Author: Megan Mills Hoffman
I met Al Wochensky because a musician friend said that I should. This friend, who I trust enough to listen to, told me about Al’s design studio, that he’s designing album covers, and inspirational clothing. That he expanded his local workshop to keep up with his orders for local shops like Blue Monk and Taste in East Aurora, for international orders from Australia, Germany, Norway. This friend told me that Al had graduated a few years ago from Villa Maria with a design degree, built his own business out of his family’s old barn, and was 25.
This is when I sat up and started to pay closer attention. I am always impressed with people who dare to take an unconventional route because they have a personal dream they are intent on fulfilling. And to take the steps to be successful requires a certain inner confidence that few have achieved by middle age, let alone 20-something.
So I arranged to meet Al. Not just because I was already fascinated with his story, but because I wanted to work with him. I’d been working on organizing a summer program for youth, the Best of Buffalo Urban Immersion, and I was looking for youthful adults who had already exhibited certain creative and entrepreneurial traits to help me. I remember being 15, when the whole world seemed both possible and impossible all at once. I had wanted to meet people who could show me how to navigate my own imagined aspirations. Now I wanted to offer a forum for that meeting place for others, with people like Al.
When we first met, he brought me a sample of his wares, all branded with his personal ethos and business name EKL, or, Equality, Knowledge & Light. You may have seen his bumper stickers around town. I see them everywhere now. Usually in the window of 20- to 30-somethings who seem to drive with their own bold brand of personal insight and confidence. You know, with their head up, and eyes focused on the road ahead. He brought me an EKL t-shirt, a sample CD, and an EKL bumper sticker. He made a point of explaining what EKL meant, what it stands for.
He’s quite tall, lanky in the sense that he’s all long arms and long legs, gesturing with big hands worn at the fingertips, from his screen-printing I suppose. He bobs his head to make a point, stumbles over a few of his words when he’s trying to make a point crystal clear, and delivers it all with a shock of liveliness and animated possibility. Yes, this is exactly what I was looking for.
I visited his studio next. He spent 15 minutes explaining to me his process of screen-printing. And I was fascinated. In order to create the array of colors you see on any brightly designed t-shirt, each color must be perfectly lined up with the colors applied before and after. Although the most expensive machines do this automatically, he had to start out with what he could afford. He spent two years figuring out how to make his inexpensive equipment work for the level of precision he wanted to achieve in his prints.
He still uses his homemade equipment where possible because he’s learned how to customize it for his needs. He’s burned over 400 shirts in experimenting and practicing his techniques, a relatively low number that he attributes to luck. But it is due to the skill he’s mastered through his learning process. The expensive equipment is cheaper to run and higher quality is cheaper to produce, provided you’ve mastered the basic principles necessary to use the more complex machines.
I loved his explanation of hand-made goods. “When you have an order that you have to complete, you have to figure out how to get it done, but you can’t just throw it together. It needs to look good in real life. It’s not enough for just the photo to look good”. However, as he said to me emphatically, “If someone else can do it, so can you.” It helps that he enjoys tinkering with stuff.
“Creativity is a physical thing”, he declares. “To be able to hold and measure out a shirt, beforehand, before the design. To stand in front of the paint, see all of the colors facing you, and pick out the ones you want. There is nothing to stop you from whatever combination you choose. I never think about the creative part, I move out of necessity”.
Necessity indeed. He’s designed t-shirts and logos for bands and artists across the country. He’s produced clothing for Zumiez, Blue Monk, CityLove, Pasteurized Tees, and MUSEJar. He produced a commercial for Independent Health. His small business recently expanded with a $28,000 business loan, which was, he tells me, more than his total school loan that he’d paid off three days before he signed for his business loan.
He designs websites, produces photo and videography projects, band stickers and window signs. He designs and prints full window signs for businesses and artists. The new door sign at Verve Dance Studio, on Main Street, above Hyatt’s Art Supply story? That was him. You can see the video he shot of Buffalo’s favorite hip hop dancer Shane Fry…
or the video they produced for Verve’s annual Under the Lights Battle at New Era Cap Company…
He hired his first employee this past year. Friends since high school, they kept in touch through college. TJ Crelly, referred to as TomCat, graduated from UB with a degree in Communications and focus in Marketing. “I’m learning hands-on marketing here”, TJ tells me. “I’m learning things I’d never have an opportunity to learn in another job, learning someone else’s mold of what they think should be done, rather than what actually works. We’re not wasting money that isn’t getting to our market. We don’t blow the million dollar marketing budgets that other companies can. I’m learning how to run a business.”
They’ve also taken on an intern who helps with whatever they need: designing flyers, stacking shirts, unboxing, packing, heat pressing, business relationships. His intern learns design, grids on photos, lining designs up on the computer, how to set up projects, seeing how much work goes into making the clothing hanging in the store window.
“There’s always something to learn”. Al tells me as I leave. “It’s A to B, design to photography. It’s about mastering the skill set behind good design, the foundation behind producing a good product.”
Visit his online store at www.eklpro.com. Let me know when you do. We’ll know each other by the EKL sticker in our rear window.
Do you know someone who’d like to learn from a Buffalo master of creative design, small business management, and lifelong learning?
Join our Best of Buffalo Urban Immersion August 4 – 8th, 11-15th, and/or 18-22th, 2014. Al will be in the studio showing screen-printing fundamentals, sharing his tips, talking about art, creativity, business development, and learning how to navigate your own path in today’s world of opportunities. More information is available at www.learningchoicesnetwork.net, or contact Megan Mills Hoffman at (716) 474-3669.