Ray Materson

artist artwork
Czeslaw Milosz said that when an artist is born into a family, that family is finished. But in the life and art of Ray Materson perhaps the opposite is true. Here is an artist born out of a family’s disintegration and an artistic voice which resonates and finds its power from a life-and-death struggle with addiction.

Mr. Materson’s dramatic performance is based on his critically acclaimed memoir Sins & Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending. Ray’s story begins innocently enough, chronicling his childhood growing up on York Road in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. York Road, literally and metaphorically, becomes Ray’s artistic ground zero. It represents a place and a dream for a good life that is stolen from him. In those early years Ray was an honor student. He was sixth grade class president. He was a budding playwright. His heroes were every boy’s hero in 1960’s America: baseball greats like Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees. Thoughtful, introspective, spiritual, Ray even entertained thoughts of becoming a priest.

But behind closed doors Ray’s idyllic childhood was slowly dissolving into a Dickensonian nightmare. His father, a Merchant Marine during the Second World War, was an alcoholic. His violent outbursts and instability took a heavy emotional and physical toll on Ray and his family. After a brief re-enlistment during the Vietnam War, his father moved the family to a blue-collar neighborhood in western Michigan. Ray quickly became the object of taunts and ridicule from his new classmates. School, which for him had always been a safe haven, had turned into a rough-and-tumble environment where Ray could act out his deep-seeded frustrations.

In order to fit in, Ray began smoking marijuana and drinking. In time, Ray dropped out of school and became, in his father’s words, "a bum and a loser." He was given an ultimatum: get back into school or get a job to help support his family. Ray began working as a busboy and dishwasher, and in the most menial of jobs, soon rediscovered a sense of pride and independence.

Eventually Ray finished high school and went on to college. But the memories of York Road and a promise unfulfilled would soon manifest itself in the social and cultural upheaval of his day. In college Ray reacquainted himself with the theater. But he also began a hedonistic social life that led him to experiment with drugs and ultimately succumb to a cocaine addiction. Ray’s itinerant lifestyle, increasingly serious brushes with the law, an ill-advised marriage, and a star-crossed romance, ended in a half-comic hallucinatory armed robbery with a toy gun.

Ray had headed east in 1986, hoping to recover from the fallout of a broken marriage, pay off debt left from his divorce, and live a life of newfound sobriety. Instead Ray fell into a downward spiral, fueled by cocaine and heroin. He met up with a young woman with a similar past, and they went on a frantic cross-country drinking and drug binge culminating with an arrest for felony robbery and kidnapping. While in the custody of local police, Ray engineered a half-baked escape that began with 4 hours of freedom and ended in a fifteen year sentence in a Connecticut State Prison.

Soon Ray would find redemption in a pair of yellow and blue striped socks. The tedious prison routine and the constant fear for his life led him to spiritual re-awakening, and inspired Ray to try his hand at embroidery. Using the thread unraveled from colored socks and a makeshift sewing hoop, Ray began with simple designs and sports logos on baseball caps. He sold his artwork to inmates for cigarettes and bags of coffee. Ray found that his art gave him a certain status in the prison’s social order, a new found respect among gang members, killers and the social outcasts.

From these modest designs Ray began a journey of soul-searching and increasingly ambitious and richly detailed artwork inspired by the Impressionist Masters and based on stories from Shakespeare, the Bible and his own life experiences. Enter, a young woman named Melanie, who was made aware of Ray’s art by happenstance, and would soon fall in love with both the artist and his work. An old-fashioned courtship ensued, through correspondence and the occasional telephone conversation. Melanie became Ray’s voice to the outside world, his agent, publicist, and muse. She showed his work and spoke of the healing Ray experienced through art. The power of Ray’s needlepoint quickly found its way into galleries in New York City where it garnered praise from leading art critics and became an overnight success.

Ray Materson was the first artist to receive the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Innovators Combating Substance Abuse Award in 2003. Ray’s story has been featured in numerous national outlets, including Good Morning America, National Public Radio (Diane Rheim Show), The New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and People Magazine. His work has been shown in prestigious galleries and shows, such as The New Museum of Contemporary Art (NYC), The Boston Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Folk Art Museum (NYC) and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

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Biography Courtesy of raymaterson.com