By the end of 2007, a petition with over 2000 signatures requesting a vote on the beer prohibition laws was sent to the Yalobusha County Board of Supervisors, and in December, the Board agreed to hold a special election on the issue. "I wasn't a part of it," Coulter says, "I just had a sign in my yard, and, you know, I wanted beer." While a lot of people wanted beer in Water Valley, there were just as many people who did not, and tensions amongst residents were at an all-time high. “It was so contentious that it was on NPR. Can you believe this damn town?” she exclaims jokingly. Coulter speculated that the motives behind having a prohibition on beer but not on liquor were tainted with racism and religion. "It's just complicated southern shit,” she jokes. "There are reasons, that are unspoken, why it was only beer [and not liquor] that had to do with race." She explained that the most common spoken reason had to do with drinking while driving, but that argument made little sense when people could just as easily drink liquor while driving. "It's like these laws are made by non-drinkers who don't understand how drinking works,” she laughs, “Which I guess it is, they're made by Baptists."
Chalkboard inside Yalorun Textile Yarn for sale on display in Yalorun Studio
“Everyone was just prepared for beer to just get stomped into the ground. There was just no way, these people were so outspoken,” she remembers. “The Baptist church was like, ‘Beer is never coming here, you can just fucking forget it.’ Except they didn’t say that,” she jokes, laughing hysterically. Unfortunately for the Baptists, however, it was a countywide election. “All of Yalobusha voted, not just the city of Water Valley which is hands-down ruled by that Baptist church,” she explains, “So, it was a landslide, pro-beer three-to-one.” By 2008, beer was legal in Water Valley and even more, albeit less provocative, change was on the way.
2008 marked the beginning of a new era in Water Valley brought on by a series of new businesses setting up shop on Main Street. “People sort of happened to be doing things at the same time, but independently. So, it all sort of fed off each other,” Coulter says. “It's synergy, you know? One thing that was good for one of us was good for all of us because we needed to draw as many people in as possible. So that's kind of how it went from nothing to something.” Mickey Howley and Annette Trefzer, another couple who had relocated from Oxford in the early 2000s, set the precedent when they opened Bozart’s Gallery in 2008. Alexe van Buren opened The BTC Old Fashioned Grocery in 2010. The name BTC stands for “be the change,” a reference to the famous Gandhi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The BTC Old Fashioned Grocery, or simply the BTC, as it is affectionately known, is not your traditional small-town grocery store. Inside you’ll find three stores in one. There is the grocery store, which sells a combination of local and organic foods amongst other things, an antique and junk store in the back, and a lunch counter with a menu that can make a foodie cry tears of joy. Coulter believes that the BTC lived up to its moniker and has been the change that really turned Water Valley around. "Turnage Drug Store and the bank are like the anchors of the town, but [the BTC] has made it really sort of thrive,” she says. “There's a lot of in-and-out of the door. For a long time, when there were none of these businesses down here, there weren't people going in and out of these places." Coulter thinks that the lunch counter has been the biggest source of new life for the town because it provided something Water Valley had been lacking for so long. "Every town needs that central meeting space where everybody goes, and Alexe has absolutely hands-down created that at the BTC with the lunch counter,” she continues. “So there's a place now where townspeople all go, at the same time, for a meal. And it will be everybody there, from the table of old dudes who are town elders, to construction workers, to tourists, to Main Streeters who are stopping in to get lunch, to teenagers who are coming in after school to get Cokes and chips."
