Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending


Ray Materson wanted to be a priest when he grew up. He was an A student and sixth-grade class president. But in college Ray began drinking, which led to drug experimentation, which devolved to an addict's life of living fix to fix. Finally, petty acts of theft and the end of loans from friends led to carjacking with a toy gun and a sentence of twenty-five years behind bars.

One miserable day in prison, Ray remembered an image of his grandmother sitting on the porch with her ...

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Ray Materson wanted to be a priest when he grew up. He was an A student and sixth-grade class president. But in college Ray began drinking, which led to drug experimentation, which devolved to an addict's life of living fix to fix. Finally, petty acts of theft and the end of loans from friends led to carjacking with a toy gun and a sentence of twenty-five years behind bars.

One miserable day in prison, Ray remembered an image of his grandmother sitting on the porch with her embroidery. At about the same time, the University of Michigan was to play in the Rose Bowl. Improvising a needlework hoop, Ray made a maize-and-blue Michigan M so he could officially cheer his team to victory. Soon Ray was sewing small flags and emblems using threads pulled from socks for pieces commissioned by fellow inmates, who paid him with cigarettes. Over time his work became more intricate-miniature masterpieces that told stories from his past and illustrated his dreams for the future. In stitching his artwork, Ray found hope and salvation.

Enter Melanie, a woman who sees Ray's work in a local exhibition and writes him a fan letter. Ultimately she marries him while he's still in prison. With Melanie's encouragement and perseverance, Ray's artwork gains national attention and is a smash hit. To this day, his work is represented by the American Primitive Gallery in New York.

Illustrated with fifty pieces of Materson's artwork, Sins and Needles is the riveting story of Ray's journey-of how a broken man manages to put the pieces of his life together in a most unexpected way.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ray Materson, a good student who wanted to be a priest when he grew up, began doing drugs in college and got into trouble with the law. He was sent to jail for a car-jacking (in which he used a toy gun), and while there, learned how to embroider. Sewing with the threads of unraveled socks, Materson made intricate works that depicted everything from his favorite football team to the confinement he felt in prison. Along with his wife, Melanie Materson, he tells the story of how he found hope and salvation through art in Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending. The book includes illustrations of 50 pieces of Materson's needlework. (Sept. 27) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A confessed felon tells of his redemption by faith, the love of a good woman-and needlepoint. How outlaw, druggie, and convict Ray Materson went straight is a straightforward story told here in the first person (though wife Melanie is credited as co-author). Ray's resumé progresses from busboy to cocaine cowboy. As a drug counselor, he learned where to cop the best dope. He attempted a stick-up with a shoplifted toy pistol, got quickly busted and quickly confessed. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.) In jail, the foiled stick-up artist planned a daring escape with a simulacrum of a gun. Again quickly busted, he was dealt a 25-year sentence. It didn't take long before he experienced an epiphany in the slammer, where, by his accounting, he led a blameless life. When he discovered that he could embroider like Grandma using contrived equipment and unraveled socks, he became a prison star. Fellow inmates commissioned works in exchange for cigarettes (the universal prison currency). The creation of original art in his cage studio gained favor with his warders and the public. One particular fan became his promoter, his girlfriend, and eventually his wife. (Their prison honeymoon is discreetly described). Ray discusses daily life in the pen, but his central concern is incarcerated folk art, and his text is amply illustrated with small examples related to the narrative. In its way, this is a catalogue raisonné, with graphics of the kind Grandma Moses might have rendered had she been in the Big House. Readers may judge the art themselves, but it was interesting enough to attract a New York dealer-a dealer in art, not the stuff other dealers once offered the author, who was paroled and is nowfree. Hard to say how heavily it's embroidered, but this is a tale of salvation sufficient to make Oprah happy, if only she still had a book club. (Illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565123403
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 7.26 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Melanie Materson is a writer and musician who was born and raised in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She is currently at the College of St. Rose in Albany on a painting fellowship. She and husband Ray have three children.

Ray Materson is an internationally recognized outsider artist. He and his art have been featured in major newspapers and national media. A Michigan native, he now lives with his wife, Melanie, outside of Albany, New York, where he continues to create his unique artworks and counsels troubled youth. They have three children.

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Read an Excerpt

1. The House on York Road

The big, east-facing front porch was trellised on its southern side. In the summer, small pink roses reached out in all directions, from the lush, black earth to the eave of the roof. Grandma Hattie would regularly sit in a rocking chair in the shade of the trellis and work her embroidery. A compact woman with a hunched back and a nose like a hawk's beak, she had spent most of her life in Brooklyn, but she'd come to live with us after the death of my uncle Eddie, who had always looked after her. She was almost eighty at the time, and Dad insisted that she move in with us. It was an arrangement that caused my mother a good deal of apprehension, and it seemed that my grandmother was less than delighted with the social and geographic change. But Dad was a man who felt deep familial obligation, so Grandma Hattie-with her housecoats, gaudy jewelry, dentures, sewing basket, and out-of-place Brooklyn accent-had become a member of the family.

