Bearbear Creative: Artist Duo Create Work and Share Risography with Milwaukee
Diana Chu and Ben Grzenia are a husband and wife duo living in Bay View, and collaborating within the creative studio “bearbear.” Through their practice, they do design work and seek to “empower others to turn their ideas into sharable, visual stories.” To do this, they host workshops and share their wealth of knowledge about Risography, a process of digital screen printing, as well as the use of their Risograph printer at the Bindery in Bay View. When they are not hosting workshops, doing custom commissions, or creating playful and intricate art objects including zines, they do commercial creative design work for brands including Eagle Park Brewery. I interviewed them about their work, their unique personal and professional collaboration, and the significance of print-making as an art form.
How did bearbear come to be?
Ben: Diana and I knew we worked well together, as we had actually met through working as graphic designers at Lands’ End in Dodgeville. In 2016, we decided to take on grad school and lived on the East coast; Diana in Baltimore and me in Philadelphia, which led to Diana’s interest in illustration and zines. I focused on printmaking and collage. When we moved to Milwaukee two years later, I was freelancing and working at Ruby’s Bagels and Diana was working for the Milwaukee Art Museum. Freelancing gave me the time to reach out and “cold-call” businesses around Milwaukee--Eagle Park Brewing responded affirmatively. That really got the gears turning for us to learn how to work and live with each other at the same time. I was still pretty heavily focused on screen-printing but knew that it wouldn’t be efficient with our schedules at the time (since it’s such a time, space, and labor-intensive medium). I mentioned Risography to Diana, as I knew she had felt a strong personal connection to zines and I was really in love with the unique look of it. As we started taking on more projects, Diana planted the idea of us having a business together. In fact, we were co-founders of an LLC before we were even married!
Diana: Ben came up with the name “bearbear.” I like that it communicates our interchangeable roles and how we’re on equal footing as a partnership in both work and life. And hopefully it conveys that we’re a bit bumbling and plenty goofy. Not having our business name related to printing or a specific artistic service means we can play, expand, and surprise even ourselves.
What is the division of labor like within your collaborative practice?
Ben: In 2018, it was mostly me working on freelance projects and Diana assisted whenever she could. It quickly became 50/50 when our career paths shifted. In time, and through the pandemic, these roles have changed dramatically and we learned more about what parts we could play to better fit our personalities. I’d say we see each other as equals…. We like to joke that we don’t know who’s bear 1 and who’s bear 2 in bearbear. I think the division will change as new challenges present themselves.
Diana: Gosh, I love this question. Mostly because we are so yin-yang. Ben’s the Adobe Illustrator exacting Virgo and I’m the Prismacolor pencils chaotic Pisces. Process / intuition. Perfectionism / flow. Honing / experimentation. I could go on; and I don’t mind drawing these boxes because our methods are bound to change and we won’t fit into those imaginary squares for long!
Ben: I wish I had Diana’s gift of allowing chaos. I may present myself as goofy but I can be such a square sometimes, and Diana will remind me to live a little. I am so lucky. Diana has some serious skills with Prismacolor pencils.
Diana: I’ll just add this, for anyone who’s still scratching their head with the question, “but how do you work on a project together?” We choose who runs point on a project based on interest, workload, and skill. The other “bear” acts as art director to give the tough love and critique. I mentioned that we’re interchangeable — I truly believe that either one of us could do what the other does — but sometimes we assign projects to each other to help develop our skills or to try our hands at different styles. Experimentation is in our brand DNA.
What do you do professionally, and how does that inform the kind of work you take in through bearbear projects?
Ben: I have gained a lot of confidence in my current 9-5 print design gig that reflects on our business in big ways. One example is learning how to work on larger-scale print projects, which allowed us to effectively create graphics for Eagle Park’s beer distribution semi-truck trailer and some of the interior walls at their Muskego Brewery.
Diana: I work part time as the design director at the Bindery in Bay View. It’s as if I’m getting paid to sit in the front row of Entrepreneurship 101: Small Business Edition, with managing director Zachary Lifton as our fearless professor. Daniel Ehn, the masterful and ever-resourceful bookbinder there, is elevating my understanding of materials, tools, and binding styles. Books have never felt so alive and holistically significant to me: I cared more about contents than the bound object before. Bearbear can make more artful and technical choices about our own self-publications: for instance, now I know to fold paper with the grain and how to ascertain grain direction by glance or touch. Adding to our integration with the Bindery, our Risograph printer lives there at our rented studio. We partner to help realize client projects that require Risograph printing, but also book cover designs, Adobe InDesign help, and other design consultation needs. It’s a symbiosis that has expanded our reach within Milwaukee.
What projects are you most proud of?
Ben: I’d say our ongoing Risograph workshops at the Bindery. It is exciting to be able to give people access to Risography and ignite their creative spirits.
Diana: How often do five adults come together in a room to collage for a few hours? We’re making playtime!
Ben: I enjoy hearing about the backgrounds of our workshop attendees and how they became interested in Riso. There have been writers, illustrators, photographers, couples looking for a fun activity, and some folks just curious to try it out.
What is Risograph printing, and what makes it special?
