Cody Justin Peter Starr was born on Aug. 20, 1986, in Winnipeg. He was the only child born to Jeffrey Smith, a labourer from Hollow Water First Nation, and Evelyn Ross, a chambermaid from Lac Sioux, Ont. Cody, a fearless boy who grew up in Winnipeg’s North End, was close to his five older half-brothers and half-sisters.
His love of drawing began at age three: armies, superheroes, monsters of his own creation (sometimes on his hands—no matter how often he was told not to). By eight, Cody, a leftie, was sketching complex battle scenes. In Grade 5, he won an award at Norquay School for his work: six weeks of paid lessons at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
His home life, however, was unbalanced, says his half-sister, Shannon, 16 years his senior. When he was 11, after shuffling between his mom’s, sisters’ and granny’s, Cody moved into Shannon’s cozy two-bedroom apartment in the North End. She put her own boys, R.J. and Joshua, in the bigger bedroom, and Cody in the other; she slept in the living room. Shannon went to Cody’s ball games and took him camping. Slowly, he learned to trust her. He doted on her boys, and especially loved cuddling with baby Joshua. Cody’s Grade 8 graduation was one of Shannon’s proudest days. She and Cody—dressed in a white shirt, tie and dress shoes—were “riding in style,” as he put it (Shannon had hired a cab). But when Cody’s name was called, the principal began listing his previous schools, setting off a ripple of laughter among his classmates, before abruptly stopping after a handful—to Shannon’s relief. “It was really sad,” she says, “he had more than 40 schools listed.”
When Cody turned 15, things took a really bad turn. He started drinking and missing his 10:30 p.m. curfew, grew short with Shannon’s boys, and spent an increasing amount of time with his ganged-up cousins. The more Shannon fought it, the harder Cody pushed. Eventually, when he was 16, she let him go live with them. It didn’t last. It was “ ‘Go, go, go: make me the money, or we’re going to hurt you,’ ” says Shannon. Cody returned home about a year later, joining Youth Build, a carpentry apprenticeship program aimed at helping at-risk youth. But he was constantly threatened for getting out of the gang life. Once, gang members cornered him: he was lucky Joshua was there, they said, otherwise he’d be dead.
On another occasion, Shannon awoke to police pounding at the door. They held Cody: beaten to a pulp, caked in blood, naked but for a pair of boxers. It was terrifying: “He wouldn’t let me go.” He’d lost so much blood he needed a transfusion. Doctors also removed a kidney, and performed a splenectomy. At first it was touch and go, but he eventually woke up. It was weeks before Shannon could take him home, months before he was able to move without pain. His stitches stretched from his heart to his belly button. He had no memory of the attack.
His days doing physical labour, he knew, were behind him, so he turned to art. He’d set up on the floor, or on the deep freeze. That summer, as soon as he was well enough, he dropped off an application at the Graffiti Gallery, Winnipeg’s go-to agency for youth artists in need of support. For the next two years, he was there every day taking lessons. With focus and direction, he came alive; paintbrush in hand, he looked content, beautiful, says Shannon.
He was an obvious talent—he painted with soft lines, and a smooth, rhythmic style. “We couldn’t keep his paintings in stock,” says Stephen Wilson, executive director of the Graffiti Gallery. At 19, the United Way selected him for its Successful Youth campaign, plastering Cody’s image on city billboards, buses and bus shelters. The resulting attention was tough on the deeply shy artist, but he agreed to it because he wanted to show young people that if he could do it, so could they.
Still, he yearned for a quieter life. He moved to Little Black River on the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg, to settle down, make art, open a gallery, and care for his young family. Four months ago, he and his partner, Claudia Bird, welcomed a baby girl, Klaudia, to the family. The violence of his youth seemed to be behind him. But on New Year’s Day, RCMP officers found Cody badly beaten and unresponsive on Little Black River’s main drag. He was pronounced dead in hospital in nearby Pine Falls. Two people from Little Black River have been charged with manslaughter in his death. He was 23.