I was eight years old when we moved into the large, four-bedroom house on the corner of York Road and Meadowbrook Drive in Parma Heights, Ohio. It was the summer of 1962, and we'd left Grand Rapids, Michigan, because my father had taken a transfer from his employer, an insurance company. Our new house was beautiful, with rich woodwork and beveled-glass windows. On sunny days these windows projected slow-moving rainbows across the floors and walls. Dad, Mom, Grandma Hattie, my sister, Barbara, and I enjoyed a shared fantasy that there were little pots of gold at the end of each rainbow.

It took a little time for me to fully adjust to the move to Parma Heights, but I fell in love with the expansive backyard and the pear trees out front-and I enjoyed meeting the other kids who lived in the neighborhood. It was during my four and a half years on York Road that I learned to play baseball, developed an appreciation for the theater, and earned a measure of popularity among my peers.

My best friend was Mike Sforzo, who lived two doors up the road from us. His older sister, Darlene, was a high-school classmate of my sister's at Nazareth Academy, a Catholic girls school, and that's how I'd come to know him. A year older than I, Mike excelled at sports: baseball, football, and boccie. I never matched his athletic abilities, but that never lessened my love of sports, especially baseball.

In the suburbs of Cleveland, most of the other neighborhood kids claimed the Indians as their favorite team. But I delighted in rooting for the New York Yankees. They were the team to be reckoned with, and their star players-Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson, and Roger Maris-were my heroes. I read about them in the Plain Dealer, listened to their games on a rocket-shaped red, crystal-receiver radio, and watched their televised games against the Indians with intense concentration. Once, when I was about ten years old, my sister won tickets to a Yankees-Indians game in an academic competition. Our whole family (except Grandma Hattie) attended the game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. At one point in the game-which the Yankees won'the Mick came within ten or twelve rows of our seats when he ran to catch a foul ball that was dropping near the stands. I felt sure he'd seen me.

Perhaps it was the niavete of childhood, or maybe it had something to do with being raised as a Roman Catholic, but a sense of security enveloped me during my childhood. I knew I had a guardian angel always looking over my shoulder, as the nuns at Holy Family School had assured me. When it came to truth, God was the only higher authority than the priests and nuns at Holy Family.

I started school there in the third grade. The class was large and well disciplined. Boys wore gray slacks, white shirts, and string ties that were clasped at the neck with a Holy Family medallion. Girls wore gray plaid jumpers, white blouses, knee socks, and saddle shoes. If we wanted to stand out, we knew it had to be for our actions. The uniforms contributed to the general sense of order and discipline.

School started each morning with Mass. We would meet in our classrooms, and after the roll was called, we'd walk single file, girls followed by boys, to the church on the opposite side of the parking lot and playground. Talking or straying out of line was strictly forbidden, because-as Father Benechek often said-God created an orderly universe, and he expects nothing less from his children, the crown of his creation.

Holy Family Church was a big, unostentatious, red-brick structure attached to the school's gymnasium and auditorium. The interior was modestly ornate, with statues of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, as well as the Holy Family. Each of us was expected to remain silent while considering our uniqueness, our sinful nature, and the saving grace of Christ the Redeemer. I loved all of it, and I envied the older boys who were fortunate enough to be selected to serve on the altar alongside the priest. But I was painfully aware that I couldn't begin training as an altar boy until I was in the sixth grade. Or so I thought.

In November of my third-grade year, I was selected to play the role of a traveling priest in a Christmas play. The story line involved a pioneer family stranded in their log cabin during a snowstorm, unable to attend the traditional midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. My character-lost, hungry, and suffering from frostbite and exposure-stumbled upon the cabin by fortunate accident and was nursed back to health just in time to hold the midnight Eucharist celebration. I believed Sister Mary Theresa when she told us it was a true story about answered prayers.

Thus it was that I celebrated my first Mass at the age of eight-and as a priest, no less! The experience was so rich and spiritually invigorating that I couldn't let go of it. So, in the priestly vestments that my mother had sewn for me out of old satin curtains, I began frequently celebrating Mass at home in my bedroom. I flattened and shaped pieces of white bread to form my make-believe Eucharist hosts. And, with the meticulous assistance of my sister-who would've been proud to have her brother become a priest someday-I constructed all the mandatory accoutrements, from the altar to candlesticks and a chalice. I conducted the services for a hand-me-down teddy bear and a stuffed panda-neither of whom accepted Communion.

