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It's a small art gallery, no bigger than the back eddy in a river, but the current here runs deep.

Lee Bensted, Jacinda Mack and Aileen Penner, three young women who have inspired an unusual exhibit in North Vancouver's CityScape Community Art Space, are walking slowly through the gallery, talking about life, death and politics.

The unifying theme for their conversation is not art, but something that inspires art, that has propped up cultures, driven economies and that is a symbol of both hope and despair.

"Salmon," says Ms. Penner, who is standing against a backdrop of 40 life-sized, ceramic, red-bodied sockeye, "are a good way at looking at a lot of different issues."

On display in the Lonsdale Avenue gallery are the works of 17 artists. There are salmon made of steel, cedar, marble, fabric and other materials. There are wall hangings, carvings, historical pictures and, just to show that salmon can move people in unexpected ways, there is a beautiful textile gown where fish seem to have willingly become entangled in lace.

CityScape drew this divergent material together with a public call for submissions after Ms. Penner and her colleagues approached them with three central pieces that they created - and an idea that salmon were an emotional current running through many cultures on the West Coast.

"The response [of community artists]was fantastic," said Ms. Penner, who wasn't surprised that so many artists were inspired by salmon.

"It can be loaded with so many cultural and emotional issues," said Ms. Bensted. "Our own stories about relationships to salmon are an example of that."

Ms. Bensted became involved with salmon as a young girl growing up in North Vancouver's Seymour River Valley. At Maplewood Community School she helped with a class project that raised baby salmon and released them in a nearby stream. Later much of that stream was paved over. At the time, Ms. Bensted didn't think much about it, but now, as an adult, she reflects on it with sadness. When she talks about it, it sounds as if some of the innocence of her childhood was buried in that stream, along with the salmon habitat.

A few years ago, salmon came back into her life when her father contracted cancer. An avid fly fisherman who loved salmon, he tried to summon his emotional strength by visualizing salmon that swam through his body, devouring the cancerous cells.

"During the last few months of his life, my dad had chosen wild salmon to accompany him, metaphorically, in his upstream journey against cancer," she said. "When I heard that I thought, 'hmm, there really is something to this salmon metaphor, there really is more to this human-salmon connection than you might think.' "

That was her inspiration for Regeneration Stories, a wall banner that incorporates images of tree roots and salmon eggs. Its central figure is a salmon curved protectively around a human fetus.

"The middle image took a long time to come up with," said Ms. Bensted. "I wanted to depict this connection between salmon and humans and life and death."

Asked what her salmon story is, Ms. Mack, a member of the Nuxalk First Nation, plunges into a harrowing tale of a poisoned river.

Ms. Mack grew up on the banks of the Fraser River, where, as a little girl, she used to help her family harvest salmon.

"We grew up eating salmon eggs," she says. "It was a big treat. We'd fish at night, clean the salmon and have fresh salmon eggs for breakfast. But then, about 15 years ago, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans came and told us not to eat the eggs any more because they were dangerous. They had mercury in them."

For Ms. Mack the poisoning of salmon eggs is a tragedy that tore the cultural fabric of her people. Some of her fierce emotions about aboriginal rights and the need to protect salmon are captured in Colonization of the Salmon People, her two-dimensional depiction of a longhouse totem pole.

At the base of the piece is the image of a potlatch copper, once the ultimate symbol of wealth among the Nuxalk and other coastal tribes. Today such a copper would be relatively worthless, but at one time it would have been priceless, a symbol of a chief's worth.

"It challenges the Western concept of value, especially in regard to salmon," said Ms. Mack. "And at the top of the copper is a stylized hand, my hand, with a grizzly bear paw inside. That symbolizes my responsibility to protect salmon," she said.

"Salmon are the base of our entire culture. The salmon hold everything up. . . This is a raw truth."

Ms. Penner, a self-described "writer, silkscreen artist and activist with a day job," has different childhood memories of salmon. She grew up on the banks of the Columbia River, in Revelstoke, where her father, a civil engineer was involved in building a massive dam.

He worked on several other dams in British Columbia, "putting up the walls" that have damaged so many salmon streams by blocking fish from their spawning beds.

Ms. Penner said the true nature of salmon runs were driven home to her as a child when she was taken to the Adams River, where millions of red sockeye salmon can be seen spawning in a few kilometres of shallow, clear water.

"It's an amazing, vivid, red river. Just beautiful. Magical," she said.

Her piece in the show, Crossing (Disciplinary) Boundaries, looks at the relationship between humans, nature and science in the salmon-farming debate, she says.

"This banner highlights the notion that in order for humans to treat salmon as machines, a profound change must take place in the many different ways we have traditionally spoken and thought about salmon," Ms. Penner says. "Industrial salmon farming encourages us to see these storied beings only as commodities, as protein machines."

There are also echoes from her childhood reflected in a ladder structure in the piece which symbolizes the fish ladders that fish need to bypass dams.

The exhibit, Salmon Tales, can be seen at the CityScape Community Art Space, 335 Lonsdale Ave., in North Vancouver, until Sept. 18.

"We hope we are expanding the discussion on salmon with this show," said Ms. Bensted.

They are, and they are doing it in an unexpected way. For an issue that has for so long be dominated by the language of politics, science and economics, it is a refreshing change.

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