Facade of BTC Old Fashioned Grocery and Yalo Studio
Facade of BTC Old Fashioned Grocery and Yalo Studio
As it turns out, a lot can happen to a town over just a few years. Water Valley still has the Piggly Wiggly and Watermelon Festival that Sunshine remembered, but it also has a lot more. It has a thriving Main Street with not one, but two art galleries, an avant-garde textile shop, an old-fashioned grocery store-slash-delectable café, a vintage shop run by a couple of rock n’ rollers, and the first microbrewery in northwest Mississippi. It’s attracting new residents, new businesses, and new visitors. It’s getting attention from influential national publications, for good or for bad. In 2015, it looks like Water Valley has a new groove. But less than a decade ago, Water Valley didn’t have much groove at all. The town is located in the hills of northwest Mississippi, about 25 minutes outside of Oxford. It had once been a hub of the Illinois Central Railroad in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but as the railroad left, much of the towns’ prosperity left with it. It seemed like the town was well past its prime. The historic Main Street, once the center of commerce in Yalobusha County, was plagued with empty storefronts and had nearly fallen into a state of disrepair. To someone casually passing through, Water Valley might have looked like a town on the brink of economic collapse at worst, or doomed to a depressing homeostasis at best. But by the end of the 2008, Water Valley was poised for an unprecedented revival thanks to an influx of creative and determined new residents earlier in the decade. Among the new residents that are credited with kick-starting the Water Valley renaissance was artist Coulter Fussell, who relocated from Oxford to Water Valley in 2004 with her husband Amos Harvey. Coulter Fussell inside Yalorun Textiles Coulter Fussell never stops moving; I'm honestly not sure that she can. How else could she pull off being the mother of two young boys, an artist, a double-business owner, and the president of the Water Valley Main Street Association? And after all of that, she's still generous with her time when she has it: working with the local animal rescue, shucking oysters at the Crawdad Hole on Thursday evenings, or even agreeing to interviews with people like me—or the New York Times. When I met with Coulter Fussell at Yalorun Textiles, the newer of her two Main Street businesses, for our first interview, the scene was exactly what I had come to expect after three months of interning with her. She was sitting on the concrete floor of the large workshop space in the middle of the building, hand-stitching a quilt, surrounded by piles of old fabric. After we greeted each other, she put down her quilting hoop and joined me at the table to begin the interview. But as soon as she sat down, she immediately picked up a ball of hand-dyed yarn and two wooden needles off of the table and started to knit. She knitted the entire time we talked, never missing a beat or dropping a stitch.
In July, I would have never guessed that I was about to fall in love with a little town called Water Valley, Mississippi. At that point, I was living back at my parents’ house in Summerville, South Carolina and had spent a grand total of three days in the state of Mississippi. But through an unexpected sequence of events, I got my first taste of the conundrum of Water Valley before I ever left Summerville. I had a routine dentist appointment at the end of the month, but my usual hygienist was on vacation, so I was booked with a young woman named Sunshine instead. When I sat down in the chair, Sunshine asked me what I had been up to this summer. I explained to her that I had been accepted into a graduate program at the University of Mississippi and would be moving there in a few days. “That’s in Oxford, right?” she asked, “I have family around there, in Water Valley.” The world really can be such a small place sometimes. I told her that I had just found out that I would be starting an internship at an art gallery in Water Valley as soon as I moved. She seemed very confused by the prospect of an art gallery in the town; she told me that she hadn’t been out there in a few years, but she remembered Water Valley being a tiny, old town with nothing much besides a Piggly Wiggly and a Watermelon Festival. I started to wonder what I had signed myself up for. Before we take a walk down memory lane, take a digital stroll down Main Street, as it stood in 2014, using this interactive Google Street View map. (Yalorun Textiles and Rip It Up! Vintage had not yet opened at the time this map was compiled.)
