Alumni lead Risograph press from living room to nationwide zine fests

VCUarts alumni James McPherson, Rellie Brewer and Harrison Stewart started Clown Kisses Press in their living room. The Risograph printing press has since attended zine fests around the country, including one in Canada. Photo by Erin Edgerton

Andrew Ringle, Spectrum Editor

In a small studio behind the McDonald’s on Chamberlayne Avenue, two Risograph printers stand in an even smaller corner room. Each machine is topped with an outdated laptop, and they tower over low desks littered with designs for zines and posters.

The humble workspace and its curious assortment of decor belong to Clown Kisses Press, a Risograph printing company started in a living room by three VCUarts alumni. They only moved into their first real studio space last year, but their work has brought them to zine fests across the country, as well as one in Canada.

“It’s sort of halfway between physical screen printing and a Xerox machine,” Clown Kisses co-founder Harrison Stewart said, demonstrating a simple Risograph print with co-founder Rellie Brewer.

The other co-founder, James McPherson, was on his way to the studio from his day job.

The process is relatively simple, Brewer explained. First, load in the drum of ink wrapped in a stencil of your choice. Then, insert paper and proceed as if using a typical office copier. The machine whirs, and a cartoon squirrel emerges on its small digital screen.

Stewart called it “the mascot of Risograph printing.” As it runs in a pixelated exercise wheel, the printer’s inner parts roll layers of ink onto paper before spitting the pages out into a pile.

Photo by Erin Edgerton

The result is a series of slightly unique versions of the same design, mimicking traditional screen printing in a more cost-effective way. The soybean oil ink used in the machines is cheap, and it can be rubbed off very easily. But the process is a favorite among artists looking for a vintage feel without breaking the bank on fancier alternatives.

Stewart, Brewer and McPherson were friends in college, and they started Clown Kisses Press after discovering their shared interest for Risograph printing.

“Harry, Relly and I were in printmaking classes together at VCU. Mainly screen printing,” McPherson said. “And there, we kind of fell in love with producing our own comics and zines and stuff.”

Much like the designs they print, Clown Kisses Press is unique among the other groups in the field. Even the color chart tacked to their studio door shows a deviation from the standard color palette used in Risograph printing: The press uses magenta instead of fluorescent pink and cyan instead of cornflower.

And on the same page, a picture of their friend Nick provides an example of a printed image while also conveying the group’s charming homemade attitude.

“It started in Harry and Relly’s living room because we didn’t wanna pay rent on a studio,” McPherson said, “and they were kind enough to sacrifice their living room for like two years.”

One of their printers came from a church — which is common, because many churches once used the machines to print programs and handouts for Sunday services — and the second printer belonged to an office.

Stewart pulled a stack of letters from the second printer’s door. One, written from the office to the printer’s manufacturer, complained about a malfunction while attempting to print sheets of adhesive business labels. There was also a series of work invoices from Risograph inspectors, all of which urged the business to stop trying to make the stickers, because that’s not what the machine is meant to do.

Despite its history of occasionally being jammed with stickers, the old Risograph printer still buzzes and beeps in the corner of its newest habitat. It serves a new community now, adapting with changing times just as its process adapted to a community of young rising artists like those in Clown Kisses Press.

“It’s grown,” McPherson said about his business. “And my next step would probably be to get a bigger studio with more printing and publishing infrastructure … and just buying that machinery that helps me produce larger and more complex works.”

Work from Clown Kisses Press can be viewed online at clownkissespress.com, and the group can be followed on Instagram at @clownkissespress.

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