Unity with Variety: A creative exploration of ‘other’ nationalities and cultures in Fort Wayne

When Hilarie Couture moved to Fort Wayne about a year ago with her husband, she was intrigued by the community’s culture. Having previously lived in larger cities from San Francisco to Chicago, Couture heard that Fort Wayne was a smaller, but still diverse place.

“I’ve long been fascinated by different cultures sharing the same community,” she says.

So prior to her move, she began researching the various nationalities and cultures represented here.

“I saw a large Burmese population, an African-American population, and of course, a large Caucasian population with a lot of German heritage,” Couture says. “Then it just said ‘other,’ and I thought: Who are these ‘others?’” Hilarie Couture

In a voyage to find out, Couture attended Amani Family Services’s annual Welcoming Fort Wayne Diversity Awards breakfast in October 2021 where she encountered many of the city’s cultures. The experience deeply moved her and inspired her to begin working on a special project.

Having worked as a street artist in the 1970s in San Francisco and New Orleans, Couture has a knack for capturing people’s likeness and personalities in oil paintings. This year, she’s working out of her home studio in Williams Woodland Park to paint about 50 portraits of Fort Wayne residents – each from different backgrounds and cultural identities. 

The portraits will be released this fall during Welcoming Week 2022, Sept. 8-19. They will also be featured in the Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery at the Allen County Public Library, beginning Oct. 1, before hopefully traveling to additional venues, Couture says.   

In addition to the paintings, she plans to add an augmented reality component to the exhibit, where each person she paints will be pre-recorded answering a set of questions about their cultures.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Couture to learn more about her vision for Unity with Variety and its role in Fort Wayne’s community.

Hilarie Couture, left, paints Malak El-Taleb of Libyan heritage, right, in her home studio for her exhibit Unity with Variety.

 
IFW: Tell us more about your personal background and how it led you to create this exhibit.
 
HC: I’m a self-taught artist. I started drawing from photos I saw in magazines when I was two-years-old. I was influenced then by Margret Keane the “Big Eyed Kid” artist and loved drawing people.  I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an artist, but my high school art teacher gave me a C in class, so I didn’t think I could have a career in art. Instead, I got a scholarship and went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, to do medical illustration and fashion design. But I didn’t take any art classes.
 
Then one weekend in the early 70s, I hitchhiked a ride out to San Francisco where I met a Buddhist lady making puka shell necklaces as a street artist. She told me I could get a street artist license, too, so I did, and I started drawing portraits on the streets of San Francisco. Sadly, they all looked like Big Eyed Kids because I had no formal art training. 

Paints and supplies in Hilarie Couture's home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.

Then one day I was on the street, and another artist came up to me and said, “Let me do your portrait for a change.” So I sat for her, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She told me to come to New Orleans and to do street art with her there. So a couple of weeks later, I was moving to New Orleans. That’s where my art really improved. When you’re watching other artists, you can learn a lot, and the talent was outstanding in New Orleans. I was there for two years, and then I traveled up the Eastup East Coast doing portraits in pastels on boardwalks. 

After that, I moved back to my hometown of Omaha, NB, and I started doing portraits on the street there. But as you can imagine, there was less business in Omaha, so one of my clients convinced me to try beauty school and become a hairdresser. I did hair for more than 40 years, and I got my auctioneer and real estate licenses, so my art took a backseat to all of that for a while.

Portraits by Hilarie Couture, a former street artist, in her home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.
 
Then when I was 55, I went back to college and earned my degree in historic preservation. In one of my classes, we were required to do some painting, and when my professor saw my work, he said, “You’re a realtor, an auctioneer, and a hairdresser? You’ve missed your calling in life as an artist.”
 
In that moment, I thought: “I’m still here; I’m not dead yet, and I can still do art!” That was the encouragement I needed to pursue my art again. When I turned 60-years old, about seven years ago now, my husband told me: “You don’t have to keep working all of these other jobs. Why don’t you concentrate on your art now?” 

Hilarie Couture, a former street artist, paints in her home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.

So we put a studio in our garage, and I started teaching art classes and taking workshops. I’m still pretty much self-taught, and I’m still learning as voraciously as I can.
 
I’ve always been attracted to painting people, and this project is an outgrowth of that. I also have third-generation Russian heritage myself, and I’ve wrestled with how to express that over the years. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Kiev (then the Soviet Union) during the Bolshevik Revolution, and they settled in Omaha, NB. 

Portraits by Hilarie Couture, a former street artist, in her home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.

Growing up, my grandparents didn’t want to acknowledge their home country because America really looked down on Russia during that time (at the onset of the Cold War), which is kind of happening again now (with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine).

While I understand their hesitancy, I also regret not learning more about my heritage now that my grandparents are not here with me anymore. I think it’s really important for people to integrate—and not assimilate—into new cultures. That’s part of the reason I wanted to create this project: To highlight the diversity in Fort Wayne and to draw out people’s cultural heritage.

Hilarie Couture, left, paints Malak El-Taleb of Libyan heritage, right, in her home studio for her exhibit Unity with Variety.
 
IFW: Why did you choose the name Unity with Variety?
 
