Former Inmate and Addict Explores Substance Abuse and Recovery Through Art

Raymond Materson, 2003 Innovator Combating Substance Abuse

    • July 23, 2009

Raymond Materson
Consultant and Artist
Montpelier, Vt.

The problem: The human side of addiction and the powerful experience of recovery are often overlooked or ignored in efforts to quantify treatment interventions and outcomes. The voices and faces of the people who have fought their addiction and changed their lives provide an essential and missing piece of the story.

Programee background: Ray Materson has a compelling story: He was a bright and curious student who came from a troubled family life that led him to experiment with alcohol and drugs as a youth. Materson eventually became addicted to cocaine. To support his habit, Materson committed a string of robberies using a toy gun he shoplifted from a department store.

After he was caught and sentenced to a state penitentiary, Materson began doing needlepoint using threads and yarn from socks he bartered from fellow inmates in exchange for cigarettes and coffee.

Materson embroidered intricate designs that depicted scenes ranging from national flags, his own drug use and reproductions of 17th century art masters. Each scene measures less than 2.5 by 3 inches and takes from 40 to 60 hours to complete. He served seven years of a 25-year prison sentence.

The award: In 2003, Materson received an Innovators Combating Substance Abuse award and got a chance to use his art and his life experiences to help others understand the process of addiction and the path to recovery. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) created the Innovators program to nurture and promote innovation in combating substance abuse. Between 2000 and 2003, some 20 senior researchers, practitioners and policy-makers received Innovators awards. See Program Results for more information on the program.

The only artist of the 20 Innovators, Materson used his award to help troubled teens create art, to create more of his own art and to put on a one-man show about his experience with art and addiction.

Materson's work first came to the attention of the Innovators national program office when director Jack Henningfield served as an advisor to a major exhibit that featured his work. The exhibit, entitled "High on Life: Transcending Addiction" was shown at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore from 2002 to 2003. At the time, the national program office was looking to expand the composition of the Innovators beyond researchers and community advocates.

When Materson received the Innovators award, he had been out of prison for several years and was working as a program director at Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth in Canaan, N.Y. This residential treatment center provides services and counseling to youth who have gotten in trouble with the law.

Results: Through his Innovators award, Materson established an artist-in-residence program for the teens where they could create any type of art that interested them: photography, poetry, graffiti, painting and drawing. The teens eventually exhibited their work at a gallery in Hudson, N.Y. Materson also took the teens on field trips to art museums to expose them to broader art and possibilities in the world.

Materson thought his own troubled history as a teen and his work as an artist would make his artist-in-residence project a perfect fit for the teens at the Berkshire Center. But, the effort was more difficult than he expected.

"Working with teens is really tough," he said. "Especially ones who are already rebelling seriously enough to be in placement. Teenagers are all about they know everything and they're never going to die." He also found that his supervisors were not as supportive of the program as he had initially envisioned.

In 2005, Materson left the Berkshire Farm and moved to The Ark, a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth in Troy, N.Y. He re-focused his time to create new art of his own, ultimately creating 12 new pieces, all on the theme of addiction. (He was living in Montpelier, Vt., at the time of posting this report.)

"The Innovators award gave me the opportunity to create art that I wanted to do that touched on personal issues like addiction,” said Materson. "I couldn't ordinarily spend that much time on it if I were working 40 hours a week counseling kids."

A one-man dramatic reading. While at The Ark, Materson created and staged a monologue based on a book entitled Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending that he and his former wife published in 2002. He performed the monologue at nine venues including the American Folk Art Museum, N.Y., Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C., and Prince William County Juvenile Detention Center, Manassas, Va.

Expanding a national program. Materson's involvement in the Innovators program expanded the national program in a new and unanticipated direction. National program directors Henningfield and Santoro were so impressed by Materson's work and the power of art to illuminate the problem of addiction that they launched a project within the Innovators program focused on art and addiction.

Under the art and addiction project, the Innovators national program office organized a yearly juried art exhibit (which featured work of some of Materson's students), a yearly art and addiction calendar and collaborative art events with community colleges in Maryland.

Art about addiction distributed to treatment centers. The Innovators program also produced a CD of an exhibit "High on Life” that featured Materson's work. The CD provides insights about the addictive process, the tragedy of addiction and the paths to recovery. The national program office distributed thousands of "High on Life" CDs at no charge to treatment and prevention programs, policy-makers and thought leaders throughout the U.S.

To see some of Materson's work click here.

RWJF perspective: "The Innovators Combating Substance Abuse program recognized the innovation and creativity of researchers, advocates and providers who have dedicated their professional careers to reducing the toll of substance use and abuse," said Michelle A. Larkin, JD, RN, MS, RWJF senior program officer. "These individuals have had an extraordinary impact on the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, promoting the science and advocating for positive and lasting change."

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