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.
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.
The correctional staff was convinced he posed no threat and didn't bother him. As a result, he says, his cell became a "monument to contraband," with a large collection of sewing needles.
One officer even "commissioned" him to do a picture of his Norwegian elkhound. In lieu of cash, the officer gave him a high-intensity lamp so that he wouldn't have to craft each 2-1/4-by-2-3/4-inch tapestry under a blinking florescent.
After that he embroidered from lights-on in the morning until lights-out at night.
Because every thread was pulled from socks, and 1,200 stitches were needed per square inch, he had time to take what he calls a pictorial moral inventory. Hour after hour - it took 50 to 60 per scene - he reviewed his life, rehashing the mistakes and what was good about it.
"I came to see after a while how God was working in my life," he says.
Much of Materson's artwork centers on the horrors of prison and drug addiction. But it ranges beyond that, as evident in his autobiography, "Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending." In addition to haunting, dark images, he embroidered scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a self-portrait, and a Mickey Mantle baseball card.
Besides finding salvation in sewing, Materson found public recognition. After a fellow inmate shared a folk art magazine with him, he submitted samples of his work to a show in Farmington, Conn., which accepted it. The works caught the eye of fairgoer Melanie Hohman, whose encouraging letter to him began correspondence that ultimately led to her becoming his wife and agent.
She arranged for his work to reach a wider audience, such as at New York's Folk Art Museum, which further motivated Materson, who explains, "Even though I was incarcerated, there was part of me that wasn't. I could be locked in a cell and know that there were people looking at my work in Hartford or New York or wherever it might be. It gave me a sense that I was free."
Materson's art, in fact, paved the way to an early release. Today, he is married and the father of three children.He is also director of pregnancy prevention, HIV education, and parenting programs at the Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, a facility for at-risk teenage boys in Canaan, N.Y.
Now, as the first artist to receive an Innovators Combating Substance Abuse award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, he plans to bring guest artists to campus, to help the young men discover their own creativity - whether through drama, poetry, filmmaking, or perhaps, even embroidery.
"Creativity is part of our very makeup," he says. A failure to nurture or encourage the creative urge, he believes, can lead to crimes against others and oneself, such as drug addiction and alcoholism.
Jack Henningfield, who heads the Innovators selection process, agrees. He says Materson's art communicates powerfully about the addiction experience in a way that goes beyond charts, graphs, and numbers.
Materson, who still prefers to make small scenes and to use thread from socks (he likes the sheen), hopes his growing fame will allow him to spread the word about the redemptive power of art.
"Until my personal epiphany, my reconnection with God, I didn't think I stood a chance of getting better," he says. "The spiritual component is what makes it."