When Zech Johnson was a child living in Shawnee, KS, he felt happiest when he was climbing trees. He embraced them limb and trunk, looking skyward as he let his mind roam free. Then he grew up, became practical, went to college and chose a respectable profession.
But the trees wouldn’t let him go. Today, Zech has come full circle to that inner child. As owner of RAW Beginnings, Zech is a full-time woodworking artist who celebrates every knot and grain of every species, crafting it into original artwork, home goods, and furniture for sale at his shop in the West Bottoms.
“Some people just see a piece of wood,” Zech says, “but I look at each board, knot and grain pattern and how those details will add character. Having a vision for a piece and seeing it come alive is my favorite part of what I do.”
Together with his wife, Aubrey, Zech creates one-of-a-kind artwork and consigned pieces, currently ranging from an $8 wood accent to a $1,500 dining table. About 25 percent of his business is custom pieces, with his favorite designs being wood wall art.
“I have a piece I call Yin and Yang designed after my relationship with my wife,” Zech says. “We’re two different people who work well together and complement each other. It’s simple but complex.”
Zech credits Aubrey with much of his inspiration. After meeting in their junior year of high school at a bonfire (“sparks were flying,” says Zech), they knew they’d met their match. In fact, Aubrey helped Zech realize the artist within him.
“She helped me understand what an artist is--a visionary creator,” Zech says.
Although Aubrey works full-time as a professional photographer at a studio, she devotes her afterhours to their business--organizing the books, their social media, and creative collaboration.
Zech says that Aubrey was instrumental in making RAW Beginnings a reality.
“I originally went to college to be a teacher, but I felt like something was missing,” Zech says. I kept telling Aubrey (then my fiancée) about wanting to work with my hands more. Right before I started my practicums we came to an emotional crossroads. We both knew I wasn’t happy, so I decided to take a break. Soon after, I got a call about a remodeling job. I loved it but still desired more creativity.”
At the time, Aubrey’s boss had a booth in the West Bottoms and offered to let Zech include his refinished furniture.
The West Bottoms was booming,” Zech says. “Within a year, I left my remodeling job to run our business full time which I’ve been doing for the past three years.”
Zech admits that running one’s own business is challenging but worth it.
“It’s unbelievable how much time and money are required, especially in the first few years,” Zech says. “We were young (and still are), but we knew we couldn’t settle for less. I’m fortunate to have made the decision to follow the dream of RAW Beginnings.”
Aubrey adds that Zech is definitely the artist behind the brand.
“I love the days when I come home from work to a new product,” she says. “I wish I could say our home is full of his pieces, but I usually get to sample them for a short time before they head to the store!”
Zech’s woodshop is filled with the expected tools--table saw, miter saw, planer, joiner, sanders, and pneumatic air tools--but his newest baby is the CNC plasma cutting machine. He especially likes working with reclaimed wood and appreciates that every piece has a story.
For inspiration, they scour magazines and Pinterest, paying close attention to design trends. Their future plans include trade shows and expanding into more locations. Zech says he would love to one day have his work displayed in the Made in KC store.
One highlight for Zech this past summer was when Royals player Whit Merrifield bought one of Zech’s products, a Kansas City branded bottle opener: “That was pretty exciting,” he says.
The Johnsons both love Kansas City, and many of Zech’s products promote the name.
“I’m a proud Kansas-Citian,” Zech says. “We have great restaurants and a diverse city. In 10 minutes, you can drive from the plaza, to Westport, to downtown and find a great brewery, coffee shop, boutique, market, or restaurant anywhere in between.”
Zech and Aubrey also make it a priority to volunteer at their church, Cross Points, in Shawnee, where they work with the youth.
“We’ve had many people invest into our lives,” they add, “and we want to do the same for the next generation.”
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