Sudden death of Edmonton homeless artist leads to outpouring of grief

Homeless people in Edmonton are mourning the death of one of their own after street artist Sterling Gauthier died in hospital after collapsing on a city bus.

Sterling Gauthier described as a ‘celebrity of the inner city’

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

Harry McKenzie will never forget braving Edmonton's streets in the bitter cold of winter, trying to find shelter with his friend Sterling Gauthier at his side.

"He was the uncle I never had," McKenzie, 25, said Tuesday.

Gauthier, an accomplished artist, died in hospital Monday after collapsing on a city bus.

"It's hard knowing that he's not here," McKenzie said, tears streaming down his cheeks.

The pair hit it off several years ago after meeting at Boyle Street Community Services, which displays some of Gauthier's paintings in its building at 101st Street and 105th Avenue.

Workers and friends remember Sterling Gauthier, a homeless artist who passed away on Monday. 1:23

The 36-year-old artist was as popular with staff as he was with the agency's clients.

"You couldn't help but really love him. He was such a warm, friendly guy," said Julian Daly, executive director at Boyle Street.

Some of Gauthier's signature paintings of birds, bears and wolves are hanging in Daly's office.

"Painting was a way for him to express the beauty inside him," Daly said about the man who had become a friend.

Originally from the Sagkeeng First Nation reserve in Manitoba, Gauthier first got noticed in Edmonton's inner city about eight years ago, often showing up to Boyle Street for something to eat or just to hang out.

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

Many tried to help him with his drinking or to find housing but he continued to be homeless. To make extra cash, he would try to sell his paintings to anyone who would listen to his pitch on the street.

"His demons were strong and he knew that and was always trying to get sober, and he did get sober and things [would] fall away from him again," Daly said.

In spite of his problems, Gauthier was known throughout the city for his smile and infectious positive energy, as well as for his gift of being able to paint.

Impressions of Keanu Reeves

But most remember Gauthier for his impressions of Canadian actor Keanu Reeves.

Gauthier believed he was a dead ringer for Reeves and would ask others if he looked like him, sometimes joking he actually was the film star.

"When trying to finalize an art sale he would often do impressions of Keanu Reeves," laughed Jared Tkachuk, an outreach worker at the library. "He was quite a guy."

Tkachuk said Gauthier spent many hours working at his craft, quietly sitting at the tables creating paintings at the Stanley Milner library. Many library staffers are also feeling sad about his death.  

"People relied on him to give them a lift, he was such an uplifting personality," said Tkachuk.

Sterling Gauthier sold his piece 'Tranquility' to Julian Daly. (Supplied)

Tkachuk wishes he had been able to help Gauthier move into a home and find a more stable lifestyle, but believes an inner pain and grief made that impossible.

He doesn't know all the reasons why, in part because Gauthier dealt with his darkness by being a light for many others.

"So much of his art was images of tranquility and serenity," Tkachuk said. "I just hope wherever he is now that he's found that for himself."

The cause of Gauthier's death isn't known.

While he was in hospital in a coma after his collapse, staff couldn't believe the number of visitors who showed up.

Among them was one of the drivers of the Hope Mission's rescue van, who also knew him well.

Family in Manitoba planning funeral

Gauthier's sister Madeline said she hadn't seen him in a number of years but will always remember him as a free spirit who as a boy drew pictures of superheroes.

"I'm going to miss him," she said.

Family members are planning a funeral which will happen in Manitoba in the next few days.

Harry McKenzie is now thinking of taking up painting himself as a way of honouring Gauthier and healing himself.

But McKenzie is also going to draw on his friend's playful nature as he continues to face life on the street without Gauthier's guidance.  

There's one Keanu Reeves catchphrase Gauthier used to repeat from the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, that will always be etched on his mind as a happy memory.

"He always had that look and he'd be like, 'Most excellent, better yet be most excellent to each other.' "