How Cheryl Lashek became Winnipeg Famous without trying
Cheryl Lashek's signature in every elevator in Manitoba inspired art, a song and even a tattoo
Cheryl Lashek will never forget the day in grade seven when something happened that blew her young mind and changed her destiny.
A female engineer came to Shamrock School to talk about careers in science.
"She pulled out a thermos of liquid nitrogen and a single rose. Then she dipped [the rose] in for a few seconds and then smashed it on the side of the desk" says Lashek.
"That was the moment that I started seeing science in everything," recalls Lashek.
"I remember cutting out newspaper articles from the Winnipeg Free Press and bringing them to show my science teacher. Looking back at that now it's probably incredibly nerdy and likely one of the reasons why I wasn't one of the popular kids."
That love of science would lead to a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Manitoba, and a career that, surprisingly and unwittingly, would make Cheryl Lashek Winnipeg Famous.
Since 2011, Lashek has been the Director of Technical and Inspection Services for the Province of Manitoba, and her name hangs in every elevator in Manitoba in bold black letters on inspection permits.
Her signature, (which is actually not her real signature, but a font based on her signature) has seeped into our collective consciousness, offering a sense of comfort and security to nervous riders, and a focal point for people avoiding eye contact with others.
Daphne Super first noticed Lashek's signature in the lift of her old apartment building.
'It was kind of a spooky elevator,' says Super. 'I was joking around with my friends and my roommate ... about the permit, how it always keeps us safe Chery keeps us safe ... and I was like 'I wonder who else thinks that Cheryl Lashek is a celebrity?'"
Super took to the Internet and started a Cheryl Lashek fan page on Instagram (@cheryllashekfan), which quickly garnered nearly 2000 followers.
"People were commenting and joining and agreeing and I loved it," says Super.
Lashek herself was surprised when she discovered her name was resonating with so many people.
"I was like, 'What do we have here?'," laughs Lashek. "This is kind of funny that there's that many people that recognize the name, and specifically that little signature that's in there in the elevator."
But Lashek was hesitant to comment or publicly join in the fun people were having with her name.
"I'm very protective of my career," says Lashek. "Working for the government, I want to always make sure I'm doing everything properly ... I don't shy away from this type of thing, I think it's all done really very tastefully and in a playful way, but I don't want people to make a mockery of safety because this is very important."
As Lashek quietly watched from the sidelines, her name and cult status grew. Even before the Instagram fan page, artist Kristin Nelson had made Lashek's signature the focal point of an art piece.
Nelson spent three months hand stitching hundreds of sequins onto an old elevator blanket, with the message Dear Cheryl Lashek, Let us down easy.
"The inspiration honestly was the election of Trump," says Nelson. "You can't tell it has anything to do with that, but in my mind it was about people in positions of power, how we can be lifted up or let down ... not that Cheryl Lashek is letting us down."
Nelson, who lives with a disability, was also dealing with issues in her Jarvis art studio at the time she made the piece. Problems with elevator access forced her to move out, two years before the studio burned down.
When she saw fellow artists had lost so much work in the fire, Nelson called her friend Talia Syrie, owner of the Tallest Poppy restaurant, and asked if the Lashek piece could hang there.
Syrie says customers sometimes shout out when they see the piece with Lashek's name, including a table of elevator repair workers who couldn't wait to send photos to Lashek herself.
Alex Plante is another Winnipeg artist who has paid tribute to the elevator lady. She painted an unsolicited portrait of Lashek entitled 'In Cheryl We Trust'. Lashek bought several copies, hanging one in her home and one in her office.
"My boyfriend laughs at me," she says. " Who has a portrait of themselves framed in their homes? Well, I do!" laughs Lashek, who also has a copy in her office.
One of the most surprising tributes came from Annie Beach. The 22 year old public artist and educator at Winnipeg's Studio 393 has a tattoo of Cheryl Lashek's signature on her shin.
'I was just kind of interested in this cult following and this culture in Winnipeg," says Beach, "I just wanted to have this iconic name and signature (on my leg). I get surprised actually how many people recognize it."
One of the people who recognized it was Lashek's step daughter, when Beach went to her school for an event. Lashek says her two daughters and two step-daughters are really proud of their mom's notoriety.
"All the girls of course shamelessly tell everybody in an elevator with us, 'That's my mom's name!'" laughs Lashek. Her eight-year-old daughter wants to follow in her footsteps and become an engineer too.
Working for Change
In an industry where, according to Engineers Canada, only 14 per cent of practicing engineers are women, Lashek works to encourage young girls to consider a career in the field. She goes to schools to talk about engineering, always keeping in mind the woman who smashed the rose and had a huge impact on Lashek's own path.
"She did not look like I thought an engineer did ... I thought that that was something that boys did," says Lashek. "But I certainly want people to know that you don't have to look a certain way or be a certain type of person [to become an engineer]. It doesn't matter who you are, it's what you want to do [that matters].
While Lashek likes the idea that little girls can see her name on elevator permits, and know that someone named Cheryl can rise to the top and become a director, the future of the permits themselves are in flux.
The province is revising the Elevator Act, and while requirements around permits haven't been finalized or approved by the government yet, there is a chance they will no longer be on display in elevators.
"I think sometimes people see an expired permit and they think something is wrong, but it could just be that the permit just hasn't been updated. Maybe [the owners] haven't put the new one up, or the bill hasn't been paid," explains Lashek. Removing the permits would eliminate those concerns, but they would likely still be available for riders to look at upon request.
"It's a little bit bittersweet, I'm not going to I'm not going to lie," says Lashek of the permits coming down, "But maybe I'll have to get a tattoo," she laughs.
Listen to the Winnipeg Famous podcast episodes about Cheryl Lashek here.