Stitching a Story
by Jim Lynn
SOUTHWEST GEORGIA MAGAZINE, July-August 2022
By Jim Lynn
When Cathy Fussell opens the door to her downtown Columbus loft, the first sensory shock is the sheer vastness of the space. It just hits you. A wide open, 2,900 square-foot cube in a renovated denim mill with 20-foot ceilings and a 75-foot long wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. And when your eyes finally refocus, you notice that the place is more art studio than living space. To the point that you ask if she actually lives there. This is no home with a studio out back. This is a workshop with a bed.
Cathy and husband Fred, a longtime regional historian and painter, live in a space full of brushes and sewing machines and fabrics and canvases. Simply because they’ve made their lives about creating art. For Cathy, it’s quilting. Not the quilts your great-grandmother sewed from scraps of old curtains and dresses. Not the quilts that kept families warm in drafty homes generations ago. These are “art quilts,” the moniker for textile art that will see gallery walls but never a bed. “Everything is made to be hung,” she says.
That includes her most well-known piece, “Apollo Revisited: Homage to Alma Woodsey Thomas,” a 6-foot, 3-inch square splash of color that pays tribute to Thomas’ “Apollo Splashdown 1970.” The painting evoked the three Apollo 13 astronauts’ return to a relieved world. Fussell’s quilt was commissioned in 2016 as a gift to Michelle Obama by the Congressional Club, an organization of the spouses of members of Congress, and is now part of the collection for the Obama Presidential Center under construction in Chicago. Inspiration for the gift stemmed from the first lady’s love of Thomas’ work.
A native of Columbus, Thomas (1891-1978), became a major abstract painter whose work has hung in the White House and in major American museums. Like the painting, Fussell’s quilt is a series of concentric circles made up of small, roughly rectangular shapes. Reminiscent of brightly-colored Lego blocks, the patches of color were characteristic of several Thomas pieces, including those in a current exhibit at the Columbus Museum.
Fussell herself is a native of Louisiana who grew up in Buena Vista, an hour north of Albany. Her love of quilting came not from art classes but from sitting on her grandmother’s front porch, sewing with her mother and grandmother and aunts. “I was surrounded by women who sewed,” she said. “At four years old, I was sewing buttons.” The older women would politely compete to see who could sew the prettiest Easter dress. Fussell loved it. “Growing up, I loved school and sewing.” By age 19, she was sewing quilts as a major hobby.
She enrolled at the University of Georgia, taking with her a love of art but no formal training. They didn’t have art classes in Marion County schools, and when she got to Athens, Fussell was intimidated. “Those students had had real art classes,” she quipped. She majored in English but worked in the costume shop in the theatre department. Her first job after college was as a weaver and spinner at Historic Westville, a living history site then in Lumpkin but recently moved to Columbus. She soon started a teaching career that included literature classes at Columbus State and a stint leading CSU’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians.
Quilting was a passion, a hobby. “Quilting has been my solace in life,” she said. She would name her early efforts after Court TV trials she was watching. Yes, there was an “O.J. Simpson” quilt. A traditional quilt with a Jacob’s Ladder pattern in blue on a white background, large enough to fit a king-sized bed. Hand sewn. It was, after all, a long trial.
But was her quilting actually art? She wasn’t sure. “I hadn’t really thought of what I was doing as art,” she said. “People used to look down on it as a woman’s craft.”
But Fussell began to shift her focus as she realized that the quilting world around her was evolving.
In the 1960s, quilts stitched by women in Gee’s Bend, along the Alabama River about two hours west of Montgomery, began to be noticed by collectors and artists. In the 1970s, the artistic style of “patterns and decorations” accentuated the interest in artistic textiles, Columbus Museum director Marianne Richter noted. In 2002, quilts from “the Bend,” unique in part for their irregular patterns, were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. And suddenly, critics took notice of quilts as a modern art that hadn’t lost its cultural roots.
“Today, I’d call what Cathy does fine art,” Richter said. “But the traditional craft is not less than.”
Despite the brightly-colored abstract view of an Apollo command module landing, much of Fussell’s textile art takes on more subtle hues. Her work assumes three principal thematic genres – geography, Southern literature and American modernism. The first has inspired much of her work. “The USGS is my BFF,” she remarked, referring to the U.S. Geological Survey. Multiple quilts feature intricate stitching that depict contour lines from USGS topographical maps.
It takes patience and a workhorse of a sewing machine – the Juki 2010Q, if you know your sewing machines (Fussell swears you could sew tires with it) – to create art from the curvilinear lines of topo maps. What emerge are views of the bends of Southern rivers and the land around them. The snake shoals of the Chattahoochee, views of the Tombigbee, Flint, and others. The rivers typically in blue or green, the contour lines in threads of black or brown. One piece uses red fabric to represent the blood shed in the Tallapoosa River when Andrew Jackson’s army killed an estimated 800 Creek Indians. USGS maps are often framed as artwork; Fussell’s duck canvas versions aim to make them truly art.
“Initially I was drawn to the curves of rivers, the courses of rivers, but pretty soon I came to be equally inspired by topographical contour lines,” she said. “In making a quilt, you can’t have large blank areas without quilting. The thing simply wouldn’t hang together. So I started looking for ways to fill the blank spaces, the land areas, around the river itself.”
She added random lines that echoed the curve of the river, to suggest plowed fields beyond the riverbanks. “After a while I realized that they might also suggest topographical contour lines. And at some point I realized that topographical contour lines could make great designs for quilting.”
Other pieces depict scenes from Southern literature. One is a colorful, 40×40-inch work Fussell calls a graphic novel version of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Another is drawn from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Other, idiosyncratic pieces include an illustration of cells being attacked by a virus, her homage to the pandemic.
Through it all, Fussell’s work tells the stories of the land, the people, and the written and visual art of her Southern context. Art worth space in any gallery, but with roots in her rural childhood porch-sitting button-sewing and the larger cultural craft of traditional quilting. Almost like it’s in her DNA. What keeps her at it? “I don’t know. I ask myself that question sometimes,” she says.… I’d be quilting these images if I never sold a penny’s worth. I’m internally motivated to do this thing.”
Jim Lynn is a formally of Knight-Ridder Newspapers and is a freelance writer based in Columbus. His work has appeared in the Washington Post and in numerous regional publications. Lynn36867@gmail.com.