One man's spiritual mending
Even before Ray Materson, now an acclaimed artist of miniature scenes, was released from prison in 1995, he pulled off an extraordinary "escape" of sorts, using only a needle and thread.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Materson's prison break didn't physically move him beyond the jail walls. Instead, with each embroidered piece he made, Materson created a pathway out of drug addiction. Stitch by stitch, his artwork helped him craft a future free of crime. Now, he wants others to experience for themselves how redemptive art can be.
"It's hard to wake up in prison every day and feel good about yourself because everything around you tells you you're a loser, a social misfit," he says. "But when I was doing the artwork, I felt good about me despite where I was."
When he began serving time, however, Materson recalls that he was mad at just about everything and everybody. He was mad about having been raised in a dysfunctional alcoholic family. Mad at the person he was doing drugs with at the time of his arrest. Mad at the criminal-justice system for sentencing him to 15 years in prison for a robbery committed with a shoplifted toy gun. And, yes, even mad at God.
For the first year of his incarceration, there was a part of him that wanted to be a rebellious tough guy. In a facility filled with them, though, he realized he was nothing special and ended up feeling even more like a loser.
He decided to pray for forgiveness and help. "I prayed for all the really selfish things that made sense at the time, like, 'Open these doors or send some hot-shot attorneys to champion my cause.' " he recalls. "And, of course, the choirs of angels didn't show up."
But something did occur that made all the difference. He began to reflect on the good memories from his growing-up years: baseball, school, manned spaceflights, and heroes such as John Glenn and John Kennedy. Then he harked back to another positive childhood image, that of his grandmother sewing flower and butterfly designs onto napkins, tablecloths, and pillowcases.
Since he had sewn buttons on shirts, he figured he could learn embroidery. So he fashioned a hoop from the top of a Rubbermaid container, tore off a piece of a bed sheet, and borrowed a sewing needle from a trusting prison guard.
The idea for his first project struck him while he was watching TV on a small black-and-white set in his cell. He saw an ad for the Rose Bowl, pitting the University of Michigan against the University of Southern California.
Materson, a Michigan fan, decided he would go - vicariously.
He made a trade with a fellow inmate for a pair of striped socks in Michigan's school colors, maize and blue, and proceeded to stitch a letter "M" onto a visor hat.
"This was prayer getting answered on many different levels," he says in retrospect. "It was a crack in the door. It didn't swing wide open, but it opened just enough for me to start breathing in the air of rebirth and regeneration."
Before long, he was getting requests, and more socks, from other inmates to produce Harley-Davidson emblems, Puerto Rican flags, and various insignias and designs. Each seemed increasingly more complicated and stretched his abilities.
"I wasn't that great at drawing or lettering, so I had to really work at it," he says.