Ray Materson believes in the healing power of art.
While serving a 15-year prison sentence for drug-related crimes, he salvaged the thread of worn socks to create miniature tapestries depicting life outside prison walls and used needlepoint to stitch his life back together. Under such conditions, his art was both an escape and an act of courage.
Born into a troubled family, Materson experimented with alcohol and drugs as a young student in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He dropped out of high school but eventually earned a G.E.D. and attended Thomas Jefferson College, where he enjoyed life as a drama and philosophy major but also descended into drug addiction. In his junior year, he was introduced to cocaine. “That absolutely changed my life,” he says. “I became a junkie literally overnight. That was the demon.”
To support his habit, he begged, borrowed and stole. He managed to quit drugs for a short time (eight months) and found work as a counselor in a half-way house and as a waiter. But life changed for the worse when he was reintroduced to cocaine. To support his renewed habit, he drained his bank account and committed a string of robberies using a toy gun he shoplifted from a department store. The robberies netted him $350, barely enough to buy drugs that would last a day. Materson was eventually arrested, attempted escape, and was sentenced to 15 years in a state penitentiary in Connecticut. There, he would eventually transform and mend himself, using a sewing needle instead of a hypodermic needle.
Today, Materson spends 40 to 60 hours of steady work to create his marvelous embroideries, many of which contain 1,200 stitches per square inch. Art, he says, has changed him. “My art form has become a very dear friend to me."
Materson’s work has been exhibited in museums nationally and internationally. This past summer, Ray's work hung next to embroideries created by Mary Queen of Scots at an exhibit at the Compton Verney Gallery, Warwickshire, England. He has also exhibited at the University of California, Davis; New York City’s American Folk Art Museum; at the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore, MD; the Boston Metropolitan Museum of Art and numerous other venues.
Materson has won many awards, including a special opportunity stipend from the Arts Center for the Capital Region, in Troy, New York, and a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He served as artist in residence at the Residential College of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, home of the Wolverines who inspired him to create his first artwork. In 2003 he was the first artist to receive the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Innovator's Award.
In addition, he continues to lecture at various venues around the country.