The 38-year-old Columbus, Georgia native always knew that she was destined to be an artist: “For me, there was no other way to live,” she explains. “I was in the art world my whole entire life. There was never a time which I wasn't totally immersed in all of that. And there was never a time in my life where I didn't think I was going to be an artist.” Growing up, her house was always filled with artists, musicians, and writers; she described it as being “just walls covered in art" and bookshelves filled with art books. Her father, Fred Fussell, is the former curator of the Columbus Museum of Arts and Sciences as well as a talented watercolor painter. Her mother, Cathy Fussell, is a gifted technical precision quilter. “She's one of the finest hand stitchers I've ever seen,” she says of her mother, “In fact, she's second place in hand stitching in the world in the biggest quilt contest they have.” Although it seems that Coulter was destined to end up where she is today, the path that led her to owning her own gallery and textile shop in Water Valley was not a direct one. “When I was little, I was really naive about it. I thought you could just grow up and be an artist, that's just what you did,” she says, laughing. “I didn't realize that there would be, like, 15 years of waitressing. And I know that now.” After high school, Coulter received a full scholarship to study in art at the University of Georgia, but she never felt that it was the right fit for her. “The school was just huge. I would have an art class with like, 25 people in it,” she explains, “and I just never really liked Athens very much; I just never really got into it.” After about a year and a half in Athens, where she said she waitressed at every place in town, she started doing poorly in school, lost her scholarship, and returned home to Columbus to attend Columbus State University.
Yalorun Textile interior Coulter putting up paintings in Yalo Studio for December show
Things started to turn around for Coulter once she got to CSU. “It was great, it was so awesome,” she recalls, “I had some of my best classes there. But I knew couldn’t just stay at Columbus State University, staying at the garage apartment behind my parent’s house,” she laughs. But she didn’t know what else to do. “With art stuff, it didn’t matter if I went to school with it or not,” she noted, “So I didn’t care what I majored in in college.” Her father suggested that she try out the southern studies program at the University of Mississippi. She moved to Oxford in the summer of 1997 and befriended a group of southern studies graduate students. “In the course of that, I realized it was way too academic,” she says, chuckling, “They would spend hours in the library. I would never do that sort of thing.” So she left southern studies for the art department, ultimately earning her BFA in painting in 2000. “And I was a waitress for seven years after that,” she chortles. In 2004, Coulter and her husband decided it was time to buy a house. “It wasn’t going to happen in Oxford,” she recalls, “everything out there was getting to be, like, a million dollars. Literally.” So they left Oxford for Water Valley, where they purchased a hundred-year-old house for $80,000.
Wooden knitting needles for sale on display in Yalorun Textiles
When Coulter and Amos first arrived in Water Valley, it was far from the town it is today. “When I first got here, I didn’t like it,” she remembers, chuckling. “I really didn’t, I was like ‘This place blows!’ It was pretty dead. There were at least eighteen empty storefronts on Main Street.” The town didn’t have much to offer by way of entertainment, either. “There was definitely nothing to do,” she recalls, “If you didn’t go to church or have kids that were in Little League, there was nothing to do. I mean, there was the Mexican restaurant and Sonic.” And to add insult to injury, Yalobusha County still had a beer prohibition. Change was slow going in Water Valley, and new ventures were often met with failure. “People just weren't used to going out and doing anything; there was no precedent set for that," Coulter recalls. “John and Becky Tatum opened a restaurant, and that had two or three incarnations and all of them bombed,” she recounts. “It had the first bar in Water Valley, and I was the first bartender. It was back when there was no beer, when we had prohibition. You know, in 2007, back in the olden days,” she says, laughing vehemently. However, a heated battle to get Water Valley out of "the olden days" was already underway.
Coulter looking at a quilt in progress
Water Valley has reached new heights in recent years, and it is still a town on the rise. Even though new businesses and new faces are coming to Main Street almost every day, the town hasn’t let go of its roots. "One great thing about Water Valley is that is has totally, really, honestly stayed the same," Coulter concludes affectionately. "It's definitely still true to itself."
