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Ex-Convict Gains New Life One Stitch At a Time - 2002-06-03

There's an old Chinese proverb that says, the longest journey begins with a single step. But you're about to meet a man whose journey began with a pair of socks, blue and yellow socks, hanging on the bars of his prison cell.

Seeing Ray Materson at home today with his wife, Melanie, and their young children Savannah and David, or at his job as a program director at a boys' juvenile corrections center near Albany, New York, he looks like an ordinary man with a rewarding life. It's hard to imagine Mr. Materson now as the desperate drug addict, robber, and prison-break-out artist he once was.

But in 1988, Ray Materson was an inmate in a state prison - sentenced to 15 years for robbery with a toy gun and escape from a police van carried out with another fake gun and key he'd made while in jail.

"So I jumped up to the front of the sheriff's van with my little toy gun," he said, "and I was so scared, but I kind of made the fear work, and I commandeered the van and had the officers drop me off and then locked them back in the van."

His escape was short-lived. In prison, he began to overcome the drug and alcohol addiction that had fueled his crimes, but his life stretched out ahead of him with little purpose or hope.

"It took me about a year to really come to the reality of where I was," he said, "to realize that I was like absolutely at the bottom of the barrel. I knew I had to, I had to turn somewhere. So I turned to God as I remembered my relationship with Him, and I prayed, and I asked for, I asked for a way out. I asked for some way to do the time - something to happen for me"

His prayer began to be answered, though not in a way he could have imagined. One day, on the little black and white television in his cell, he saw a commercial for an upcoming football game, the Rose Bowl, held each year in Pasadena, California.

Mr. Materson said, "It just so happened that Michigan was going to be playing USC in the Rosebowl that year. And Michigan was, was my team. And I thought to myself, 'wow, wouldn't I like to be in Pasadena and essentially anywhere other than where I was?'

And it just so happened the man in the next cell was hanging up some socks to dry on the bars, and they had yellow and, maize and blue stripes on them, and they reminded me of all the hats, and all the logos, and banners that you'd see around Ann Arbor during football season, and so I bought them for a pack of cigarettes. And I decided I was going to make something, I was going to do something with these, to celebrate this Rose Bowl game between USC and Michigan. And again at the same time, I had this Rubbermaid dish in the cell that I kept coffee in, and I was looking at it, and it was round, and the lid was off it, and it reminded me of Grandma's sewing hoop. So I decided I was going to somehow pull the thread out of these maize and blue socks and make a sewing hoop and embroider a Michigan logo, which is what I did."

And that was how Ray Materson was launched upon his singular artistic career - an artist who paints in sock threads, a sewing needle for his brush, white cotton undershorts his canvas.

Ray Materson began stitching with unraveled socks around-the-clock making emblems and logos, and selling them to other prisoners for the coffee and cigarettes that are as good as money in prison. Then he began creating whole scenes, designed after the Impressionist painters he admired.

He embroidered scenes from his own life, showing his childhood, his father, and the baseball players he idolized; the Chekhov and Shakespeare plays he'd performed in as a theater student in college, and the desperation he knew intimately as a drug addict and prison inmate.

At 5,000 stitches for a 30-centimeter square, it could take 40 to 50 hours to complete one piece, but Ray had little else to do in prison.

He sent some of his work to his sister and she showed it to a friend of hers - a former rock musician named Melanie, who was also struggling to overcome addiction.

"I think I loved Ray the moment I saw his art," she said. "I can't really say at what point I trusted him, but I think I loved him even before I wrote the first letter."

Melanie began to correspond with Ray, and then to visit him in prison. They were married there in 1993, the warden in attendance, Ray wearing his prison uniform.

Meanwhile, Melanie had arranged for Ray's work to be shown in galleries and museums, and private collectors began snapping it up.

Ray Materson was released from prison in 1995 for good behavior, after serving seven and a half years.

Ray works days now at the Berkshire farms in the countryside near Albany. It's a correctional school for boys who've gotten in trouble with the law, and Ray says his own experience helps him to connect with them. He said, "Frank Perry is a brilliant young man. Frank Perry was the star of my reading program that I started up at the cottage."

His own work, meanwhile, is gaining a wider audience. He is one of the artists featured at Baltimore's Visionary Art Museum, and Ray's autobiography, tentatively titled Sins and Needles, will be published in 2002 by Algonquin Books in Autumn 2002.

Ray Materson's life has changed in every way, but his patient, painstaking art, has not. Out of unraveled sock threads, spooled on used pens, he still summons up beauty and meaning - one stitch at a time.