GUEST COLUMN: Remembering Marty Riskin

Bette Keva
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Marblehead resident Bette Keva is an award-winning former journalist, freelance writer, English teacher and originator of Mass Motifs.

Anyone who has read local weekly newspapers over the past several decades has seen Marty Riskin’s offbeat editorial cartoons and exceptional illustrations. When he passed away at age 83 in July 2020, Chris Stevens, the Marblehead Reporter’s editor at the time, wrote, “Marblehead is a town full of characters but it is short one now.”

Marty was married to Annette, who passed away in 2006. They had twin sons, Noah and Seth and their youngest, Gregg.

Now, on the third anniversary of his passing, I thought it fitting to give him a nod of recognition for igniting the spark that has led to the creation of this one-month-old blog – Mass Motifs.

Marty and I knew each other from working at the Marblehead Reporter in 2005. But we connected in a closer way in 2018 when we were both single. One day, he said to me, “You’re a writer, I’m an artist, let’s do a column together.”

“Why would I want to do that?” I responded. Despite the fact that he was in his 80s and I was in my 70s, he saw no reason to slow down. As his son, Gregg, said, “He was an explosively creative guy.” He never stopped generating original ideas for the next project, be it straight-laced like a cartoon for the local newspapers, bawdy like his mostly naked “Bridgett” series of books, or pouring everything he had into an illustration like his annual New Year’s “In and Out” poster. In my brief two-year span with him, he talked about making money on new projects, but that was secondary. Making something out of nothing, getting a rise out of viewers, that’s what moved him.

Art director and illustrator of more than 250 books, greeting cards, calendars, games and designer of ad campaigns for national companies, he worked for remuneration or sometimes not. When the GateHouse newspapers stopped paying for editorial cartoons, he continued to draw a new one for them every week anyway.

When I knew him, he couldn’t sleep. He’d get out of bed in the wee hours and sit at his desk to draw until he dropped off when the sun was beginning to rise. A few hours later, he’d shake off slumber to catch breakfast and camaraderie with friends like Margo Steiner, Herb Goldberg and others who’d gather at Java Sun in downtown Marblehead. There, Marty would hold court, his acerbic wit setting the mood while he scribbled endlessly. He produced caricatures of his friends, the café owners, the servers and anyone who caught his fancy coming through the door. His satirical images hung on the walls of the coffee house for years.

Gaming intrigued Marty. In middle age, he owned harness-racing horses with a group of friends; in later years, he played poker with old chums every Thursday night; and despite protests to the contrary, he enjoyed gambling.

So, it made sense to check out the newly opened Encore Boston Harbor. Marty had a betting formula — he couldn’t lose. He, my sister and I drove to the Everett casino. His pockets were bulging with $1,250 in cash he and I had extracted from a few friends.

We entered the gaudy, cavernous, chandeliered ballroom on a muggy August night in 2019. Marty grew silent as he assessed the semi-circular blackjack tables, the apprehensive gamblers and the steely-eyed dealers for just the right chair. Finally, one strand of his bushy eyebrow lifted, standing at attention on his forehead. This was the table; he took a seat. The other gamblers ignored the old guy with the mustache and beard as he handed the dealer $1250 in $100s, $20s, and a $10 in exchange for a mountain of chips.

He began using his formula — never straying — and as glum gamblers seated around the table lost hand after hand, the unassuming 82-year-old quietly kept raking in the dough. He was on fire. When he amplified the $1250 by $520 within 20 minutes, my sister gave a nod, and the three of us exited arm-in-arm. “We were lucky,” exhaled Marty as we strode across the red-carpeted ballroom. “We got good cards tonight. Don’t let anyone think I’m a big gambler.”

When Marty again raised the prospect of writing and illustrating a column, to my surprise, this time I said yes. We created “Pickles in the Mist,” a humorous take on our adventures separately and together. GateHouse ran it in many of its newspapers from June 2019 until Marty passed away in July 2020. Always envisioning his impending death, he once said to me, “At least I can leave you the column.”

For some time, I wondered if I could recreate it with someone. I evaluated the talents of each of my friends. One day, admittedly stoned, it occurred to me to revive it with all of them! I asked. They were game. Thus was born “Mass Motifs.” At present, there are ten of us. One of us will be published each week on this blog. We hope you log on to this site and give us your impressions.

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