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Agony & Ecstasy
In 'High on Life: Transcending Addiction,' the Art That Healed the Artist
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2003; Page C01
As human beings, we are hardwired to experience Ecstasy, Epiphany, Laughter and Bliss.
Little children twirling in the summer sun to experience the altered state of becoming falling-down-dizzy are not very far removed from whirling dervishes seeking spiritual attunement with the harmonious spin of the planet. If the pull upward into ecstasy is mighty, human frailties dictate that the ascent will be an imperfect one, with use sometimes leading to the hell of abuse.
American Visionary Art Museum, "High on Life: Transcending Addiction"
There are images in Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum that Ray Materson finds hard to look at and hard to look away from. Images of people he's been and places he's seen.
In his piece "Daddy's Little Princess and Her Knight in Shining Armor," "Princess" in the bedroom tightens a belt around her arm to plump a vein so her hypodermic needle, filled with heroin and cocaine, goes in nice, feels good.
"Her Knight" vomits behind her.
"That's me, throwing up in the toilet," Materson says quietly. "The drug is so good. I'm just so sick, isn't that great?"
The exhibition "High on Life: Transcending Addiction" is in its final week after 65,000 visitors -- school groups and drug treatment providers, addicts in recovery and outsider art fans, Maryland's first lady, Kendel Ehrlich. Most of the artists are self-taught; they are addicts, unapologetic users or victims. It is an exhibition about altered states, and the things we use to take us there -- coffee, cigarettes, cocaine, LSD. It is hellish and it is heavenish. It is about journeys and trips. And it is filled with wonder.
Materson's art is on display: more than two dozen embroideries, entire scenes in 21/4 by 23/4 inches -- 1,200 stitches per square inch, so small you need a magnifying glass to see them well -- stitched with thread from socks he unraveled. Stitched in prison.
Linda St. John's work is there. She endured a childhood of privation and abuse by an alcoholic father and a sadistic mother. She started drawing "looking for answers, peace. . . . I don't know how to get over it, even now." For the people in this exhibition, "I think it's our art maybe that's really saving us. These people don't make art out of a vanity thing. People in that show don't have a choice. They have to do what they do."
Alex Grey was a depressed teenager who in college did performance art obsessed with death and decay. He and his wife of 27 years, Allyson, found each other tripping on LSD at a party. Tripping brought them closer to God, they say, and their paintings render that journey.
"When a person's life experience is too big for words, it comes out as art," says Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM's founder and director.
And art gives salvation.
In "High on Life," 300 works by 100 people show that the search for meaning exists along a wide continuum of the human experience. But it is the lives of the individuals that show it most profoundly.
Essentially, drugs overwhelm the body. The issue is less one of free choice: An addicted person is biologically reprogrammed and will continue to use even when recurring physical or psychological problems outweigh the pleasure.
At the kitchen table in the bright, barnlike home he shares with his wife, Melanie, 45, and their three kids outside Albany, N.Y., Materson, 49, is talking about being a small-time drug dealer and begging money from his mother in the late 1970s to support a $1,000-a-week drug habit when his 5-year-old, Savannah, interrupts.
She has an update from the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants," and her daddy listens patiently before offering her warm zucchini bread.
That's the way it is with Ray Materson. He seems a man of grace and an abundance of good things, back now from a harrowing journey.
Materson's father was an insurance safety inspector and his mother was a homemaker. The family lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., and outside Cleveland before settling in Parma, Ohio. Materson remembers those early years as a time of worshiping baseball and writing plays and being elected sixth-grade class president. He remembers his father as smart and talented. "He painted, he wrote poetry and quoted Shakespeare and Thoreau and Emerson," Materson says.
And he remembers him as a mean drunk. "He'd call us losers and zeros and chase us," Materson says. "We'd duck out into the basement or attic or family car. We'd spend entire nights in the car." When his father hit his mother, Materson felt helpless and hateful.
Still, his mother was the sticking kind. "She always told us things will get better, things will get better, things will get better. And, of course, they never did."
Through the screaming and the chaos, Materson's grandmother Hattie would sit on the porch for hours, transported to a serene place by embroidering pillowcases and table linens.
The family returned to Michigan, and Materson, in seventh grade, began his descent. He had been popular and reverent in Catholic school in Parma. Now he was the new kid the other kids called "greaseball."
Those kids smoked cigarettes and pot and drank beer and sniffed glue. Because he didn't want to be "greaseball," he joined them.
