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Monday, January 4, 2016

Richard Menustik: Artist and people lover: 1963-2015

In late September,  my brother John called with the news: Richard, our younger brother, had been diagnosed terminal lung cancer. After the initial chemo went badly, and knowing the prognosis was dire, Richard opted out of treatment. The disease ravaged him, and he passed away on December 17, 2015.

This issue of Richard's comic book, clean dirt, merged his love of comic with his love of dinosaurs.

From an early age, Richard loved dinosaurs, comic books, and drawing. Our mother saw his artistic talent and made sure that as a child he had art lessons at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Our father would take him most weekends to Geppi's, a local, hole-in-the wall comic book seller: the real deal. I like to think this support and affirmation laid a foundation that helped formed the person Richard became.

Richard's dinosaurs and sense of humor.

In 1972, our family moved to Ellicott City, Maryland, to Grosvenor Drive in the brand new neighborhood of Somerset, and there Richard, called Ritchie at the time, made many lifelong friends. His friend David Cooke remembered that on first moving near us (our house faced his block) in 1974, Richard and John came to meet him. Among the first words out of Richard's mouth were: Do you have any comic books?

Richard is the little boy third from the left in the back row of this fourth-grade photo from Northfield Elementary School. 


In the late 1970s, as both John and Richard began attending Centennial High School, a group formed in the "Menustik basement." My parents gladly allowed all comers into the hangout, thinking how nice it was that kids enjoyed getting together to play games (Dungeons and Dragons) and talk. They had no idea that a party scene flourished in the paneled basement with the brown tiled floor. Life carried on one side of the basement door, in a harvest gold kitchen with classic 1970s dark wood cabinets and a shag-carpeted family room, and life down below, never the twain to meet.

Richard worked on his zombie dinosaurs all of his adult life.

Friend Jenny Wall remembered the basement as a place where teenagers found acceptance, friendships and a space to explore who they were becoming.  For David Cooke, the basement became a haven, the spot that made a transition to a new neighborhood OK, and probably the reason he stayed in Howard County for the rest of his life. It was a magical and transformative time for the people in the group, young, alive, full of energy, searching for identity, seeking and finding friendships that would last a lifetime.

During this era, John and Richard, who were exceptionally close, and others became avid Frank Zappa fans, attending many, many concerts together. They also began to embrace science fiction, especially Balticon. They loved metal and the then-vibrant Baltimore punk scene. All through this, Richard kept drawing.


John and Richard on August 1, 2009 at Merriwether Post Pavilion.

In the early 1980s, Richard attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) for one year, where at least one of his comic strips was published in the school paper. Then, wanting a more robust art program and art scene, and being told by his friend Curt Kronlage that Virginia Commonwealth University was a happening place, he transferred there, completing a bachelor's degree in fine arts. He moved to Baltimore for a few years after graduating, and then back to Richmond, working for M-2 Marketing.

One of Richard's comics appeared in the Retriever, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County newspaper, in the early 1980s. 

Many friends came up from Richmond for the memorial service and remembered Richard as a mainstay of the Richmond music and arts scene. He sang for a punk rock fusion band called Spooge. His college roommate became part of the metal band Gwar and Richard had some connections with the group. One friend remembered that if friends said they would come out to hear a band perform, Richard was always the one you could count on to really show up--and cheer you along the whole time. Others recalled how important he was to their lives in connecting them with other people in the Richmond art scene--or with like minded people in general. He spent his life building bridges, helping people to find community in an increasingly atomized world.


Richard worked as an extra in Steven Spielberg's period drama, Lincoln, shot in Richmond, an experience he most enjoyed.

Richard also continued art projects he had begun in college: a comic book, meticulously hand drawn, called Clean Dirt, and dinosaur illustrations that included zombie dinosaurs and a series called Dinosaurs in Richmond that put dinosaurs in various familiar spots in the city. One friend remembered the day in 1988 Richard threw a copy of Clean Dirt on the Zappa stage during a concert, and Zappa, though not prone to audience interactions, picked it up and read the title aloud.