Vintage books and bottles on shelf in Yalorun Textiles Viewing room in Yalo Studio
Coulter Fussell played a major role in breathing new life into Water Valley’s Main Street, but she won’t take much credit. She knows that none of it would have been possible without each of the other businesses that have opened their doors over the last seven years. “If this town was completely dead, no businesses on Main Street, and I opened up a ten-foot-wide art gallery in a barbershop, no one would come, you know?” Coulter says, chuckling. “They go to my place because of all the other things that were already here and the new things that are coming in." Water Valley’s economic situation has started to flourish in recent years. Locals have started opening more businesses, 88 new jobs have been created with independently owned small businesses on Main Street—“which is only about 100 feet long,” Coulter adds—and 29 buildings have had significant work done on them. "I can come down now, and sometimes there's no parking spots. That is crazy,” she exclaims. "You could probably, legitimately, during certain periods of time, justify having a parking meter because the cars fill up Main Street. It's pretty cool to have seen it happen." On December 5th, Yalo Studio hosted its annual Mike Howard Multiples Sweepstakes Show. This year’s sweepstakes prize was a testament to just how far Water Valley has come: the prize was a weekend in Water Valley. The weekend getaway is described on the Yalo Studio website as follows: “Spend a lovely weekend in a tiny, isolated town in the hill country of north Mississippi! Stay the weekend at the YaloRUN Textiles Studio House, a 106-year-old house filled with old furniture, good art and cool textiles, and have breakfast at the BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery and supper at the Crawdad Hole. Then take a tour of the Brown Family Dairy run by Bill Ray Brown (son a famed southern writer Larry Brown) and his family. We'll throw in a few jugs of Billy Ray's milk, too.”
Yalorun Textiles Store area of Yalorun Textiles
Coulter loves both quilting and painting, but at the end of the day, she says she’ll always prefer painting. She has only recently begun quilting more often than painting. “The whole time I was a kid, and growing up and into college and as a young adult, I was doing painting,” she recounts. “And only until like, four years ago—well, maybe two years ago—did I start doing textile work more than painting.” She continues, “The interest was building, it was sort of en vogue. The New Yorkers were interested in it, and they were interested in Mississippi always, you know, because they think we're so exotic or whatever,” she interjects, laughing, “so, I started doing that more full time.” She says she doesn’t really get why people have been so fascinated with the South lately. “Why is everyone so interested in this one particular place when there are so many different places?” she wonders. “I mean, I like it because I'm from here, but I think it's weird for other people to like it so much. It's like, you're from New York!” she laughs. No matter what the reasons, though, she’s glad that people are interested in what has been going on in Water Valley.
Yalo Studio
Inside Yalo Studio
Coulter followed suit when she opened Yalo Studio in 2010 with Megan Patton, her best friend and another former waitress. Yalo Studio is housed in an old barbershop that the pair renovated themselves. “We renovated it for six months, which is funny because it’s tiny. It’s ten feet across and like, a hundred feet long, and we only renovated half of it!” she recalls, laughing. Once the renovations were complete, they had their first show in 2011. "I was really lucky when I opened the gallery,” Coulter admits, “because my father was a museum curator. So I had a bunch of artists, really good established life artists, just in my pocket that I could pull from because they knew my father. So, I knew they would say 'yes' to me." But she didn’t even need her father’s connections to set up the second, and in her opinion, best, show at Yalo Studio—it found her. Coulter half-jokingly claims that she topped out with her second show. “My second show was Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, the professional wrestler from Memphis,” Coulter says. “His brother came into my gallery one day—his brother's from down the road—and asked me if I would ever be interested in showing Jerry Lawler's drawings. And he had a few of Jerry's drawings and they were amazing,” she recalls. “So, he gets me in touch with Jerry Lawler, and I'm talking on the phone with this notorious wrestler, it is unbelievable.” The show ends up being a huge success. “It was a great show, it just packed out Yalo Studio,” she remembers. “Black people came, white people came. That’s a big deal here!" she exclaims. "First of all, people didn’t come out at night, and people of different races didn’t come out at night for the same thing that wasn’t a high school football game,” she explains. “All kinds of people were coming out, from Memphis hipsters, to 8 year old kids who loved wrestling, to rednecks out of the woodwork, to real art people. It was really great!”