HC: Unity with Variety speaks to the power of art, as well as the power of our community in Fort Wayne.
 
As an artist, one element of a good composition is unity, but if you have too much unity, it becomes monotonous. Variety is what makes a person stay engaged in your artwork.
 
I believe the same is true of a community. The variety of cultures and nationalities we have here in Fort Wayne is what keeps our community a viable, interesting place. It’s what makes Fort Wayne a more complex and engaging place to live and work.

Paints and supplies in Hilarie Couture's home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.
 
IFW: How’s your work on Unity with Variety going so far?
 
HC: It’s a big project, so I started working on it at the beginning of this year. So far, I’ve taken photos and videotaped a couple who are children of survivors of the Holocaust and a gal from Libya. I also have appointments with a Chinese American man and a gal from Canada, living in Fort Wayne.

Not all of the people I’m painting are from different locations either, per se. Some represent cultural groups (like Holocaust survivors). But the number of different countries represented in Fort Wayne is remarkable. I have appointments with people from Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Bosnia, New Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, Yemen, Argentina, Myanmar, Burma, the Philippines, and Iran.

I’m still looking for people to add to this project, too. I’m hoping to have 50 paintings when it’s all said and done, and I’m about halfway there as far as appointments go. I’m trying to keep it exclusive in that I’m only featuring one representative for each nationality or cultural group, if I can.

But overall, it’s been an incredibly rich experience meeting these individuals so far. Each of them is so passionate about their culture, and they want to share it with Fort Wayne.

Hilarie Couture, a former street artist, paints in her home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.
 
IFW: What’s your process for producing the paintings?
 
HC:  I am painting live as many as I can from my studio for about 90 minutes and then documenting with photography to finish it up.

We begin by scheduling a Zoom meeting where I can meet them and learn more about their story. Then we schedule a live painting session whenever we can work it in.
 
I ask them to come to my home studio in the Williams Woodland Park neighborhood near downtown and to come dressed with clothing and props that represent their culture.

Malak El-Taleb of Libyan heritage poses for Unity with Variety.
 
After about 90 minutes of painting and talking, we have a photo session. Then we choose the best image, and I finish the painting from that. Once the paintings are complete, I’m hoping to add an audio/augmented reality component to the exhibit where you can scan a QR code next to the painting and hear a recording of the person answering questions about their culture. 

On the gallery’s opening night this fall, I’m hoping I can also have many of the models in-person, too, dressed to match their paintings and available to greet guests.

Portraits by Hilarie Couture, a former street artist, in her home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.
 
IFW: What’s the ultimate goal?
 
HC: I’m hoping each of these individuals I paint can share their stories and share how it’s been for them to live in Fort Wayne as someone with a unique cultural heritage here—maybe a heritage that’s represented in the “other” box. These are important stories to be told.
 
The goal is to help people see just how many diverse cultures we have here in Fort Wayne—all in one place. Speaking of places, I’m hoping the art exhibit will be a traveling show, too. It will debut at the Jeffrey Krull Gallery at the Allen County Public Library this October. But after it displays there for a few weeks, I would like for it to travel to more venues around the community and across Northeast Indiana. So if any community venues want to feature it, please reach out to me. 

Once the paintings have circulated, I hope to sell them and to honor the people I’ve painted in this project by donating a percentage of proceeds from the sales to a nonprofit of their choice.

Portraits by Hilarie Couture, a former street artist, in her home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.
 
IFW: Where can people follow you and your work on this project?
 
HC: To see my work, you can check out my website at www.hcouturearts.com. I also have work at Gallery K on Broadway, the Belle Mansion, the Artist Guild pop-up galleries, and a few shops in Roanoke. I’m still looking for people to feature in Unity with Variety, so if you’re interested, then I’d love to have a chance to meet you and talk about it. Email me at [email protected].
 
I’m doing this project on my own dime, so I’m looking into grants and even painting over some old canvases if I run out. 
 
As far as keeping up with my work goes, I’m Vice President of the Fort Wayne Artist Guild (FWAG), and I belong to Artlink and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. I also teach evening continued education classes on the Elements of Painting at Purdue Fort Wayne on Thursday nights from 6-9 p.m. It’s a six-week class from April to May. I teach workshops in my studio and with the Fort Wayne Artist Guild, too, which can be attended by members and nonmembers alike. My next one-day workshop is Saturday, April 30th.

Hilarie Couture, a former street artist, paints in her home studio in Williams Woodland Park of Fort Wayne.

IFW: Last, but not least, as someone who’s lived many places, how are you liking Fort Wayne so far?
 
HC: My husband and I really enjoy Fort Wayne because it’s Midwestern, and our heart is in the Midwest. I’m from Nebraska, and my husband is from Ohio, so we’re back to our roots. People here are genuine and friendly. We also really love the fact that you can get anywhere in 15-20 minutes. My husband used to live 15 miles from where he worked, and it would take him an hour and a half to get home. 

My husband is a musician, and there are a lot of opportunities in music in Fort Wayne. We’re trying to attach ourselves to as much local culture as we can while we’re here.

 

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.