Coulter Fussell's new exhibition at the Halsey Institute brings quilt-making to the artistic fore

Photos Courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

Art and Craft

It's interesting how there's always an "and" between "arts" and "crafts." It suggests that they are, while related, separate from one another. But in the work of artist Coulter Fussell, whose new exhibition The Raw Materials of Escape is now open at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, the two become one.

Fussell began her artistic endeavors as a painter, but after her first child was born, she followed in her mother Cathy's footsteps and began making quilts. But she never quite left painting behind.

Unlike the classic quilt designs we're used to seeing, Fussell's quilts are deliberately imperfect. Rather than using set patterns, she combines textures, patterns and colors instinctively, when they feel right to her. She lays her squares of material and bolts of fabric on her studio floor and layers them until she feels they're complete. The quilts she has on display as part The Raw Materials of Escape are at once bold and muted, haphazard and conscious, art and craft.

"You have the wholeness of a quilt," Fussell says, "with this repetitive pattern all over it. And in painting you have depth and perspective and progressions of light. So I try to merge those two design methods into one in my pieces. I try to have a piece be like no more of a painting than it is a quilt, and no more of a quilt than it is a painting. I want it to all be born at the same time from the same place."

Fussell says she was drawn to quilt-making because inside of its limitations, she found artistic freedom.

"One of the reasons that there are so many strict rules is that it has to function," she says. "It has to do something. It has a physical purpose, and if you don't adhere to those rules, it'll fall apart on you. It won't keep you warm. So a lot of those rules have to do with it actually mattering."

Within the rules of being functional, Fussell says the space for variation is far bigger than one might expect.

"I really like having those sets of rules because they sort of give you a jumping off point," she says, "a place to start. And that also gives you a place to move past. It puts a linear progression to the expansive idea that you're trying to get across when you're working within strict limitations like that."

Fussell says that her artwork has generations of craftsmanship behind it, which makes her job easier.

"Half the work is already done for you if you work within a craft tradition," she says. "All the things that other artists might have to think of, all the women before me have already done that. They've already figured out the structure. They've figured out where this goes or that goes, so what I get to do is expand on that in a lot of ways. When you work within a craft tradition, it really feels like in some way you're working as part of a group effort. Even if you spend hours and hours alone in your studio, there's so many other artists that have put into what you're actually doing there."

Of course, some sacrifices do have to be made in order for Fussell to pursue her artistic instincts.

"I've really never made functional quilts," she says with a laugh. "The first one I ever made was made out of carpet from the floorboard of a car. So from very beginning, you probably didn't really want to use it to keep warm."

The Raw Materials of Escape exhibition, the name of which was inspired by a quote from author William Burroughs, is a collection of all-newly made quilts. It's also the culmination of a longtime admiration that the Halsey Institute has for what Coulter Fussell does.

"This is something that's really exciting on the Halsey side because we've been fans of Coulter's work for a while," says exhibition curator Katie McCampbell Hirsch. "We wanted Coulter to make all new work and to use this exhibition as an opportunity to do something she'd been wanting to do."

What both Fussell and Hirsch want to do is let people know that the quilt making is just as vivid an art form as it is a craft.

"I want people to realize that they don't have to categorize works of art when they look at them," Hirsch says. "I mean, these are quilts, but they're everything else. They're paintings, sculptures, collages, and many other things."

"I'd like people to know that quilts are sort of wild already," Fussell says. "Yes, I've presented them in this way that's non-traditional and not typical, but the craziest part of these pieces are the scraps that came to me, these really wild bold designs in bright colors. They were wild, innovative pieces before I touched them."

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