Visit the Academic and Skills Development office in the A-wing of Yukon College, and you’ll be greeted with words of empowerment on the backs of a stream of 16 cedar salmon in a work of art created by local artist Cheryl Teya.

On each salmon plaque is a core value, such as kindness, respect, goals.

The display reflects more than the core values of Yukon College. The idea for a “school” of salmon sprung from an Academic and Skills Development retreat where instructors selected values. They chose the salmon motif to connect to the communities along the river and the cultural importance of fish.

Instructor Elizabeth Bosely commissioned the work. She stopped at one of the many craft shows Teya attends to display jewellery and dreamcatchers. They talked, and it came up that for Teya, “Painting is my passion, especially on wood.”

“I’ve known Cheryl as a student in our area and I saw her frequently,” Bosely says. “I just didn’t know she painted.”

Bosely offered Teya the job to build an exhibit from the plaques, cut and bevelled by carvers with the Northern Cultural Expressions Society, on the theme of inspiration and how small inspirations can turn into something big.

Teya spent most of last winter working on three fish at a time in small sections.

“The wood is so dry, the paint thickness has to be just right. Too watery and it bleeds.”

To make corrections, she’d have to sand off the paint. “It’s time consuming, smudges, and splinters the wood, so I had to be careful because I can’t just erase it.”

Teya, a Tetlit Gwich’in citizen of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, was born and raised in Vancouver, and has lived in Whitehorse since 1998.

She studied First Nation painting and carving at the Kitanmaax Indian Art School (K’san) in Hazelton, B.C., but she got her start in Smithers.

“I was 18 and sort of lost,” she recalls. “I really had no goals or dreams.”

On a park bench with $15 in her pocket, she looked at her hands and asked the Creator for help.

“I wanted something to do with my hands. When I looked up, across the street was a craft store. I had no direction, no job, but I bought $15 worth of supplies and made earrings. I sold them all, kept $5 for myself and reinvested the $40 I earned in more supplies. In one month it became $200 and then I thought I’ve got something here.”

In a year she earned $2,000 in random sales.

“I was very shy, but I needed to earn money. It brought me out of my shell,” Teya says. “I learned I have to ask people to look at my work because it’s the only way they’ll know about it.”

She also learned to “start with what you can handle, not too much right away, but challenge yourself outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to grow, recognize there are opportunities lying in wait for you. And have fun; don’t be concerned about the money. It’s not about the money.”

The cedar salmon project “gave me the inspiration to work on other projects and collaborate with wood workers to ready my ‘canvas.’ I’m inspired to do more painting.”

She’s developing an idea about a wolf motif on a table top.

“But, I really like salmon.”