Though he got kicked out of high school, he earned a GED and enrolled in Grand Valley State University, where he got a degree in philosophy, became active in theater, smoked pot and drank tequila. In his junior year, he met a girl who asked if he'd ever done cocaine. "As soon as she hit me up, I was, like, this is as good as it gets," Materson says.
He filled the next few years with odd jobs and continuous highs. He married briefly in the early 1980s and tried to clean up. But he couldn't or didn't want to, so he says he tried to kill himself by slicing into his arm with a paring knife. His wife left him, taking their baby daughter.
He decided to move closer to his sister near Hartford, Conn., herself newly sober, to "get it right this time." He got a job counseling kids at a halfway house and moonlighted as a bartender. It was a short hop between going for beers after work and "snorting coke from the back of a toilet seat." He lost his jobs, wrote bad checks and found a girl, and together, he says, they shoplifted a plastic gun from a Kmart and used it to kidnap a woman and steal her money.
"It's just a toy gun," he says he told the police officer. "I'm a junkie, I can't help it."
He got 25 years, with 10 suspended.
He spent the first year in prison afraid of the concrete and steel, the razor wire and everyone around him. Afraid that the big guys were going to rape him.
"You've finally fulfilled your father's prophecy," he said he told himself. "I was as much of a loser as you could be."
Materson prayed for forgiveness, and he asked God to get him out of jail. An addict's prayer, he calls it. A prayer for instant gratification.
Instead, he got remembrance.
Sixth-grade class president, the New York Yankees, John F. Kennedy, a priest who marched on Washington with Martin Luther King, and anold woman who found abiding peace in a rocking chair embroidering linens.
Around Christmas 1988, he says, he saw a commercial promoting the Rose Bowl between Michigan and USC. Longing to connect with the days when college friends would drive to Michigan games, he noticed that an inmate's socks a couple of cells away had the maize and blue colors of the University of Michigan. He bought them for a pack of cigarettes, fashioned a loom out of a plastic container, unraveled the sock thread and wrapped it around the barrel of a pen. He embroidered the letter M on a piece of fabric and made himself a hat.
He borrowed sewing needles from a guard and soon prisoners began commissioning him. He started off small -- Puerto Rican flags, Yankees emblems, lots of Harley-Davidson stuff.
"I would literally get into the flow and kind of lose track of time. I'd start at 7 and do the stitchery until lights-out, with breaks for meals a couple of hours at a clip," Materson says. He reproduced "The Swing" by Renoir.
He fingers would bleed, but he felt useful. He stitched, and he stopped getting high.
"The drug is the replacement, and when the high is gone, all you got is nothing," Materson says. "When you're doing the artwork and you're in the zone, when you're done, you don't have the depression, and the reward is there in front of you."
He sent 17 pieces to his sister, who exhibited them at a craft fair and a traveling folk art show. She showed them to a friend, Melanie, a waitress who shared an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. And Melanie wrote to Ray.
She was one month into sobriety and feeling all the shame of being an alcoholic mother. She had to tell him all her stories and her heartbreaks and everything she was too timid to say aloud at AA meetings. In January 1991 she went to visit him in prison, to see if this guy was as real as his art.
Later she told him he needed an agent. He wrote back, "You should be my agent." "But I'm just a waitress," she replied. And he wrote, "That's frontline public relations."
Charmed, she checked out library books on how to be an art agent, and she became his. She talked to anybody who would listen. She made an appointment with the director of the Albany Institute of History and Art, put on her best suit, borrowed a briefcase and let the embroidered miniatures speak for themselves.
The director immediately included them in an exhibition that was two weeks away and had been planned for two years.
In jail, Ray continued to embroider: faces, sports figures, scenes from his drug-addled life. Other prisoners called him Betsy Ross. Or they said, "Hey, faggot, stitch this." But gradually his art won their respect. He married Melanie, who was raising her young son, John, and she wrote news releases and secured gallery showings and got media attention -- Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, "Good Morning America." A prison official asked him to paint a mural of Boston's Fenway Park outside his office. Materson painted guards and prisoners in the stands.
In 1995 Ray was released on parole. The couple had a son, David. He continued to sell his art (from $2,500 to $4,000 per piece) and give interviews. And he got a job counseling troubled youths. The couple had another baby. Last fall, Ray and Melanie wrote "Sins and Needles: A Story of Spiritual Mending" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).
Last month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded him a $300,000 Innovators grant, which he plans to use to begin an artist-in-residence program at the Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth in Canaan, N.Y., where he counsels at-risk teenagers.
Monday, with little-kid shoes parked under the sofa, his wife's artwork decorating the walls, zucchini bread baking in the oven, Ray Materson thinks about where he has been. His would be a compelling story even if the art were pinky rings fashioned from $2 bills. That his art is awe-inspiring makes the journey transcendent.
