21Country: Unity with Variety

Portraits of fifty people revealed in exciting display of diversity and culture in Fort Wayne
Updated: Oct. 6, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - Hilarie Couture moved to Fort Wayne in 2020. This was shortly after she abandoned her career as a hairdresser, to become a fine art oil and pastel painter. Step inside her small studio, and you’ll see her favorite type of work is portraits.

With a strong Russian heritage, and finding herself in a new foreign part of the country, Couture decided to see just how diverse 21Country really is. She began to put together her latest project, which would become ‘Unity with Variety’.

Earlier this month, Couture unveiled fifty portraits of fifty people from different cultures and backgrounds, at the Jeffrey R. Krull gallery at the downtown library. There were plenty of oohs and aahs as many of her subjects saw themselves as an art piece, dramatically revealed as the coverings were ripped off.

“Since I’m a recent transplant here, I felt like I wanted to know what cultures were actually living in Fort Wayne — and I was actually able to find so many different ones here,” Couture told us. “I didn’t know any of these people when I started. I have so many new friends now.”

Najla Jarjou remembers arriving as an immigrant to the area quite well. “I was 28-years-old when I came to this country. We had a family, my husband and I — and we had a child,” she told us. Jarjou already had family members who traveled from her home country of Syria, to Northeast Indiana. An education through Indiana Tech was what brought them to Fort Wayne. She was delighted to see Couture’s paintings.”We came in ‘57, and it was not like this now, the diversity. I love diversity and if I could take part in it, I wanted to.”

The night of the gallery’s opening, Pastor Symps Ndlovu wore his traditional South African clothes — the same he wore in Couture’s painting. “I’ve never had a portrait of my self made, so this is something new,. It looks beautifully actually. I think I might obtain it!” he laughed. Ndlovu said he was touched to see so many people from so many different backgrounds come together to celebrate their differences. “There’s a South African phrase that we use a name or a word that is called ‘ubuntu’, which speaks of humanity: I am, because we are,” he explained.

“The reality of seeing different people from different cultures coming together brings that sense of home for me,” Ndlovu continued. “It reminds me again that we are a human race, and we are to just get well with one another and get on together.”

Examine each work, and you’ll find every one is a little bit different in technique and execution. “It was funny because certain ones spoke to me, and said I needed to use a few mixed media elements,” Couture explained. “So if somebody had a sparkly top on or something, maybe I would add a few little jewels on that and maybe it would fit their culture.” She also wanted to incorporate a more immersive element that connected guests to each person. A QR-code at the bottom of each painting links visitors to a short interview with each subject.

Maya Yee Nandar wore an impressive crown, with 19th century Burma dress. “The top part of the crown represented the peacock, the spine of the crown represents the dragon, and the entrance of the crown is the entrance of the temple,” she shared. “I was astonished by Hilarie’s vibes and able to translate and transform our inner thoughts, and energy, and messages out into the public.”

Unity with Variety will remain on display through November 12. A book with more information on the project and each painting will be available to purchase at the exhibit. Couture says the gallery will tour through the region over the next year.

“We have to understand cultures. This creates a conversation and hopefully it allows people to be more understanding and open to people that don’t look like them,” the artist concluded. “And that it will make an impact on them and that they will be accepting and welcoming, especially for people that are different.”

You can learn more about Hilarie Couture, and see other examples of her work here.