A Stitch in Time

Ray Materson

On a slip of fabric three inches by two inches, an embroidered image of a butterfly emerges from its cocoon—an apt metaphor to describe the transformation of the artist, Ray Materson, the first artist ever to receive a grant from Innovators Combating Substance Abuse, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This now-honored artist, author, father and educator of at-risk youth was, in his own words, "just a common thief, a common criminal." But in prison he turned to God and discovered his art, which ultimately provided him with the inner calm and sense of self-worth that had long eluded him.

Ray Materson's journey into the abyss of substance abuse and back into a life of sobriety was long and, not surprisingly, difficult. By the time he was 10 years old, his family had lived in four states. As soon as he had made friends in one place, he had to leave. His father was an abusive alcoholic.

For a while, school was his refuge. He was popular, an A student, involved in sports and theatre. When his family moved from Cleveland's Parma Heights to the blue-collar area of Grand Rapids, Mich., things that were once important to him like theater and academic activities weren't cool with the kids in his new school. He was picked on constantly. "That's when I first started abusing substances," says Materson. He started smoking at 14 and drugs quickly followed—marijuana and LSD. In the 10th grade he dropped out of school.

His father issued him an ultimatum: Get a job, go back to school or get out of the house. Materson took a job as a busboy and dishwasher, went to night school and earned his high school degree when he was 17. Soon afterward, he began college and renewed his involvement in theater. But a lot of drinking went on behind the scenes and he took part. He also smoked marijuana and started using cocaine.

He recalls the first experience in his book, Sins and Needles. "My heart began racing and an electrical storm flooded my brain. Every grand moment of exhilaration that I'd ever known grabbed hold of my senses as I took deep, repeated breaths. . . . It was the most sensual feeling I'd ever experienced compounded a hundred times over. It made me feel godlike in the twinkling of an eye." He finally had found something he could count on to make him feel good.

In the early '80s, Materson married and went to graduate school for a year during which he maintained a fragile sobriety. But after returning to drinking and drug use, his marriage failed and he moved in with his sister and her family in Connecticut. For about a year he remained clean and sober. He began working as a counselor in a halfway house for prisoners coming out of jail as substance abusers and took a second job as a waiter in a restaurant. "Those half-finished bottles of wine left on the tables started looking good to me," says Materson. Going out with the wait staff started him drinking again. After that, it became all too easy to slip back into old habits: a joint in the parking lot, lines of coke in the bathroom. Then he started using heroin.

Materson lost his job at the halfway house and quit the restaurant. Driven by the need to feed his habit, he shoplifted a toy gun at the local Kmart and committed a series of robberies. "I was a lousy criminal, but I didn't care. I was desperate. I wanted it to end—probably my life and my drug use—but I didn't know how to do that."

Materson was arrested and sent to jail. Neither a hardened criminal nor streetwise, he found the experience terrifying. "I put on my best actor's face to be a tough guy but most people saw right through it. Every day was scary," he says. Because he was educated, he found a niche writing letters for the inmates to their girlfriends, wives or lawyers. His payment took the form of homemade wine and marijuana.

With plenty of spare time to think, Materson fondly remembered better times of his youth, including trips to see the University of Michigan Wolverines play football. He also remembered his grandma being able to block out everything around her while she embroidered. One day, he made an unlikely connection. He noticed a pair of tube socks in the Wolverine's yellow and blue hanging on another convict's cell and he bartered for them. He pulled them apart thread by thread and taught himself how to embroider a small letter M.

He began embroidering flags and sports logos for fellow inmates. Early in his artistic journey, another convict paid him for his work with three joints. "After I smoked one of them, I realized I couldn't be high and do the artwork. I'm higher doing the artwork than anything artificial has ever gotten me. That was the defining moment when I realized that the doors I prayed would open for me had opened."

In the fall of 1990, Melanie Hohman came into Materson's life. One evening at the home of an acquaintance, she saw Materson's framed artwork and was swept away by them. When she learned a man in prison using sock thread made them, she asked for his address so she could write to him.

They started out as pen pals, and then became friends. Eventually Hohman became Materson's art agent and in 1993 his wife. Materson was released from prison in 1995.

In 2002, Jack Henningfield, national director for the Innovators Combating Substance Abuse, saw Materson's work featured at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

"His ability to communicate the human side of addiction and recovery was extraordinary and of national significance," says Henningfield. "His art extends the objective scientific understanding of drug addiction with insights that can nurture the compassionate understanding of addiction and recovery. Such an understanding is critical if our nation is to garner support for the research, prevention and treatment programs that are so critical to reduce substance abuse."

Today Materson works at the Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth in Canaan, N.Y., where he helps young men who have substance abuse histories develop an alternative identity through their artistic abilities.

"By helping to bolster their self-esteem through positive self-image, these kids learn they are not crack heads, pot heads or juvenile delinquents, but artists and students," says Materson. "I personally could think of myself as an addict, alcoholic and ex-con but I rarely do I do that," says Materson. "I am an artist, author, program director and public speaker. I want the kids I work with to think of themselves in a similar way. It's too easy to get hung up on a negative label and then carry it with one's self for years."