Coulter's studio space in Yalo Studio
Coulter's studio space in Yalo Studio But the story doesn’t end there; in fact, it gets better. Thanks to yet another turn of events, the blues-rock band The Alabama Shakes played at the show’s afterparty. “Megan’s friends with them,” Coulter explains, “and she’s like, ‘Okay, there’s this band from Tuscaloosa. They said they’d play our party. I think you’ll like them. They’re called The Alabama Shakes.’ I was like, ‘Okay, whatever, if they do it for free it’s fine.’” The afterparty was just as successful as the show, and everybody loved the band. “And then the next month, the Alabama Shakes explode. It was so funny,” she says. “I can’t believe they played a Yalo Studio afterparty for like, a six-pack of beer.” Yalo Studio may have brought some unexpected visitors to Water Valley, but in 2012, the town was propelled to a new level of prominence when the revitalization of Main Street became fodder for an article in the New York Times. “The New York Times randomly just did an article about me and some of my friends," Coulter explains. "This writer knew my dad and she was looking for a lead on a southern story about artists with cool houses. He gave her a bunch of ideas, and at the end of it he was like 'You should check out my daughter's house in Water Valley, she owns this little art gallery in an old barbershop and has this old home she's remodeled as well.'” The article featured Coulter, Megan Patton, and Alexe van Buren. Although the article was supposed to be about their homes, the women’s businesses and the changes they’ve made on Main Street were written about extensively as well. “That gave everybody like, a confidence boost, I feel like. They were like, 'Oh, people are looking at us, we've done these good things,’” Coulter explains. “I think a lot of the time, towns can suffer from like, a really bad case of low self-esteem. And they don't really have anybody being like 'Hey, you're doing a good job. Keep it up!’ So I think Water Valley sort of got a boost of confidence." The New York Times article brought a lot of unprecedented attention to Water Valley, but it was far from well received by everyone in the town. The impact of the New York Times article was felt immediately. The article may have been a boost of confidence for Main Street and its new residents, but one particular word used in the headline struck a cord with a lot of Water Valley residents. Coulter knew as soon as she started reading that she would have hell to pay: "I read the first line and I was like 'No... No! They called the town derelict!'" People didn’t take kindly to their home being described as “derelict,” and they expressed their disdain quite vocally. “There were letters to the editor in the newspaper defending, like back and forth,” she explains. “The week the article came out, there was a preemptive letter to the editor, because we have a weekly paper not a daily paper. So the article in the New York Times came out on a Thursday, North Mississippi Herald didn't come out until the next Wednesday. So there was like, six days of people just like, going crazy over this article.” Some of the resentful residents were upset with Coulter because they believed that she was to blame for the article. "It was so disturbing, I was like literally hated,” she recalls. “But those people were just really vocal about it, there were a whole bunch of people who didn't care at all or loved it and thought it was great." She understands that some people were upset over the article because “It didn't address Mississippi in its reality, but it never intended to,” she adds. But she also knew that that the town would end up being thankful that they were in the New York Times. “You cannot pay for that kind of publicity,” she explains. “It only happens like that." Although tensions were high for a while, nobody knew how life would change for Water Valley—and the women featured in it—thanks to the article. Coulter felt the impact of the article immediately. "The very next day, I was in my gallery and someone came in and they were like, 'So, this is Yalo Studio. We read about you in the New York Times,'” she recalls. “I was like, 'Oh, cool! Thanks for coming in. Where are y'all from?' And they said 'Maryland,' and I was like 'I have no idea where Maryland, Mississippi is. I have never heard of that,'” she said, laughing. “They were like, 'We are from the state of Maryland.'” She couldn’t believe what was happening. “I was like, 'Why are you here?' and they said that they read about us in the New York Times and they decided to come down. They came from Maryland to Water Valley the next day." For all of the women, life started to change in the wake of the article. Alexe van Buren and the BTC had a publishing deal for a cookbook, Coulter had a summer residency in New York City, and all of the women ended up with agents to take care of the influx of off-the-wall offers. “We started getting approached for reality TV shows,” Coulter adds. “They wanted us to do some sort of renovation show, because they read in the article that we did our houses and businesses ourselves. They wanted a chicks-with-tools thing. One guy told us it would be like ‘Pimp My Redneck Cabin,’” she laughed. She ended up turning every offer down. "Nothing was art related, so I didn't care about it,” she concludes. Butch Anthony, a fellow artist and good friend of Coulter’s, had also been featured in the New York Times and warned her about what would happen after the article came out. "He told me, 'It's going to be crazy and nothing will be the same for you after that and nothing will be the same for the town after that,' and damn if he wasn't absolutely right," she says. "It was like, super-ass crazy." Coulter opened her second shop, Yalorun Textiles, in August of 2015. She had wanted to open a fabric store for a long time because she noticed people were getting interested in that sort of work. Unfortunately, she couldn't open it on her own and couldn't convince Megan Patton to commit to another project with her. But when Susan Cianciolo of New York City was her resident artist at Yalo Studio, the two bonded over their love of textile work and decided to go into business together.