One of Richard's Dinosaurs in Richmond series. All his life, he meticulously hand drew his work.

In spring of 2012, M-2 Marketing closing, Richard moved to Ashton, Maryland, near Howard County, and lived in a rounded silver 1960s trailer on Curt's property. He helped Curt with his landscaping business, worked at Demspey's restaurant and continued with his art. He also made friends and connected with people, and at least one remembered the silver trailer as a second home. Curt and his partner Missy and their two children became a family for Richard.

Mr. Grindstone was familiar to family and friends, appearing on t-shirts as well as playbills. 

In March 2014, John and Richard visited the Smithsonian Museum's dinosaur collection, familiar to them since earliest childhood, before it closed for a renovation. John described it as a perfect day where the weather was good and every part of the trip went smoothly. As they were leaving, Richard asked when the dinosaur exhibit would reopen: John told him 2019. Richard, as if knowing something was not right, said that he wouldn't be alive to see it.

Richard  made a deep  impression on my three children, Sophie, Nick and Will. Will and Nick are now metalheads because Richard and John gave them metal CDs--and because of Richard's enthusiasm for all things metal. Will started a metal band at Earlham College called Abdominal Residue that he hopes to resurrect, after having been a semester away in India, as Bog. At the memorial, Sophie remembered staying at John's condo one Christmas season to work at Heavenly Ham, and having a long, solo discussion with Richard in which she felt total acceptance from a person she knew she could count on for support. It became one of those magical moments of connection that come so fleetingly into life. Another friend, Beth Gilbert, noted that she and Richard talked on the phone every week.




John and Richard in the last week of Richard's life, in hospice. Richard, on morphine, is a little out of it. 

Others, including me, remember a person who never got angry at other people, though he did get angry injustices and the political system. He was an upbeat person who saw the humor in most situations, and one who accepted his death with a courage that I have never before seen. He never once complained. He told people not to mourn his passing because he had lived a good, full life on his own terms. As one person at the memorial put it, he burned his candle brightly and fast. He cared about people more than material possessions. He cared about art more than money. He lived according to his own lights. In a world not overflowing with kindness and compassion, he was one of the rare good souls, never grasping for himself but instead pouring himself out for others.


Our cousin Susanne, on the left, pictured with her mother, our Aunt Betty, attended the funeral and spread word to our ancestral village of Vrboce in Slovakia about Richard's death. They will say prayers for him there. 

John remembered after the service Richard saying about 20 years ago that he wanted Zappa's "Watermelon in Easter Hay" played at his funeral, so here is hoping for a commemorative listen to his favorite song. A 1988 version can be found at Youtube:https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=B9DqykUsqRY.

Zappa performs "Watermelon in Easter Hay"

 I invite people to add their thoughts, their corrections, their additions. This is post is only the beginning, I hope, of remembering Richard's life. 

20 comments:

  1. What a beautiful post, and how well you've brought across the gentle, kindly, and talented soul your brother was. Blessings on his memory.

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  2. A lovely post and momento to your brother. He seems to have been a kind and loving soul, and I'm sure will be missed by his many friends and relatives. It's so good to hear he appreciated the life he had had, even if it was cut short.

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  3. From Alice:

    Thanks Diane. This was well done and I liked the Zappa song.

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  4. From Jen Wall: This is what I posted on FB after Richard's service:
    > Yesterday afternoon I attended a memorial service for an old friend, Richard Menustik. He was a talented artist, a free spirit and a friend to many. He, as well as many others, were part of my life at a specific turning point - it was a misfit band of freaks, weirdos and lost souls. I had lost touch for many years and only recently learned that he was in hospice. I tried very hard to find the perfect words to say, what to write, since he was at a point he had a hard time dealing with visitors. I finally put it in the mail, unfortunately the day after he died. That was Richard's final lesson for me - don't wait for the perfect time or the perfect words. Just tell the people who mean something to you how much they are loved however imperfect, awkward or ill timed you think it is. Tell them.
    >
    > I also hope some of those who could not attend will share some reminiscences...there are many stories left to be told.

