in Hoover, Alabama at a public library. And then, I also have a piece in LaGrange that opens tomorrow at their museum. Then, I've got a show with my daughter, Coulter, she's also a quilter. She and I have a mother-daughter show coming up in Athens, Ga. this summer. This Fall, I've got a solo show in Bath, Maine. For early 2023, I've got something coming up at the Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum, and then a solo show at the Gumtree museum in Tupelo, Miss. in the Fall of 2023.

Oh, and there's one more that I can't talk about yet.

Q: Congratulations. That's an amazing lineup!

A: Thank you. It's very exciting. I try very hard to make a new work and work that's relevant to the place I'm highlighting. Now, not everything will be relevant to the place, but for instance, for the Maine show, I want to make at least two pieces that are somehow related to Maine's landscape or terrain or history.

Q: Mrs. Fusell, when you retired, did you set a goal to begin showing your work? Or did you just dive in and it happened?

A: So it just happened. I actually just told this story at my talk the other night in Hoover, and then later I thought maybe I shouldn't have told them. (laughing)

We moved in here to the Lofts at Swift Mill and I'm just quilting like crazy while and Fred's painting. Bo (Bartlett) and Betsy (Eby) had this annual open house here. Bo sells his prints and Betsy sales work around Christmas every year. It's a holiday sale they did before COVID and it's a great way for local people to buy prints of Bo's work for the holidays. They are very well-attended.

So, here we were the new people and Bo comes over and nicely invites us to kick in and join them. And I said, "I've never sold my quilts or ever really thought of that. But let's do it. Yeah, that'd be fun."

So, we did. They put our names on the poster and we opened our door and it hundreds of people came because it was Bo and Betsy. And let's just say, I had a very good day. I pulled my quilts out and I put them in here and around the loft not knowing what I was doing, and I sold quilts all day long!

Q: That's wonderful. What did that lead to for you?

A: Well, at the end of the day I realized that this could work. That I could do this. This was something I can do and have fun, too. So that was the beginning. And then, I posted things online, a lot on Facebook and Instagram and it all started getting seen. And of course, because of the work that Fred and I have done over the years, we know a lot of people in galleries and art museums. They started to see my work and, I got invited to do a gallery show with my daughter at Young Harris College. That was my first show, and then things just started picking up and picking up.

When COVID hit I thought, "Well, I've sold my last quilt." But actually it was almost like I began to sell more. People were buying pieces to give to other people.There was a lot of gift giving and you know, we've read about the fact that people were nesting. They were enriching their homes and they were buying quilts and it was amazing.

Q: How do you market your quilts?

A: I don't market except, just posting photos online. Typically, that's all it takes. I'll put it on Facebook or Instagram and someone will see it, and it's gone within a matter of hours or a few days. Not everything sells that way, but the majority of my work sells online.

I'll post something and get this message that says, "Hey, Cathy, I really liked that piece. How much is it?"

Now, our daughter Coulter is a master at Instagram. She really keeps it going, and she's got this personality. People really like her and she's got a huge following.I don't work toward that so much. Because for one thing, I don't want this to become a second career. I do not intend to let it to control me. I won't. I don't want it to take away my love of sewing and quilting. I am retired, and I like it that way.

Q: How wonderful to have the freedom to say yes, or no!

A: It is. Yeah. And you know, it would be next to impossible to make a living quilting. But people do it by quilting and teaching or quilting and having this huge online presence, or having a fabric brand's endorsement. Well, I don't want to do all that stuff. I just want to sit and create things I love. I'm fortunate that I don't have to make a living from it. I have my teacher's retirement and I'm supplementing that with this. It works perfectly for me.

I don't care about being a celebrity quilter. I just want to make some quilts, have them exhibited around in the region and have a good time and sell a few.

Q: That's wonderful. And look at you - it's exactly what you're doing. So then, what does being a woman in the arts mean to you personally?

A: Well, of course, creating is a means of expression, but it's also a means of communicating with other women who are in textiles. And even though as I keep saying, quilting for me is a meditative act, not a social act, there does wind up being a social aspect to it. When you meet somebody who also sows or quilts, I really enjoy interacting with them.

But also on the negative side of being a woman in the arts, you know, nothing is more feminized and devalued than quilts.

Sadly, many people still expect to pay $50 for a quilt that has $400 worth of material and 10,000 hours of work in it. Traditionally, quilts have not brought one iota of what they're worth. You don't get paid by the hour.

And then, there's also the fact that the work has been feminized and it's been devalued and that's one of the things that being a woman in the arts means - that your work is going to be devalued. Um, so there's some positives, some negatives.

Now don't get me wrong, even though it's a field that's highly devalued, I do enjoy very much being in a feminist craft. And of course, having my daughter in the same field is just very rewarding. I mean, I would love her even if she weren't a quilter, but we can talk for hours about quilting.

Q: How special. Can you tell me more about her?

A: We're very, very different in our approaches. I have the old fashioned skills. I know how to do flat fell seams and welted pockets and pleats. I know the old, the old needle work skills and she does not. Not because she can't - she just never paid attention to that. She is not a detail person in that respect, not a precision person. She is a pioneer first and foremost, and approaches her work from her background in art training and looks at color and composition. Now she, well, she can speak for herself, but she admires the technocrats. And she really admires the work of precision quilters and has gotten better at all that stuff over the years. But she looks for the more important stuff - the color and composition and all that. There are things in quilting that are more important than whether your points match, and your corners are sharp.