He begins to say something, then stops. He begins again. "It's been a pretty winding road to get here," he says. " 'There's a divinity that shapes our ends. Rough-hew them how we will,' " he says, quoting Shakespeare. Like his father before him. And ultimately, nothing like him at all.
"I'm brimming with gratitude," Materson says softly.
From the standpoint of the legal system, there are only two classes of drugs -- legal and illegal. Classification is not based on harm, but on history, custom, and economics, and the lines shift like sand from place to place and across time.
Linda St. John, 54, has a hard time being still. She busies herself as if her survival depends on keeping something going in her hands, and in her head and on the ground around her. The way it used to be when she was a child, the oldest of four siblings who couldn't catch a break growing up dirt-poor in rural southern Illinois.
She had a baby right out of high school, got married, got divorced, finished college at Southern Illinois University, got married again and became a migrant worker, picking fruit in Illinois and Michigan. After a few years, she enrolled in law school at the University of Tennessee. She passed the Georgia bar and was headed to Atlanta when she and her husband, Duane Cerney, visited a friend in New York and, on a whim, decided to stay. They opened a vintage clothing store, D.L. Cerney's, in Manhattan. That was more than 20 years ago. A lot more has happened since.
Tuesday, she's in Manhattan, just back from her mother's funeral in Stonefort, Ill., but her thoughts are somewhere else. They stretch back to a series of Illinois towns like Carbondale and Carterville and they wrap themselves around a bunch of shivery little kids who dreamed of groceries instead of toys. She talks about her childhood in her memoir, "Even Dogs Go Home to Die" (HarperCollins, 2001).
"The first time I got up and my skinny legs were crisscrossed in red whelps [sic] I didn't know what had happened. I ran in the kitchen. 'Lookie . . . lookie,' I cried. Mom turned around and said, 'He beat you goot last night Landa. . . . I hot told heem to.' I just stood there lookin' at her."
The beatings were constant, she says. Her brother once couldn't get out of bed for three days. St. John thinks her mother, a Hungarian war bride who came over speaking little English that never much improved, might have been mentally ill and unable to stand up to her father, an alcoholic factory worker who managed to earn a PhD in microbiology. St. John loved and hated her father, but she had only contempt for her mother. She continued to hate her until the day she died, when she began to mourn.
"You keep holding out hope that as long as they are alive, the family can turn it around and you can get what you never got," she says. "Now there's no possibility and that's really hard to accept."
In 1989, when her father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, St. John began to draw smudgy images in craypa, a medium similar to crayons, with colors she'd overlay with black and scrape off with a seam ripper. She drew scenes from her childhood. She drew lots of Falstaff beers.
She draws pictures such as "A Cop Come to Our Door One Day," about the time a policeman came to tell them that their grandmother had frozen to death. Winters could get cold in southern Illinois when you drank booze and you got too skinny to bring in coal for the fire.
"Stuff like that happens, and it makes you doubt you're even in the realm of being human," St. John says.
She hung her drawings in her shop, and a gallery owner saw them and displayed them. St. John began to attract attention; there were exhibitions in other museums and reviews in the New Yorker.
"I was stunned and knocked on my [expletive] that anybody would want to buy my paint. That's when I realized there were a lot of people in the same boat. I always thought everybody else didn't have a dad like mine."
Pictures of her father are featured in "High on Life." Next to "Ashtray," St. John wrote longhand from the book:
" 'Get dis one St. John' 'beat dis one' 'belt all des brats' brats . . . des brats . . . brats that she was stuck with everynight he went out to come back smellin', weavin', wobblin', carrying' a brown paper sack and drop himself onto a chrome and vinyl chair and slur his words but finally growl . . . clear enough for her to understand . . . 'stick out yer tongue you bitch I want to put out my cigarette.' "
Her dad is holding a beer. Perfectly legal.
At the vintage shop in Manhattan, where she designs clothes, sitting next to the manual typewriter where she writes, St. John -- who has an upcoming performance piece called "Hells Bells Holiday" at the Atlantic Theater in December and who is working on her latest pipe cleaner sculpture, "1,000 Skinny Girls in a Dirt Yard" -- grows still for a moment.
She wonders about her art and her writing, wonders if they are dark, horrid things she has made. She wonders, as if she cannot see them as acts of survival and triumph.
Then she busies herself with the dresses for her pipe cleaner dolls.
