Ray and Melanie Materson, Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending, 212 pp., Algonquin Books 2002.
Ray Materson began making his intricate needlework pictures, which measure about 3 by 2 inches each, from unraveled socks. He was in prison at the time, serving a 25-year sentence for kidnapping and robbery after becoming an alcoholic and drug addict. His unlikely life story of redemption through art is aptly, if punningly, told in Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending, written by Materson and his wife Melanie.
Sins and Needles is illustrated with appropriately 50 artworks, reproduced at about full size. Materson is best known for his pictures of baseball greats. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Joe Jackson and Elston Howard appear in the book, as do symbolic works on anti-drug themes, and episodes from Materson's life, including portraits of himself and his wife. Less expected are scenes from plays, for example My Fate Cries Out, which depicts Hamlet's father's ghost walking the castle ramparts. Materson, a theater fan since acting in a third-grade play, managed to use of his theatrical gifts in prison as well as his visual art skills.
The appeal of Materson's works comes from their fresh, dramatic and usually complex compositions, his deft contrasts of lights and darks, and his ability to apply tiny stitches with the expressiveness usually reserved for paint.
Materson's convoluted life story runs from dutiful Catholic schoolboy to alcoholic to high school dropout to college and drug abuser. Despite doing some hard time surrounded by gangs, salvation arrived for Materson via football. Remembering the joy of going to college games, Materson determined to make himself a cap with an "M" for Michigan on it to enhance the fun of watching a football game on prison TV. He recalled the pleasure his grandmother received from her embroidery hoop. Trying to create something similar in jail became his first challenge. Learning to unravel sports socks gave him his palette. The talent he manifested from the start was all his own. Word of his work traveled fast around the prison, and he was soon taking orders for needlework patches.
Materson reconnected to incidents of positive social acceptance, the love of football he shared with his friends, and then the pleasure of creating in thread that re-connected him with his family. His appreciation as someone gifted by his fellow prisoners and their willingness to pay high prices for his services with the prison currency of cigarettes was another type of belonging and esteem that helped Materson combat the "loser" image engrained by his father and the substance abuse that resulted.
As he was turning out commissions for inmates, Materson was asked by the warden to paint a baseball mural. Even though he had only painted walls as a workman during college, Materson nevertheless jumped at the chance, winning acclaim from the warden and prisoners alike. He became a full-time muralist at the top of the prison pay scale, earning $1.75 an hour, while continuing to make needlework pictures on the side.
A his work developed and won recognition outside of prison Materson won the most crucial supporter for his work, a woman who eventually became his wife. Being a part of several new prison programs helped him finally defeat drugs. Turned down for parole once, he later succeeded.
Materson's inspiring story told in simple, straightforward language by Ray and Melanie Materson. The book is a page-turner and an excellent introduction to Materson's unique work. It deserves to be read not only by the art community but also by psychologists, those fighting substance abuse and prison workers as well.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.