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    1. Jen,
      You are so right about Richard's final lesson.
      I too grappled to find the words & fear that my letter didn't reach him in time either.
      Hoping you are well.
      D.Haase

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  5. When I asked Jen: Were you really a misfit band of freaks, weirdos and lost souls more than most high schoolers? she replied "I think we take those as badges of pride."

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  9. I kept editing my comment down, there was so much to say.
    On the 4th try hopefully it is not so overstated:)

    While listening to Watermelon in easter hay, I'm thinking of Ritchie.
    We're all back in the Menustik basement.
    Some are talking D&D, some taking a ridiculously huge hit from a bong & Ritchie is sitting on the twin bed- drawing, smiling & piping in every so often.
    Mr. Menustik is reading or puttering upstairs & Rose is in her room- I go up every so often to urge her to come down, but our visits are pretty much relegated to her quiet space.
    She's a loner & a shy, interesting girl.
    John just said something hysterically dry & I am having the time of my life- it's the dead of winter, I'm a 15/16 year old girl.
    In the basement with Ritchie, John, Jen, Ricky, David Cooke, Robert Byler & Larry Smith, thrilled to be with other kids who love Prog rock, Punk & Zappa.
    And grateful to be accepted by "smart boys," of which none were ever coarse, ignorant & brutish like many other boys of that age.
    God Bless Richard.
    And Diane, thank you for writing such a beautiful piece about Ritchie & for making sure his wish to have Watermelon in Easter Hay
    played at his funeral as he wanted.
    Robert Byler took many photos during this time, he not long ago sent me one of Ritchie & myself, I look at it now with that same wonder that all those who reach middle age do- "how did that much time go by, but yet it could be yesterday?"
    Funny, Ritchie looks exactly the same as he did as an adult, sans beard of course.
    Hoping that John & Rose are doing okay.
    Your writing captured Ritchie & that time so well.
    Thank you for sharing it, it is especially appreciated from those of us who live far away & couldn't be at the funeral.
    I hadn't known the story about Zappa reading Ritchie's comic title out loud.
    I'd give anything to see the look on Ritchie's face when that happened.
    Sincerely,
    D. Haase

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    1. Thank you for that beautiful and detailed comment.

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  10. He was a lovely man,always greeted me with a hug and a " hey man"
    I have known him in richmond thru the gwar and cleandirt years until he moved from crazy jimmy's,huge loss for everyone who knew him

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  11. We are very sorry about Richard's illness and death. But what a character! He sure lived the way he wanted, and gathered many friends along the way. He is so fondly remembered. He made such an authentic-looking Confederate. Richmond is the better for him and his friends.

    All the best, Taffy

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  12. Hi - this is Winston. I first met Rich & John early on in high school (Menustik basement period). Right away I knew I had found kindred spirits. We shared so many interests and perspectives then - with much continuing throughout our lives. Since that time I've felt that John and Rich/Ritchey were my brothers. And not in the sense of "Bro" or on a superficial level - but really as such. This feeling has always continued with me throughout my life - even when we had less close contact over the years. When we did get together there was always still that bond - with mutual understanding and a shared perspective on things. I've always seen John and Rich as part of a whole (and I'm tearing up as I write this....I miss him so much....I am sad over the idea that he is not still with us...sad for John...sad for Curt & Missy and their children - for whom Rich was part of their family these last few years and with their long and deep friendship)...