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2006

    Readers are Victims

    I recently heard Ray and Melanie Materson are separated and seeking a divorce. No suprise here. It makes it more difficult to appreciate a story built on lies and deceit from both authors. Now the victims are not only their children but anyone who buys into this rhetoric.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2004

    No Need for Mea Culpas

    I went to the reading and signing of this book when it came out, having already decided to buy it. I was not disappointed. The book reads the way Ray sounds: soft, gentle, and with an honesty that comes from having walked in hell and found a way out. I know personally what it's like to battle addiction, and I have learned that the strongest survivors are those who make their amends when the time is right, and then move on. It seems the author has moved on, and it was a joy to read about his spiritual journey in the process. He doesn't need to throw about mea culpas for the satisfaction of those who are hellbent on judging his past. Apparently he has made peace with himself and with God. That's all anyone needs to do. I highly recommend this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2003

    Small Thinkers

    This book is small in statue and content. People like the Matersons whose lives have included alcohol, drug addiction and incarceration know why they have tried to make a big deal out of their story. People like this also know they hurt many others along the way, including those who have tried to help them. No where do they give others any acknowledgement for helping them except those who they use to get what they want. The book is all about 'me, me, me.' As the old saying goes, 'Small people think small thoughts.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2003

    Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending

    It is difficult to believe that a book such as 'Sins and Needles' is published and sold. The Matersons are master manipulators who use one another and others to get what they want from life. It is unbelievable that they found people to buy into their selfish existence. It would be one thing if this were a novel but the truth is a pathetic story of 'using.' The Matersons began using alcohol and drugs and now they use people through manipulation and a sympathy card called 'art' to make a living. Pubishers take note: please raise your bar on quality writing and content. This book is a good example of very bad press.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2002

    Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending

    This little book of Ray Materson's is his process through the penal system with a (surprise!) epiphany of salvation from the temptations that landed him in prison in the first place. "Sins and Needles" is a platform for Materson's confession of bad choices in his life and ends with a new beginning for him and Melanie, who he married in prison. In truth, many people have a story to tell and this is usually done through creative efforts more effectively than "everyone give me a pat-on-the-back" kind of storytelling. The narrative in the last third of the book became so maudlin and sickeningly sweet that I had a difficult time finishing it. Materson's needlework crafts a better depiction of his life than the book. The Matersons should forget writing and Ray Materson would do better to stick to his miniature craftwork. How many times can the couple repeat in the book: "look at how good we are now"?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2002

    Finding Salvation

    A friend had a copy of Materson's book and lent it to me to read since I mentioned I had heard of him although I have never heard of his wife. Materson's journey from drugs and prison and back to society, with his wife along for the ride, is the basis for his book. I suppose when one is incarcerated, one has plenty of time to craft thousands of stiches and lucky to later sell them for thousands of dollars instead of the prison commodity of cigarettes. What most of us would give to have time like that but not in prison! Although it is nice to see someone who had previously gone down the wrong road find his way, I don't think this is a particularly unique story for a movie or a book. I find the inspiration within the story to be of their own making as opposed to genuinely inspiring the reader. The Matersons have no monopoly on life's purpose: we all need to figure out what inspiration we need to find salvation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2002

    Hope there is a movie coming out!

    What is most amazing is that anyone can achieve such detail in any medium. His artwork speaks for itself, each piece selling for thousands of dollars. Sins and Needles is the first complete look at this man's turn from drugs to helping others. I first saw some of Ray's work years ago and have seen him since on television and in newspaper and magazine articles. Ray and Melanie's story is very enjoyable and uplifting. I only hope someone picks the movie rights up and we get to see the story on-screen! He continues "redeeming himself" working with trouble youth at a residential treatment center in Upstate New York with his artwork, his story and his passion to keep others from travelling the road that he travellled. Read the professional reviewer's comments: they are more accurate than jealous "original" artist comments!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2002

    Artists as Stereotypes

    While reading Materson's book, I am struck by a narrative that is easy on the eyes with a stereotypical spin (we all know someone like his grandmother). This description of the familiarity of life reminds me of Materson's 'art' as illustrated throughout the book. Although I respect the tedious quality of miniature reproductions, I find copies of already published art not worthy of being called 'art.' Nonetheless, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and if Materson's book is more about personal salvation than art I can appreciate the healing qualities of his work. Materson's journey into the abyss is not that much different than those found from time immemorial including the mystics of the middle ages. Difference between Materson and the mystics is simple: their journeys were in pursuit of spirituality and his was in pursuit of drugs. Let's be honest here: a convicted felon is a felon just the same and the damage Materson inflicted on innocent people does not evaporate because he finds peace through his 'artistry.' His writing, art and celebratory cries of redemption leave a gnawing pit in the stomach when one realizes his journey included hurting others. Do any proceeds from this book provide for Materson's victims? What about Materson's victims?

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