A Georgian Sewing Machine

A crackerjack quilter follows a pattern of Southern storytelling

photo: Kelly Blackmon

When Cathy Fussell first started sewing, her hands were barely coordinated enough to hold a needle. She was only four years old then, but the following year, she attended her first quilting bee. “Every woman in my family sewed,” she says. “It was just assumed that I would, too.”

Now Fussell reigns as a grande dame of quilting, following an idiosyncratic and distinctly Southern muse. Born in 1949 and raised in Buena Vista, Georgia, she carries on the family tradition one dexterous stitch at a time in nearby Columbus. “Quilts are about history and art and politics and stories,” she writes in her mission statement, “and they’re feminized and devalued. All that is why I’m so into quilts and quilt making.”

photo: Kelly Blackmon

A quilt based on Mississippi River maps.

In other words, these are not your granny’s quilts. Each of Fussell’s creations reveals its own tactile, bas-relief cosmology, often with hillocks, crenellated rows of farmland, and “the creeks where I used to misbehave,” she says. “I think of my quilts as celebrations of family, literature, history, and the landscape.”

Storytelling comes naturally. She met her future husband, Fred Fussell, in the folklore program at Georgia State University, and they embarked from there on a lifelong calling of cultural preservation, starting with jobs at Historic Westville, an old-timey village where Cathy worked as a weaver and spinner. Later, she taught literature and directed Columbus’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians.

When she retired, in 2011, she devoted herself full-time to quilting. Her elaborate patterns can punch up traditional styles, such as her freewheeling grid of Georgia peaches; echo nature scenes, as in her clever five coral snakes crossing a highway; and pay homage to other artists, from Matisse to the Columbus-born painter Alma Woodsey Thomas—the Congressional Club in Washington, D.C., in fact, commissioned one such piece from Fussell as a gift for then First Lady Michelle Obama. Another of her quilts depicts the story line of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—“with that scoundrel Anse Bundren!” she says. A cartography buff, Fussell also makes “topo,” or topographical, quilts based on U.S. Geological Survey maps. One of her favorites, Snake Shoals on the Chattahoochee, features a bend in the river using a “jeans” thread flecked with silver filament to simulate the water. “I’ve quilted the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river basin so many times I could do it in my sleep.”

photo: Kelly Blackmon

A quilt based on Alabama’s Tombigbee River.

Altogether, Fussell estimates she has crafted at least three hundred quilts—“I stopped counting a while ago,” she says—working every day in her studio in the Swift Mill Lofts, near a quilt her grandmother and great-grandmother made in the 1930s. Her pieces have racked up medals at juried shows, including one for second place in hand quilting at the prestigious modern quilting show QuiltCon.

Fussell’s daughter, Coulter, who earned a BFA in painting and drawing at Ole Miss, says she never thought about quilting herself, “because what Mom does involves so much mathematical precision, and I just didn’t think I had the mind for that.” But fifteen years ago, some swatches caught her eye. “I said, ‘Mom, if I cut these out, will you sew them down?’” Since then, mother and daughter have collaborated and exhibited their work at joint showings, and Coulter has opened a studio and store called YaloRun Textiles in Water Valley, Mississippi. “Cathy is a formalist whose work is precise—she draws with stitches,” says Ted Whisenhunt, who organized a show featuring the two at Georgia’s Young Harris College. “Coulter’s work is made from scraps of donated fabrics, sometimes painted by her. Other elements are layered, giving a collage-like effect. I see elements akin to a Rauschenberg or a Klee.”

Coulter views herself as a stitch in time. “I’m just the latest in a very long, multigenerational story.”