Learning to Speak to a Risograph Machine

Dominic Bellido ’24, the Museum’s new Lantern Writer-in-Residence, shares his experience creating color prints with the Risograph machine at the Center for Book & Print in downtown Waterville during the Open House Event at Greene Block + Studios in September 2022.

The process of art-making at the Open House Event at Greene Block + Studios. Photograph by Dominic Bellido.

Before I begin to speak to the machine myself, I hear other people talk to it. It is the first sound I notice when my friend and I step through the studio doors, the buzzing hum of two crowds filling up the first floor. One group is clumped by the bread-sampling station, a part of Maggie Libby’s interactive installation, Where We Are Now: Maps and Doorways. The other one is deeper into the building, a sparse ring of students and locals at one end of the Center for Book and Print. They’re watching something in silence, I can’t tell what. While I’m busy picking between whole grain and rye, I hear someone mumble from the center of the other crowd.

“You got this,” the voice says. “Come on. You can do it.”

Bread in mouth, I peer over to see Fannie Ouyang (the Visual & Interdisciplinary Arts Librarian) pushing the buttons of a gray box next to the wall. She mutters some more words of encouragement as I walk over there with my friend.

“Sometimes, I talk to the RISO, when it’s doing stuff. Whenever it’s stuck or something, I talk, like it was alive.”

My friend and I skirt the ring of people, and I get a better look at the thing everyone’s been looking at. It looks like a weird printer, very square, and as high as my neck. Fannie had opened up the machine; a tiny door had been swung open (near the machine’s heart), exposing a cylindrical drum with a sheet of red ink draped over its side. Fannie pulls out the drum and lifts it with both hands, carrying it the way I imagine the captain of a spaceship would handle a fuel rod in the engine room. Her assistant, Kimkim ’23, replaces that red drum with a blue drum. She slides the cylinder back into the machine and presses a button labeled START. Some moments pass, fat with the whirring hypnotism of the machine working, the drum rolling. The machine spits out some pages with ink. Kimkim picks them up, gently.

“I’m glad that worked,” Fannie says.

Kimkim hands the pages off to a waiting student. I put my bread down and look over the student’s shoulder, admiring the blue-inked art of each paper. This whole time, I had been looking at the art on posters hung about the room, taped to pillars by previous groups. Many posters brandish messages of social justice, their letters drawn between pictures and bright colors. I smile and feel myself drawn closer to the machine, like a moth entranced by a strange flame.

That night, I would look up the dimensions of the RISO I encountered: officially named the RISO SF5130, the machine is about three feet wide and four feet tall. It’s manufactured by the RISO Kagaku Corporation, a Japanese company that’s been specializing in printers since 1946. The model in the Greene Block + Studios was released in 2016, carrying fifty years’ worth of technological advancement and printing power in its circuits’ guts. (As Fannie and Kimkim described it to me, “It’s like if a photocopier and screen-printer had a baby.”)

That night, I would lose myself in a RISO machine rabbit hole. Curious to seek out more information, I pour through a plethora of online Risography sources. From Stencil (a wiki for Risographs) to the Risograph Community Facebook Group, I rifle through the words and interactions of anyone who knows anything about the machine. Many are print shop owners, looking to capitalize on the RISO’s economical print costs; some are seasoned RISO vets, responding to inquiries on error codes and offering solutions. As I keep clicking, I begin to pick up on a broad, dedicated group of RISO users all over the globe, and one thing becomes clear in my mind: I am not alone in my attraction to this machine. Countless groups of printmaking artists use online forums to share their fascination with the machine—as design researcher Joyce S. Lee says in her zine, Repurposing RISO, “Risos enable connection with both other artists, as well as people to whom they sell their work.”

Many Colby students who entered the Greene Block + Studios ended up sitting by the RISO and making art, sometimes getting in line to use the machine. I heard laughter constantly, and the rush of excited voices, proudly talking of the beautiful things they’d created.

For the people running the Open House event, this was their goal: “I hope that this machine and the downtown Greene Block + Studios can become a central hub for art making,” Fannie tells me. “We want to make the supplies and the equipment more accessible for Colby students, faculty, and the downtown community.” She plans on inviting more students to make use of the Risograph, as the Greene Block + Studios will be open to the public every first Friday of each month, with a shifting range of activities and workshops being offered each time.

Fannie Ouyang speaking to event attendees about Risograph machine. Photograph courtesy of Greene Block + Studios.

I think they chose the right machine for the mission of fostering community. As artist Joyce S. Lee says, “The machine . . . acts as a means for people to gather, enabling convergence within physical space.”

During the event, between bursts of sneaking more bread and talking with my friend, I found myself wanting to learn more about the RISO. Before I began to make anything, I asked Kimkim how many colors I could print onto a single page. She looked at me and said, “OK, OK, I’ll show you what I do. Basically, you scan your drawing, and the RISO makes a master copy of it. Your drawing’s saved to the machine, so you can print things many times. Then it rolls that copy like a stencil over the paper. That’s how it prints the color. You see, the machine only understands grayscale (a range of shades of gray) and so you can’t do multiple colors at the same time.”

I blinked a couple of times. I processed the tide of technical tips. She motioned me to her string of zines on a nearby table, rife with amazing illustrations printed in red and blue (sometimes, the colors overlapped, breathing up purple on the page).

“If you want to use this machine, you need to think in layers,” Kimkim said. “We have the ink in primary colors: red, blue, yellow. Each time you print, you’re printing with one color. Say you want to print green, well, then you have to print once with blue, then once with yellow. Once you get going, you get it, faster.”

I spent hours making my poster, cutting out pictures from the provided zine-making scrapbooks and envisioning the layers of color on my piece. The sheets of ink reminded me of my mother, a chemical engineer, who has worked with pools of ink ever since she got hired at a small laboratory in Peru. As I drew, I thought of my mother more and more, my art sparking the patient love that I feel for her, again and again.

With more practice, I learned how to replace the ink drums as well, working in an awkward dance with Fannie every time I printed out another version of my artwork. Somehow, I felt empowered. The analog nature of the RISO made it easy for me to make my pictures jump out of the page. I never felt intimidated—only supported. Not just because I had learned something, but also because of the opportunity I had to print my voice and mind in color. To creatively think with equipment I had never seen before. And when I finally switched my mind to thinking in layers, and after I had made new friends and collected the precious, printed fruits of my art, I felt a small, twig-like urge to say something to the machine. Nothing big. Something lesser than a thank you. I couldn’t put it in words. All I remember is a pin of warmth spreading up my heart as I left the studio with my friend, keeping me warm in my chest the whole drive home.

Tricia Yang ‘25, Full of Loneliness, 2022. Risograph print on paper. 8 ½ x 11 in. (21.59 x 27.94 cm).