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Former Prince George gang member focuses artistic talent on community healing

From a gun-wielding home invader to Indigenous artist showcasing a mural series depicting clans from Prince George to Haida Gwaii one client at PGRCC has made the move toward healing not only himself but his relationship with his community.

From a gun-wielding home invader to an Indigenous artist showcasing a mural series depicting clans from Prince George to Haida Gwaii, Dylon McLemore has made the move toward healing not only himself but his relationship with his community.

McLemore, 24, has been incarcerated at the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre (PGRCC) since May 2020. His sentencing is scheduled for September 25, at which time he’s hoping to be released.

Going into the correctional facility, McLemore was a crime-involved gang member. Coming out of it, he’s determined to be an upstanding member of his community who now proudly carries his Lheidli T’enneh First Nation heritage with him.

Within the walls of PGRCC is a first-of-its-kind program called the Indigenous Cultural Spiritual Support that offers people in custody the opportunity to explore their heritage so they can find the connection to their community or reestablish a connection that has been broken.

McLemore lost his family connection when he was embedded in gang life and was able to reconnect with family members during his stay at PGRCC.

“I don’t know where I got my talent,” McLemore said. “My grandma has told me numerous times she doesn’t know where I got it.”

He remembers drawing all the time when he was little and then when he was 14 he started his career as a tattoo artist and has been doing that professionally ever since.

“I was trying to do something successful in here and it was the Indigenous program that got me started,” McLemore said. “It gave me the opportunity to release my art in a positive way. They asked me if I could do this mural project and it bloomed and sky rocketed from there.”

The mural project depicts 13 clans from Prince George to Haida Gwaii.

“I designed them all myself,” McLemore said. “They are on display all throughout the hallways - all the way down from one end of the jail to the other. They were all evenly spaced out in between the windows so it’s the perfect project and they all fit perfectly in the space. It’s so important to me that the community can see the work I’ve done at PGRCC. I wanted to honour the people, not only the Lheidli T’enneh but all the people from here to Haida Gwaii.”

His closest connection was to the image he created for the Killerwhale Clan, the Gispwudwada or Gisbutwada which is in the language of the Tsimshian nation of British Columbia and southeast Alaska. It is considered identical to the Gisgahaast (Gisk’aast) clan in British Columbia’s Gitxsan nation and the Gisḵ’ahaast/Gisḵ’aast Tribe of the Nisga’a.

“The one that really stands out for me is the whale,” McLemore said. “It represents me - so it’s going through the sea and that’s like my time of being in jail and then I put four eggs in the centre of it representing my family. It’s about my little family and they’re the ones that guide me through the storm at sea at this moment and they are always with me.”

McLemore said he never felt connected to his culture before so when one of the correctional supervisors taught him about his heritage it all came together.

“There’s a pack of supervisors that helped me and supported me,” McLemore said. “It was really healing for me to understand what this was all about and the art work just flowed.”

Family, community and moving forward

When McLemore is released, he has plans to give back to the community and hopes to become involved with an anti-gang program for at-risk youth where he can teach his art and offer his guidance to help those heading down the wrong path to find their own way toward healing.

“That’s what’s ticking for me right now,” he said. “Right now I’m trying to figure out ways to put my art form into perspective to send strong messages to youth. For some youth it takes a big toll to grow up in Prince George. There’s a lot of poverty and homelessness that people have to overcome here. I’m just really trying to focus on something I can do to help point youth in the right direction and not go in the direction I went.”

He’s got his spouse and her child in the community and credits his partner with helping him stay focused on the positive while in custody at PGRCC.

McLemore and his partner are able to communicate over the phone and through virtual Zoom meetings as in-person visits are not allowed because of pandemic restrictions.

“I want to move on with my life and with her encouragement this experience has changed my life,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my spouse I wouldn’t be so far in my healing as I am today.”

The Indigenous artist is already onto another project with a huge impact.

“The mural is huge and it’s got the Creator and Mother Earth and a big sun with a drum with a residential school in the centre,” McLemore said. “It’s very impactful.”

The timing is uncanny as he was well on his way to completing the project as the devastating revelation was announced of the 215 children whose remains were discovered at the Kamloops Residential School.

“It was very shocking because I started this before the news came out and now it’s like wow - it’s hard to wrap my head around it to think how connected the artwork is to the discovery of the 215 children,” he said.

Soon he will add 215 hands to bind all the elements of the mural together to further honour those lost children.

McLemore wanted to make sure that people’s perception of jail is accurate.

“When people think of jail they think bad, bad, bad but the amount of help they’ve given me in here to help me change myself is amazing and I want my work to be presented to the community to show them I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done over the years being a gang member and I just want to give back - that’s what I really want.”

With permission from McLemore, PGRCC Warden Dennis Stavrou spoke on the record with The Citizen.

 

“One of the things we’re trying to do with our folks right now as part of the case management process is to look at what connections they have to the community and how we can help strengthen those connections,” Stavrou said. “So when they do get discharged from the correctional system they can go back to the community, have those connections that can help them be successful in their rehabilitation plan and when I talk about rehabilitation I am talking about rejoining society outside of the correctional facility.”

Stavrou said each person in custody was able to develop their own healing plan and once that was set into place then the staff would support them as much as they could toward success.

It was soon discovered that McLemore was never happier than when he was painting, Stavrou said.

Staff who have supported McLemore during his stay at PGRCC encouraged him to stop drawing on his cell walls and clothes and to aim his talents on something that would impact not only him but those who are in the facility with him, including staff and others in custody.

“When we took his drawing away it was like taking away his outlet,” Stavrou explained about not allowing McLemore to draw on his walls and clothing. “We were taking his mode of communication. So we were trying to figure out a way of helping him have that outlet, have that communication mode and also do it in a productive way. One of the ideas was to have an art project.”

Having seen McLemore’s beautiful art in the form of sketches, Stavrou said he knew working towards a portfolio of the artist’s work would benefit McLemore in the future.

The idea expanded as more of McLemore’s work was seen by staff.

The first foray into mural making was to create images depicting clans from Prince George to Haida Gwaii, consulting with other Indigenous people who were in custody at PGRCC for their input.

Art heals

“This is an opportunity to be inclusive of all peoples in the north,” Stavrou said. “And it’s our opportunity to develop a healing environment and that’s exactly what my vision has been for PGRCC. Our role is never really to punish, that’s not the role of corrections and that’s why programs are so important because that’s how you connect people with their society, their community.”

People in custody at PGRCC include 70 to 85 per cent Indigenous people at any given time, Stavrou noted.

“This is nothing new but the question is what can we do to provide resources that folks in custody can access so that they can enhance their healing journey and they can be ready to go back to their community when their time in custody comes to an end,” Stavrou said. “When I see the work Dylon has done, I think he is an incredible young man and he’s incredibly creative and committed to his art and I think the affect he has on people in terms of what the environment in the correctional facility is shaping into is extremely positive. Now we’re at the point where we’re using his art as a form of healing.”

There’s a lot of literature, Stavrou said, that proves artistic expression is a form of healing.

“Dylon is very proud of his art and he’s proud to share his art with other people,” Stavrou said.

“What he’s done is some beautiful, beautiful murals.”

McLemore has been able to reconnect with some members of his family and Stavrou knows those connections will be part of a support system after he leaves PGRCC.

“He’s put himself into a situation where he can have a career he can pursue, we have worked with him to develop a portfolio of all of his work,” Stavrou said. I think Dylon’s story can show the power of looking at how to express yourself positively and find yourself in terms of next steps. I am honoured today to speak about Dylon. This is an opportunity like no other. I’m so proud of him and the progress that he’s made while he’s been with us.”