Imagine a Copy Machine so Crummy it Blows Up into a Beautiful Business

Colin Sutherland, left, and Mica Mead stand next to the quirky tool of their trade.
Photo by Morgan Ford

Mica Mead and Colin Sutherland launched Woolly Press in 2013, after discovering the unique aesthetic potential of a circa-1986 printer called the Risograph. The obscure, virtually obsolete Japanese-made machine is computerized and digital. But ink is applied in layers with drum rollers, through a perforated master stencil. That provides a rich visual texture and organic quality comparable to silkscreen printing. 

What distinguishes Risograph printing?

Colin: Each layer of color is loaded on top of the previous one, which lends itself to a hand-printed aesthetic. That really appeals to people wanting to do things like posters, books, and comics. 

Mica: Nothing else compares. All the time I see things people printed and think, “They should have used a Riso.” It’s also cheaper and faster.

Colin: And there’s no toxic toner; it’s liquid soy ink.

From Goodnight to You Too, by Colin Sutherland. Photo by Morgan Ford

So it’s gluten-free?

Colin (laughter): Yeah, and everything we print is on recycled paper.

Do many print shops offer Risograph services?

Colin: There are currently only 198 in North America. When we started, I’d guess there were about a dozen.

How’d you get into this?

Mica: This was all Colin’s idea. You have to understand, Colin has lots of hobbies. The next thing I know, a Riso shows up at our house. 

Why?

Colin: I’ve always done drawing and illustration, and I do children’s books and comics. When I saw printing done with a Riso, I loved it and wanted to understand more. So I got a used one and four color drums on eBay.

Mica: With four colors we can theoretically mix any color in the rainbow. 

Can you still get parts?

Colin: You can’t get new parts. We downloaded tech manuals from a sketchy Russian website and do all of our own repairs. 

Isn’t that a headache?

Colin: They’re finicky and labor intensive. A retired teacher told me she used a Riso every day in her career and hated printing on it.

Mica: But it’s a perfect machine for us, because you gets lots of artifacts from the printing process that we and other artists value and embrace.

What do you mean by artifacts?

Colin: Track marks from what you printed before, or if the master gets a wrinkle, you get an interesting footprint that you may want to keep. We still have control over the printing process. But we also have a bit of poetic license.

How did your Riso curiosity evolve into a business?

Colin: Sort of unintentionally. We were printing for friends and family and outgrew our kitchen. So we had to get a bigger space and ended up with a business license and a shop.

Mica: I studied art, but never saw myself becoming a printmaker. I was mainly drawn in because my brother is a cartoonist, my father is a poet, and Colin’s an illustrator. I had this lovely instrument for taking their projects and putting them out there. I’m glad I landed here. It’s really satisfying.

Does a Riso look cool?

Mica: It’s pretty anticlimactic looking. People come to the shop thinking they’re going to see a beautiful letterpress machine or something, and they’re kind of disappointed. 

Colin: We make enamel pins that have a little Riso on them. When I wear mine, people always say, “Why do you have a washing machine pin on your lapel?”

Mica: But they sell like hotcakes.

Really? Who buys Riso lapel pins?

Colin: There’s been a Riso revival, so there’s a worldwide Risograph subculture in the artistic community.

How does the manufacturer feel about that?

Colin: They could make money off of it, but they almost refuse to acknowledge it.

Is that because artists like you highlight and celebrate the machine’s technical flaws?

Colin: I never thought about it that way, but I guess that’s right. 

ABOVE: One of the most well-known works they’ve published is Cooked in My Van, a chronicle of life on the road by Japanese drummer/percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani.
RIGHT: Oilcloth
by Mica Mead
FAR RIGHT: Fishing,
by Colin Sutherland

Mica Mead and Colin Sutherland, Woolly Press (178-B Westwood Place, West Asheville). See woollypress.com for more information. They are also on Facebook and Instagram (@woollypress). To schedule a shop visit, e-mail info@woollypress.com. 

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