    Overwhelmingly though - when I think about Rich - its joyful, appreciative and with constant wonderment about who he was and how he lived his life (and regarding how intelligent, insightful and talented he was). He was always so alive - so pure and raw - entirely unpretentious - and so passionate about and appreciative of life....of the right things in life IMO. Rich's life I believe is a testament to how he had it right and most others of us mostly have it wrong. He was never enticed by or addicted to material things. For him - it was experience - enjoying and appreciating the moment - and making connections with people. Not superficial connections - but relating in real and meaningful ways. He thrived on this and his positive impact on and for others (if they were able to drop their own preconditions) was beneficial and appreciated. Its no chance that Rich cultivated so many real and substantive connections with diverse and interesting people. He was an ambassador of humanity....and I don't think I'm overstating the case.

    Rich often didn't have much - in terms of worldly possessions, comforts and security that most of us strive for and feel that we need. But it never much mattered to him. I was always fascinated and perhaps a bit envious. When he talked I listened....it was always an opportunity to learn and appreciate an always unique and enlightened perspective. And it was always positive (and I do believe that bashing Republicans is a positive thing - in general). And Rich was always right about things (at least from my perspective). Anyway - I've gone on long enough....but its likely I will post some more.

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  13. Hi - Winston again. I'd somewhat - though not entirely lost touch with Rich over the years. I lived in LA for a while...he was in Baltimore and then Richmond. When I moved back to the East Coast (Northern Virginia) I reunited with John on occasion (we had some epic 4th of July parties he always attended) and I made attempts to reunite with Rich....which turned out to be more difficult than one (not knowing Rich or his circumstances so well) might imagine. I really only had a vague idea of what he was up to down there - though knew he was at least peripherally involved with the greater GWAR family) and I had some successes and some failures trying to catch up with him in Richmond and did see him on occasion when he visited his brother John up north - as it were.

    Well I was really happy when I found out he had moved back up this way (though sad for him when I learned how Richmond - the city he really knew and loved with a passion - didn't ultimately work out for him). So I reunited with Rich and saw and got together with him on many occasions over the last few years - including some very fun visits back to Richmond with him where I got to meet some of his friends from down there, had some good times and really learned much more about Richmond from his (always interesting and really awesome down in the trenches) perspective. We went to the Dave Brockie memorial, the GWARbeque and saw Zappa plays Zappa and we hung out, bounced around Richmond a bit, visited his friends and ate at some of his local haunts. I was always amazed at how many times we would pass someplace in town and Rich would say "I lived here once" etc....and his stories about his goings on, his struggles, experiences and people he knew and met always led to fascinating stories and insights. What great times we had....and of course I had hoped we would continue to have. I was so looking forward to a continuing friendship - with more visits to Richmond, more good times together and more learning from a man of unique insight, wisdom and empathy - who had a real story to tell - and many real stories to tell. He is missed.

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  14. OK some more (from Winston again)...what great times we had back in the day....though I was never a full confirmed member of the Menustik basement crowd per se - I was a frequent visitor. What a great group of "kids" they were - and that John and Rich cultivated and supported. Rich and John ran in my dungeon a lot - and those were such great times. I could really empathize with the story told at the Hebron House service of Rich - after a long night (or sometimes several in a row without sleep) - and much drinking of course - always able to arise form apparent catatonia to roll his attacks - thrust his arm up in the air and yell "KILL!!!" etc. And of course all of the Zappa...listening often (& always)....and going to numerous shows....good times.....

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  15. Winston (some more). I have an interest in setting up a party for Rich - as he wanted - in Richmond somewhere....when the weather gets better - maybe sometime in April (or later in the summer....May & June won't work for me). If anyone from down there is interested in hosting or has any ideas of when and where we might be able to have it - please let me know. I'd love to help put something together and to bring folks down from NVA/Maryland to get together with Rich's crowd down in Richmond to get loud and party and appreciate Richmond and the Richmond scene - like Rich would have wanted. Let me know if any of you have any suggestions or ideas....I'd really like to make it happen....

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    1. Jenny here - please let me know how I could help. Jenny.Wall812@gmail.com

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