Q: There are?

A: Oh, sure. Perfection used to be very important to me, but partly from watching Coulter and from looking at other quilts in the wider world, I've realized that there are things more important than points that match. I'm much more interested in quilts that have different priorities from precision. That's why the Gee's Bend quilts were so important to our industry. They helped to broaden our aesthetic.

The artist sharing a beautiful book and a history lesson about the importance of the Gee's Bend quilts.

Q: What do you wish our audience knew about the quilting industry?

A: I've thought a lot about why quilting seems to be the domain of older women. Not that there are not many young women who quilt -- There are. Quiltcon, the annual event focused on a style of quilting called "modern quilting," was just held this past weekend in Phoenix, Az., and the numbers aren't in yet, but in 2019, the last in-person Quiltcon before Covid, the event, held in Nashville that year, attracted more than 10,000 participants, many of them young women.

Still, the bi-annual quilting survey (Yes, there is one.) indicates that the field of quilting is definitely dominated by older women. Why? Part of the answer, IMHO, has to do with time. Many of the older quilters I know are like me: They've been quilting for many years, but only after retirement from careers and child-rearing do they have the time to devote to quilting. And if there's anything quilting requires, it's time. Quilting is the original slow work. But I also suspect that another reason for the devotion to quilting of so many older women has to do with voice. It's common knowledge that the older a woman gets, the more invisible she becomes. We lose whatever little bit of voice we ever had. Quilting gives us voice. It's a means of expression. The audience can listen and watch if they want to -- or not. But the performance is there, and it's hard to ignore when it's as vivid as most quilts are.

It's a widely held myth by non-quilters that "quilting is a lost art." I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. And it's absolutely not true. There are literally millions of us quilters here in the U.S., and around the world. Surveys prove this. Quilting is a four billion dollars per year business in the U.S. alone. There are quilting conferences, workshops, books, films, cruises ... So why do so many people think that quilting is a "lost art?" Maybe it has something to do with the fact that quilting is so associated with older women -- They see "us" as "fading" and so assume that quilting is fading, too. Well, they're wrong.

Q: Women have a lot of roles in life. You've already discussed multiple ones that you've had. You're a mom, an educator, an artist. How has being a woman in the arts and managing all of those roles over time, shaped your work throughout your life?

A: Being a woman in the arts has been very rewarding in more ways than one. Not just monetarily, but you know, people come up to me and say, they like my work. You don't get a whole lot of that when you're a school teacher. You might have students who say they like you, sure, but you don't get a whole lot of feedback from the community in terms of respect.

It's nice to get some accolades as a female artist, you know?

I also know there's a lot I'd like to do. People keep asking me to teach classes, and something in me really wants to make that happen. I've taught a couple of quilting classes and they've always turned out well. We've had fun and there was this one class that had, I think, seven people in it? Five of them have turned out to be quilters! Now, I don't claim to be a great quilting teacher, but I've learned a lot from just the three or so times I've taught. I have this urge to teach again, and I'm going to figure out how to make it happen. I think it's important to keep listening and learning, and I intend to do so. ◾️

Cathy's Local Favorites:

Small Business: It's the Piggly wiggly at 13th and 13th. I know it's a chain, but the Piggly wiggly at 13th and 13th is so funky. Local. You never know who you're going to see. It is such a diverse clientele and such a diverse offering base. They sell everything from yellow root and white dirt to caviar! It's also the best place in town for conversation. Fred (Fussell) goes to The Pig, he'll come home, and I'll say, "What'd you hear?"

We've been going there for 40 years. Before it was The Pig, it was Lewis Jones. But, you know, it's changed so much over the years.

I think I love it because it's just so local. Because of the neighborhood, you've got people whose families have lived here for a long, long time. You know, black families and white families, all kinds of people go to The Pig. Our kids have fond memories of being in The Pig. Coulter even did several paintings about being a kid inside The Pig. It's just my favorite local business. I would be really disappointed if we ever lost The Pig. And by the way, they've always had the best fried chicken in town.

Place to take a Walk: I love the Riverwalk, Linwood Cemetery, or a walk up and down Sixth Avenue.

Lunch Spots: We like to go to lunch at local places. Typically, for ethnic food. We love Skippers Seafood off Buena Vista, Ed's Barbecue and Country Cookin' in Phenix City, Rose's Caribbean our near Fort Benning, Koreana, Rose Hill Seafood.

Piece of Art to Visit in Town: Well, the piece I keep going back to, and I know this not a woman's piece, but I love the big Robert Motherwell in the Columbus Museum. There are two, and I love both of them, but if I had to vote between the two I'd vote for the one that's ochre colored. I think the title is Opening Number 14. It's in the permanent collection. I'm just really drawn to a lot of Robert Motherwell's work. And those two pieces. I just, I just love them. I keep thinking about, could I make a quilt that comes anywhere close to being that beautiful? I just, I really loved the two Motherwell pieces that are the Columbus museum, but I mean, there's a lot of other good stuff. Of course, I also love the Bartlett Center and the CSU galleries are amazing. There are lots of wonderful pieces of art in Columbus.


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