Cover Image

Embroidering on a Tightrope

Ray Materson has had, by many metrics, a successful career in the art world. Materson has received national and international press coverage, his embroidery work has been purchased by notable collectors and has been on display in prominent museums, he has had steady gallery representation, and he has received numerous commissions. He is a self-taught artist which, depending on your allegiance to labels, may classify him and his work as “outsider,” a term that Materson has been known to reject in the past. Despite all of the successes, however, Materson is struggling to fund his artistic practice.

“The Prisoner”, 1991.

“The Prisoner”, 1991.

For over 26 years, Materson has been harvesting sock threads to embroider colorful micro-scenes and portraits. At roughly 2.5 inches by 2.75 inches, Materson’s pieces are smaller than a single playing card. Though their scale is small, one square inch of a finished piece contains between 1,000 and 1,200 stitches. His work contains rich colors, complex shading, and a painstaking level of detail in both the foreground and background of the miniatures. The process from conception-to-completion takes Materson an average of 60 hours. Materson’s oeuvre is all inclusive and spans such subjects as baseball iconography, industrial landscapes, still lifes, drug addiction, dysfunctional families, and prison. He draws inspiration from his past experiences, stories he has heard, and concepts that move him. In much of his work, Materson makes a clear commitment to educate us on the stark reality of drug abuse, noting, “People put blinders on. They actually don’t want to see what’s going on. Drug abuse crosses all socioeconomic boundaries.”

“Involuntary Blue,” 1995.

“Involuntary Blue,” 1995.

Materson’s story is a captivating one; it is a tale of addiction, burglary, regret, and rehabilitation. It’s likely you’ve heard his story before since Materson and his tale of artistic salvation have been no stranger to the press. He has been featured on National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show and Weekend All Things Considered, and his work has been covered by The New York Times and the BBC. His story begins in the late 1980s when he had bottomed-out after years of struggling with drug abuse. During a particularly tumultuous downward spiral, Materson stole a toy gun and went on a series of drug-related robberies. Eventually, he was caught. Materson served over 7 years of a 15 year sentence for carjacking.

In 1989, after one year in prison, Materson made a purchase that would change his life. In exchange for a pack of cigarettes he received a used pair of gold and blue tube socks from a fellow inmate. The colored stripes on the tube socks were a near-perfect match for the University of Michigan. Thinking of home, he had recalled watching his grandmother embroider amongst the chaos of television and family; her focus was what he needed during his long sentence. His work has always been small—using the lid from an old Rubbermaid container where he kept his coffee, Materson fashioned a sewing hoop that was about 6 inches in diameter. It was just the right size to hide from the guard. He used a torn piece of bed sheet for his canvas and borrowed a simple sewing needle from a prison guard and set to work. Materson used the sock thread to embroider the iconic University of Michigan “M” onto a hat in preparation for the Michigan versus USC Rose Bowl game.

“Give ‘Em Hell Bo”, 1998.

“Give ‘Em Hell Bo”, 1998.

Materson’s artwork served as an integral tool for him to cope with life in prison and put him on a path of rehabilitation. “Prison is a horrible, horrible place but there were moments that were really special,” Materson told me while recounting the beginning of his artistic career. While incarcerated, Materson’s embroidery attracted the attention of other inmates and their interest resulted in volunteered critiques. One fellow inmate informed Materson when colors did not work together while another challenged Materson’s depiction of an all-white audience at a baseball game. While looking at three different baseball pieces, the inmate prodded Materson, “You know, this is real good. But how come there ain’t no brothers in the stand?” This was a detail that Materson had not thought of and it was an observation that he had appreciated. From curiosity to criticisms the interest of other inmates helped give Materson credibility while incarcerated. Soon Materson began to work on commission, exchanging one-of-a-kind pieces for cartons of cigarettes.

Prison, an unlikely place for an artist to build his or her resume, was also where Materson was pushed to submit a piece of embroidery in consideration for an exhibition at a country folk art show. His work was accepted. With time on his hands, prison guards looking the other way while he stitched his artwork (which was considered contraband), and the surprising new-found prestige amongst his fellow prisoners, Materson gained the confidence, discipline, and vision needed for a devoted artistic pursuit.

“The Public School Girls”, 1994.

“The Public School Girls”, 1994.

Post-prison, Materson’s career followed a path which is indicative of major art-world success. In 2002, Materson, along with his ex-wife Melanie, released his autobiography Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending. A year later, Materson became the first artist to receive an Innovator Combating Substance Abuse grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. His work has been included in exhibitions at The New Museum of Contemporary Art, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the Compton-Verney Gallery in Warwickshire, England. Even Materson’s collectors are notable—among them are The Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection and John Malkovich.

However, thirteen years after the publication of Sins and Needles, Materson is struggling to find funding to continue making new work. “Art is a feast or famine proposition,” Materson says with a tone that informs me that he has experienced living on both sides of the art world. Materson works fulltime in a minimum wage job at an adult foster care facility. Fulltime employment makes it difficult for him to find the time to work on his time-consuming artistic practice.

Despite ongoing challenges, Materson is in the process of developing a new series of work. A master of nuance who is skilled in depicting hard truths, Materson is now employing the crowd funding website GoFundMe to raise funds to support the creation of 15 to 20 images for a traveling exhibition entitled, “Veterans, War, Family, Artistry.” The concept came to Materson after meeting a legally-blind and highly decorated Vietnam Veteran who attributes his loss of sight to Agent Orange. Materson is quick to remind me that the effects of war, such as Agent Orange and its lingering effects on the children of those who were exposed to the chemical, are far reaching. In this new series, Materson feels compelled to draw attention to the many horrors of war and the devastation that families feel. He is also careful to ensure that the series will be all-inclusive, noting the importance of depicting “not just American families but also the displaced families of war because so much of that gets lost.” This devastation is something that Materson fears “we gave up talking about.” The rhetoric is similar to that which he uses to describe his earlier work on drug abuse—though the problem crosses all socioeconomic boundaries both war and the war on drugs is too easy to ignore. Through such honest imagery, Materson aims to confront that willful ignorance to affect change.

“Rock and Roll Girl”, 1993.

“Rock and Roll Girl”, 1993.

Looking into the art world, it is too easy to confuse success and notoriety with the notion of a stress-free life or inflows of cash. For artists in general, but even more specifically for those who may be deemed “outsider,” the struggle to balance the drive to create, and to make an impact, with the need to make a living is a daunting tightrope to walk. Materson’s balancing act is made all the more difficult by his criminal record. No one appreciates this more than Materson, who remains a self-described “happy guy” who sees beauty everywhere.

For a chance to see these remarkable pieces in person, Materson has an upcoming exhibition “Mending the Soul with Miniature Stitches” at the Mini Time Machine: Museum of Miniatures in Tucson, Arizona. The exhibition runs from September 24 to January 10.