Diana: Risography is an eco-friendly, artist-adopted, retro print medium with a cult following. But how I’d describe it to my mom is like this: a Risograph printer is a digital stencil duplicator. That means our machine translates digital text or imagery into a stencil (called a master). The “master” — a thin plastic-coated sheet — wraps around a rotating ink cylinder that flows wet pigment through the stencil’s perforations and onto paper. A single master can be used to make thousands of printed impressions. Our RZ1090U Risograph printer prints only one color at a time. To print a second color layer, the paper has to be fed through the machine a second time with a different ink cylinder or “drum” in place. Developed as an efficient and affordable alternative to Xerox printing in the 1980s, Risography was introduced in Japan as an office-friendly technology. Artists have since adopted it as a vibrant print medium, most known for its kinship to screen-printing, specialty inks, and soft yet grainy aesthetic.
Ben: The colors made for it are unique, with many of the colors looking brighter and more vivid than standard CMYK printer ink. It has the ability to give a textural quality like screen-printing and other methods of printmaking that have a hand-feel. There’s even an imperfect offset between layers that Risography has that gives it a quality like many concert posters. The inks also have a transparency to them, so you can print colors on top of each other to “make” new ones. It gets exciting to discover new color recipes with print overlay.
Diana: We run Riso Basics workshops monthly and would love to see you there! No artistic background necessary. It puts all this theory talk into practice.
What kind of external projects does bearbear take on — or when might someone seek to use your services?
Diana: We specialize in designing and printing custom projects for small businesses, writers, and artists. Most of the work we do falls into three categories: “flat stuff” like concert posters, hand bills for events, poetry broadsides and beer labels; “folded stuff” like greeting cards or invitations; and “book stuff,” which encompasses zines, poetry chapbooks, full-on wedding photo albums, and artist books.
How do you engage with the wider print community in Milwaukee and in the Midwest?
Diana: We run a tiny “prints for justice” program where we print anti-racist posters for free. It’s an open call to anyone with a visual or typographic message that supports, celebrates, or highlights intersectional anti-racist, anti-hate, and LGBTQIA+ persons or rights. Basically, anyone is welcome to submit art or text, though we humbly reserve the right to refuse service to those misaligned to our intent. Bring your own paper and we’ll Risograph 50 copies using a single color. Paper specifications are detailed on our website. Other ways we engage are generally through program partnerships with the Bindery.
What are your goals for the future?
Ben: We are finally starting to spruce up our “Riso den” at the Bindery! The next step is to use the workshops as a “key” for people to be able to access a membership that would allow them to use the machine on their own and make prints. With that, we will also be expanding our design availability to take on more projects. This is a pretty short-term future answer, as Diana and I have an extensive list about what some long-term future goals could be … such as opening a bakery that sells Swedish cardamom buns because no one is doing that here?
Diana: (Laughing) I’m only going to add to the possibilities and clarify nothing. Here goes: artist residencies, zine festivals, a stable of artists, a fermentation station, event space, photo books, and plenty more workshops. Check in a year or two from now! We’ll get around to some of it, I’m sure.
What is the coolest thing about the medium of print?
Diana: As a younger artist, I deliberately left printmaking out of my practice— because I shared a philosophical mindset similar to abstract expressionism: art was my automatic undertaking. It was rife with emotion and had little room for rational thought. The second, third, or hundredth re-creation of the first only diluted the initial charge. Why put the effort into making multiples if I could make more originals? (Little did I understand that each print in a handmade edition is original. Their perceptible differences simply aren’t as obvious. Risography shows its hand readily. No two prints are identical.) It wasn’t until I visited “Small Press Expo” (sPX) in Bethesda, MD, in 2016 during my master's studies that I discovered alternative comics and zines. The Xeroxed mini-zine about gay space dads that I bought for a dollar and stuffed into my pocket that day was as precious to me as any original scribble. I could take it home, touch it, embed it in my life, hide it on someone else’s bookshelf. The value of sharing an original thought in an unprecious way is my main revelation. I ended up making zines for my thesis. Print is so many more things, but zines genuinely shifted my mindset: multiples literally multiply, they amplify, they can disrupt and knit us closer together all at once. There’s nothing “diluting” about that.
Ben: Printmaking feels like the ultimate form of inclusivity. It can be provided to the masses in small or large quantities. It can be taken seriously or not so seriously. It can happen in a basement, a backyard, a closet, anywhere! It can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Printmakers are able to work in different methods and techniques within a shared space, which is such a fun social atmosphere. Put some ink on a baby’s hand and press it on a few pieces of paper. That baby is a printing machine! I first jumped into printmaking when I started nerding out over screen-printed movie and band posters, as many graphic designers do in some way. Having an idea translated to a physical object printed by hand gives a layer of human feel and existence. I’d compare it to how vinyl is appreciated in the present day. It takes our minds away from the digital world that we scroll through. Printmaking allows me to add a layer of slowing down to my life. It feels communal, as it can be physically shared and appreciated. In other words, it keeps me from an abysmal state of depression. I also enjoy the sound of freshly pressed paper being peeled off an inked wood block; that’s really the coolest thing about printmaking. The “Many Sounds of Ink” could have its own hit playlist.
Diana: And you’re all invited to the first listening party!