Planet of the Gods
Shamanic use of plant-based hallucinogens -- including cannabis, mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca -- was central to the religious lives of people in parts of African, China, India, Tibet, Siberia, Mediterranean Europe, and the Americas. To the shaman with expertise in their use, the experience that rational science interprets as hallucination is an interdimensional interaction with super-natural beings and visible, sometimes audible energy forms -- in other words, nothing short of a direct encounter with God or gods.
Alex Grey, 49, and Allyson Rymland Grey, 49, are sitting in the Brooklyn loft they share with their 14-year-old daughter, Zena Lotus, talking about the hallucinogenic drug LSD. "It's probably foolhardy to speak with you about it," Alex tells a reporter.
But "it would be such a shame to only talk about addiction and not talk about transcending," says his wife, which is what the Greys say using LSD helps them to do: see the light of God.
Alex, who was raised in Columbus, Ohio, says he was haunted by nightmares and began drawing pictures of skeletons at 5. He continued to make pictures of dead things. When he was 9, JFK was assassinated, and he also watched his grandmother turn yellow with jaundice and die. He painted a vivid Grim Reaper.
In the 1960s, when the drug was still legal, he did a junior high report on LSD. "They talked about a drug that would open the imagination and give you access to visions of another world. I was fascinated," he says. But when classmates tried it, he passed. "I was pretty depressed as a teenager," he says. "I thought it would make it worse."
He grew consumed with the questions of imminent adulthood, "with wondering: Is there a God? Is there only a material world? Are we only supposed to make money and croak?"
For two years he studied at Columbus College of Art and Design and immersed himself in polarities: good and evil, light and dark. He pondered dead and decaying things. He dropped out and got a job painting billboards. He shaved off half his hair for half a year, and he went to the North Pole to "feel the polarities" of the Earth's magnetic fields. In 1976, he went back to school for a year at Boston's Museum School. That's where he met Allyson, a Baltimore native.
He says he was out with an art school professor when she invited them both to her house for a party. The professor came to pick up Alex and had a bottle of Kahlua and LSD. "I had just come back from the North Pole and I thought, what the hell, I can do anything."
He drank half the bottle, Allyson drank the rest. They talk about that trip as the one that changed things. Allowed them to know they were supposed to be together. Allowed Alex to see.
"It was a brilliant living light. It was a light you wanted to go toward. It was like the light of God. Prior to this, I had struggled with the whole idea of God. I did not believe there was such a thing."
The couple moved in together. He took a job preparing cadavers for the anatomy department of Harvard Medical School and she continued in art school. Later he became a medical illustrator, then devoted himself full time to his art. They continued to trip together.
Allyson, who had taken LSD recreationally, says she began to feel a spiritual component in her trips with Alex. "I was raised in the Jewish faith, I went to temple and Sunday school and [observed] all the holidays. But this was the first time I had the experience of God."
Between them, the Greys have 10 paintings in "High on Life." They are grouped with yarn paintings from the Huichols, a people indigenous to Mexico who use the psychedelic cactus peyote in religious rituals.
Their works attempt to render the knowledge they say "entheogens" have brought them. Drugs bring them visions of a "higher level of interconnectedness and love and things beyond speech," says Alex.
"The Bible is filled with messages from the visionary world," he says. He cites Christians writing of angels. "Ezekiel saw the wheel. Moses saw the Burning Bush."
They say their daughter, an actress who had substantial roles in the movies "Snow Day" and "Max Keeble's Big Move," doesn't do drugs. They are prepared for her to one day make a different choice. They hope it is an enlightened one.
The Greys speak out against a society that makes marijuana and crack similarly illegal. They teach workshops on visionary art and attend conferences on links between spirituality and psychedelic drugs around the world. This fall they hope to open a chapel of Sacred Mirrors in Manhattan and fill it with Alex's paintings.
"I'm trying to create a portal into the mystical dimension of reality," he says.
Bulldoze a stand of trees, and months later a tree nearby will drop dead. Some things die of trauma and some things die from the memory of trauma. Then there are those that live. And some of them reach for Heaven.
At the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Ray Materson is wandering through the room devoted solely to his 28 pieces of art and his four decades of struggle, and he's not looking away even from the ones that most remind him of where he's been.
Those are the ones where he stitched as he cried.
High on Life: Transcending Addiction runs through Aug. 31 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors, and free for children under 4. For information call 410-244-1900 or visit www.avam.org
-------------------- "Early man walked away
As modernman took control
There mind's weren't all the same
And to conquer was their goal
So he built his great empire
And he slaughtered his own kind
He died a confused man
And killed himself in his own mind"