Family, friends and fans are mourning the loss of internationally-recognized Penelakut Coast Salish artist Gus Modeste, who died late last week at the age of 44.
Modeste spent his childhood on Gabriola Island and Penelakut Island before attending Chemainus Secondary School. There, he discovered a talent for carving and painting, and eventually became known for his detailed art after connecting with online communities.
Since then, his carvings and prints are featured in private collections around the world, including in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Belgium. One of his most memorable pieces is a print entitled Mother’s Love, which depicts a mother killer whale carrying her deceased calf on her back, after the display of apparent grief by orca J35 in the summer of 2018.
He also has totem poles erected at Chemainus Secondary School and along a walkway in Crofton, B.C.
“[Art] was a gift that he was born with,” said Francis Horne, a world-renowned Coast Salish master carver and Modeste’s mentor. Horne taught Modeste to improve his carving skills after he graduating high school.
“It used to blow my mind how he could do such small carvings with these great big hands,” said Horne, adding that Modeste was often inspired by animals and nature.
Horne went on to offer Modeste support throughout his life.
A humble, private life
Modeste’s step-mother, Fay Modeste, said the artist lived a private, humble life in Duncan, B.C., where he used artwork to express himself and connect with the world.
But the last decade had been difficult as he struggled with, among other medical issues, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which causes heart problems. “Everything started to fail and things were shutting down,” she said of his condition.
Modeste died Thursday after reaching out to family and friends on Facebook.
“Gus was on the phone with so many people that night,” said Fay. “I think he knew he was passing.”
Hundreds of condolences
Fay said the family knew that foreign art collectors were purchasing his work, but didn’t realize the extent of it until “phone calls were flooding in from all over the world” from people expressing their condolences. Modeste’s Facebook page has also received hundreds of condolences from global friends and admirers.
Modeste’s brother, Derek, said he’s proud of his brother’s achievements, and will fondly remember the mischief the pair would get into as children.
Modeste’s father, Darrel, said the praise the artist received from admirers encouraged him to continue creating what he loved, but rarely the same artwork twice.
“People wanted to mass produce his work but he wouldn’t do that,” said Darrel. “He just wanted [to create] one piece at a time.”
A memorial service will be held for Modeste at the elementary school on Penelakut Island, Friday at 9 a.m.
“We’re bringing him home to Penelakut because that’s where his family is from,” said Darrel.
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