Ray Materson is dressed in his usual green fatigue pants and spotless white T-shirt. Sitting slumped behind an empty cafeteria table, he pushes his dark shoulder-length hair back from his brooding face. Only the watery blue eyes betray a softness in what is an otherwise threatening visage.
Materson has been a drunk and a drug addict for many of his 40 years. As inmate number 162895 at the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, Conn., he is serving a 15-year sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery. But at the moment, in a resonant voice and with exquisite diction, he is reciting Shakespeare from memory: "I saw her coral lips to move/And with her breath she did perfume the air."
The convict, it turns out, has several other personae, including amateur actor (he played Lucentio in a production of The Taming of the Shrew in Grand Rapids, Mich.), college graduate ( Grand Valley State in Allandale, Mich.) and gifted artist. As the last of these, Materson embroiders painstakingly detailed tableaux, many depicting athletes in action, onto fragments of cloth no larger than the palm of his hand.
Materson's must be one of the strangest and most circuitous paths ever taken by an artist. As a child, moving from one small Midwestern town to another with an abusive, alcoholic father and an understandably beleaguered mother. Materson found refuge in athletics and in the powerful, if only imagined, protective-ness of his heroes—Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Johnny Unitas and Muhammad Ali. But as he grew older and angrier, the sanctuary Materson had found among his idols was overwhelmed by despair.
When he finally hit bottom, a single burst of creativity turned his life around. In December 1988 Materson was in a maximum-security cell at Somers State in Connecticut, wondering how he was going to get through 15 years of incarceration. "I prayed that someone would just come let me out; I prayed that this was all somehow a mistake." he says. "But the doors didn't spring open. I didn't deserve to be let out."
Materson believes his prayers were answered anyway. "I was sitting on my bunk," he says, ' "and I looked at the top of this rubber dish, and it reminded me of my grandmother's sewing hoop. Growing up I would watch her in her rocking chair, stitching for hours. I'm sitting here, and I could almost see her there." Materson was moved. He wanted to sew something himself.
The Rose Bowl game between USC and his home-state school, Michigan, was just days away, so Materson decided to make a Wolverine visor. With a pack of cigarettes, the universal prison currency, he bought a pair of yellow-and-blue tube socks from another prisoner. Then, using nail clippers, he cut off the top of the dish to make a sewing hoop. Stretching a handkerchief over the hoop and using thread he had unwound from the tube socks, Materson embroidered a small patch in the shape of the letter M. He transferred the patch to a visor he had fashioned from the waistband of a pair of boxer shorts, some plastic and shoelaces. The project took 12 hours and left him bemused. "It was like I was guided," he says. "There was something providential about it."
Materson's creations quickly became popular with the other prisoners, who requested their own patches: NFL logos; Italian. Puerto Rican and Confederate flags; Harley-Davidson emblems. What had begun as a way of emulating a favorite relative soon became a way of life, one that offered Materson a means of communicating with the world outside prison.
But it was prison, he says, that saved his life by giving him the opportunity to become an artist. "I believe we all have a drive to create," says Materson, who has served seven of his 15 years and will be eligible for parole next spring. "If it's not nurtured, then the exact opposite happens: People learn to destroy, and sometimes they destroy themselves."
Last year Materson finished a series of nine tapestries, each consisting of thousands of stitches and taking up to 50 hours to complete. They are baseball-card-sized portraits of the starting players on Materson's favorite team from boyhood, the 1963 New York Yankees.