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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?