Edmonton

'Astounding' talent: Indigenous artist who lived on Edmonton streets remembered

Dozens of people gathered at Knox church Wednesday night to remember Sterling Gauthier's life. The 36-year-old Indigenous artist lived most of the past decade on the streets of Edmonton, but through his abstract paintings of animals, he drew in people from all walks of life.

'I think of silver, sterling silver, shining and beautiful, but has been put through the fire'

Sterling Gauthier shown with some of his artwork (Sam Martin CBC News)

Sterling Gauthier was outside painting when Debb Cooper saw him through the window of a downtown building.

Taken by the bright colours and bold contrast in his picture, she packed up her things and joined him on the sidewalk. 

"That's how our relationship formed, was through his art," Cooper said. 

Gauthier died on Jan. 23 after collapsing on a city bus. He was 36 years old.

For the dozens of other people gathered at Knox church Wednesday night to remember Gauthier's life, their story was similar to Cooper's.

The Indigenous artist lived most of the past decade on the streets of Edmonton, but through his abstract paintings of animals, drew in people from all walks of life.

A vigil was held Wednesday night for Sterling Gauthier, a homeless artist who has left behind a legacy in his paintings. 1:56

"He was so loving, like really, really loving," said Cooper, who became Gauthier's girlfriend after meeting him six years ago. "I wish people could have seen that."

Sterling Gauthier is pictured with his former girlfriend, Debb Cooper. Cooper was at Gauthier's bedside when he died Jan. 23. (Debb Cooper)

Although their relationship ended, she was there at his bedside the day he died, still his emergency contact.

"He always said, 'I'm putting you as a contact because I want you to know when everything happens,'" Cooper said. "He knew it was coming."

Gauthier battled alcoholism and over the past year, his health rapidly declined. 

'He said he was a painter'

Elder Gary Moostoos works at Boyle Street Community Services. That's where he met Gauthier, who approached him years earlier looking for money to buy art supplies. 

"He said he was a painter. I said, 'Well, it's funny I never heard of you before and he said, 'Well you will, after today, you will,'" said Moostoos, who, intrigued, gave Gauthier $20.

'I kind of figured this is going to be the last I'm going to see of this guy.' - Gary Moostoos

"I kind of figured this is going to be the last I'm going to see of this guy." 

Later that day, Moostoos saw Gauthier hunkered over one of the shelter's tables, hard at work.

"And then he came to my office and said, 'Here, these are for you,'" Moostoos said. "He gave me the two paintings and I was like, 'Oh my God, these are beautiful.'

"From then on, I fell in love with Sterling. He would come every morning if he was in the area just to come and check in and to tell me that he was still alive."  

'The talent that he had was astounding'

Actress Mary Bernier met Gauthier four winters ago outside Knox Church, where she was going for prayer. The two became fast friends. 
Sterling Gauthier, pictured here working on one of his paintings, died Jan. 23 after collapsing on a city bus. The 36-year-old Indigenous artist battled alcoholism and had been living on the streets of Edmonton. (Debb Cooper)

​"When I think of the word sterling, I think of silver, sterling silver, shining and beautiful, but has been put through the fire," she said.

"The silver is formed into lovely things by being subject to extreme heat and pressure. I believe Sterling Gauthier was one of those lovely things."

Bernier said she remembers the first time Gauthier gave her one of his paintings. "I admittedly didn't think he painted it because it was so good," she said, describing the serene scene on the paper in which a loon rested on water. 

"The talent that he had was astounding. I'm so glad his artwork remains as a testament to his gifts." 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca  @roberta__bell

Julian Daly describes Sterling Gauthier's paintings as a 'beautiful legacy' of his life (Sam Martin CBC News)
 

With files from Gareth Hampshire