Coulter's studio space in Yalo Studio
Coulter's studio space in Yalo Studio
A lot has happened in Water Valley since the New York Times article. Yalobusha Brewery opened at the site of the historic Hendricks Machine Shop & Foundry on Main Street in 2013. In fact, Coulter’s husband Amos was Yalobusha’s first brewer. Six years earlier, Water Valley still had prohibition on beer—now it is home to the first microbrewery in North Mississippi. In 2015, two more businesses opened on the north end of Main Street. Tyler Keith and Laurie Stiratt opened Rip It Up! Vintage shop in what was most recently a Nationwide Insurance office. These new business owners are a pair of former Oxford rock musicians who played with a number of influential acts, such as The Neckbones and Blue Mountain respectively. They are also Main Street-neighbors to Coulter’s newest project, Yalorun Textiles.
Vintage organ inside Yalorun Textiles
Close up of wall texture in Yalorun Textiles
The quilts Coulter makes are definitely not your grandmother’s quilts. Coulter takes a non-traditional approach to making quilts. She stitches everything by hand in a style that can only be described as controlled chaos, doesn’t follow any patterns, and works exclusively with used and vintage fabric. Her decision to only use old fabric was an aesthetic decision, not an economic one, although it does end up being economically beneficial to work that way. “I really, really, really love old fabric and old supplies,” she explains. “I like the mystery of where it came from. I like when it's half used, I wonder what the other half went to. I like when the fabric sort of shows a history of a life lived before, and then you can put evidence of that into your work. And I like not knowing what that is. So I'm okay with like surprises and mystery and all that sort of stuff, so I think that's what I like in older fabric.” She feels that many Water Valley residents have been more receptive to Yalorun than they were to Yalo Studio. She says the reason lies in the difference between art and craft. "Art people are snobs. I get that," she starts. "This place is different because craft is very approachable, and everyone does it--not every single person, but every type of person. They can relate to that. They'll come in here and go, 'Oh, my grandmother has a quilt,' and that makes them feel like they can relate in some way to the store,” she explains. Coulter owns a textile shop now, but she didn’t always enjoy working with textiles. “I learned how to quilt from [my mother] at a really, really, really early age, but I didn't do it,” she says. “Like, I watched her do it, I learned the technique, I learned the process, but I was a tomboy; I had three brothers. I was solely focused on being, like, a painter, drawer. I wanted to make paintings only,” she continues. “Everything having to do with textiles, seamstress work, quilt work—to me, was girly and I didn't want to do it because I liked riding bikes and I liked animals,” she amusingly recounts. But that changed when Coulter got older. “When I was a teenager, I guess like 17 or 18, we decided to collaborate on a quilt. And it was sort of a pictorial quilt where I could cut out these crazy shapes and whatever. And so, it was sort of these big, sort of stylized narrative quilts and that was really freeing. I realized that you could make quilts but you didn't have to be stuck in pattern world.”
Christmas display in window of Yalorun Textiles
Yarns and fabrics on display at Yalorun Textiles
A handmade teddy bear on display at Yalorun Textiles
Coulter Fussell in her Yalo Studio workspace