Ex-inmate pursues art and music

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TWENTY-ONE years of incarceration for Henzel Muir was enough time spent learning his craft and honing his musical talent.

But now that he has served his time, Muir said he is eager to start a business and share his gifts with Jamaica and the world; so much so that when the Jamaica Observer visited Muir at his home last week, he was steeped in his new project of creating graphic art T-shirts.

“The T-shirt is something new I have been trying. What I really want to do is work with a clothing line or a fashion brand to put designs on their clothes or see if we can start a clothing line. That is the objective with this”, Muir said, apologising for the latex gloves on his hands.

He explained that for most of the day, he had also been working on his postcards; samples of his colourful creations displayed on a table on his veranda.

“This is what I did in prison to make money. I learned stencilling and other skills from some guys I met while I was in prison. They made different kinds of art and craft, and what I did was to just observe them. I realised that I loved it, so I stuck to it.”

Muir explained that while incarcerated, he drew inspiration from a quote by Jamaican businessman, Joseph Matalon:

‘Anything you find that you love, you should invest in it.’ I remember hearing this from Matalon so I spent time on my craft and eventually I created my own style. I watched and learned from those other guys and developed my own pattern.”

The 44-year-old admitted that he could not write so well at first, but with much time on his hands, he learned the different styles of writing.

“I used to write slow, so like the italic where you write and flash, I couldn’t do that at first. What I did was practise. I would practise writing capital and common letters of the alphabet, one every week from A-B. So, it took me many weeks to learn the italic.”

Eventually, Muir said he got good at it and started selling postcards to his fellow inmates, as well as the correctional officers.

“On Valentine’s Day and Christmas, I made the most money. Inmates who want to impress them girl with a post -card; officers also would buy from me. If somebody wanted a plaque or any other artwork, I could make it. The department allowed us access to materials to work on our craft or any other skill, that is what I would give them thumbs up for that.”

Another of his newest applications, Muir said is stencilling on velvet, a method he learned only recently since his release in 2015.

“How I learned is that a guy came to me one day saying him want me to write something on the velvet. I never do it before but him encourage mi and when I tried it I see it turn out good, so I just started to think of some designs to put on the velvet and turn them into a plaque and sell them.”

Reaching for perhaps his most sentimental piece so far — an image of Usain Bolt alongside a Cheetah in stride stencilled unto a velvet fabric —Muir explained the inspiration behind one of his favourite’s velvet pieces so far.

“He’s a role model and I am a fan. Him just make we feel good at the time I was in prison and a watch the Olympics and the World Championships. That just make we forget that we were in prison and just have fun. So I decided to make this work for him; something different and unique to let him know he is a legend and dedicate it to him.”

Meanwhile, the ex-inmate explained that his passion was really music. At age 19 when he was first charged and then incarcerated at 20, Muir said he was the drummer at the church he attended.

“Before I went to prison I used to attend church. That’s where I learn to play the drum, so I went into prison as a drummer. When I went to the South Camp Correctional Centre in 1999, there was a band there under commissioner Prescod’s tenure. He used to allow us to go to churches and play on the weekends and I was the drummer.”

Eventually, Muir said he learned other instruments, and later started composing music.

“The other musicians were leaving the prison, so I decided to learn the bass and the keyboard so that the band could keep up and we could still go outside and play. Day and night mi practise until mi learn those instruments and eventually I was put in charge of the band.

“I realised at that point that music was my passion, and I stuck with it. I said to myself that God made me with a purpose, and after that I just find myself start to improve until I started to arrange and compose music. So right now I can play keyboard, drum, bass and guitar and I do sound engineering as well.”

All of these Muir said he learned while in prison. However, the aspiring musician criticised the Department of Correctional Services for not making it so that he could be certified as a musician.

While the department offers certification for inmates who complete courses with the HEART Trust/National Training Agency, music is only offered for rehabilitation.

“I come out as a musician and want a job, and yet there was nothing put in place to certify me. How them say them a rehabilitate us and them don’t put anything in place?

“I don’t have anything to say I am a certified musician or I am a certified sound engineer. Because of that now when mi apply for position and them ask for certification, mi don’t have none. Mi try go Edna Manley to see if I could get that certificate but it cost so much money which I don’t have. So that set me back.”

He further explained that while there are opportunities for inmates to showcase their work, they do not get the chance to market and promote their products to potential clients. This he said is a missed opportunity for inmates to learn critical soft skills.

“The department have a thing called correctional week. They have this tendency to take the inmates’ craft work and carry to correctional week saying them selling it for the inmates. But I think they should also carry the inmate so he can represent himself and represent his product, learn to socialise and interact with people.

“Since it is our lack of sociability why we are in prison, teach us to interact with people, teach us entrepreneurship, how to trade,” he suggested.

As an entrepreneur, Muir admitted that since he has been out of prison, it has been difficult for him to market his products to potential customers.

“I didn’t know anything about marketing. Sometimes I even have problem interacting with people, so I feel the department put them foot inna them mouth talking about rehabilitation and not carrying the inmate outside to represent his work or be a sales rep for his product.”

As one could imagine, job hunting has not been easy for Muir either. He criticised the Department of Correctional Services for failing to help ex-inmates reintegrate into society and find employment.

“The department always embark upon private sector organisations to come on board, but when mi come out and you tell them where you coming from they don’t employ you. That is not being onboard.

“Them need to be concerned about my reintegration too. I try to look work but there is still a stigma on ex-inmates.”

Muir said he wants to do motivational speaking engagement with schools and other NGOs in a programme he has dubbed ‘The Journey’. So far, he has received no favourable response.

“I don’t feel reintegrated because there are people out there who still stigmatise me. I went to Vauxhall (High School) the other day to introduce my programme ‘The Journey’ and they said they would call me, but all now. Mi try with Women Inc and many other schools to go do motivation but from them hear what is my background, I don’t get back no call.”

In the meantime, Muir said he has been focusing on selling his artwork so that he can fund his music career.

“I am using art to kick-start what is really my passion, which is music. I can also build rhythm, so that is really my dream. Right now mi a try get a Mac [McIntosh] laptop, so if anybody can assist mi fi get a Mac laptop, because mi can use the software to make music,” Muir said.

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