Meet the Wellington Advent Calendar artist: Emma Smith

Emma Smith, a Wellington-based artist, is seated in a park wearing a blue knit hat, a beige scarf, brown-grey jumper and white skirt.

Ten years ago Emma Smith had no idea you could make a living from art. Now she has multiple creative projects on the go, including illustrating the 24 designs for the 2023 Wellington Advent Calendar.

“It’s really been one great big, beautiful snowball.” That’s Emma’s description of her evolution from “someone who loved doing art” to “artist”. Ten years ago, as a 21-year-old, she started working for the boutique gift store Iko Iko on Cuba Street. At that point, she’d been doodling and illustrating in her spare time. Now she’s making models and props for window displays, illustrating merchandise, and painting murals.

Emma is a Wellingtonian — she was born in Karori, went to Tawa College, and now lives in Tawa. Art was always a central part of her life growing up. “I was really into art at school — at college, it was the only subject I turned up for.” The idea that you could turn your passion into something that earned money was mindboggling to her. “I didn’t study at university, I kind of winged it. But I managed to fall on my feet.” A job at Iko Iko was where she landed. The owners soon recognised Emma’s talents for illustration and encouraged her to experiment. The shop helped her turn some of her ideas into prints and cards that she could sell. That has now extended to merchandising and product-based design.

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Emma’s creativity extends beyond the two-dimensional. She’s fascinated with making miniature models and props. The Iko Iko window displays change every month and are the product of Emma’s inventive mind. The colourful and eye-catching windows are often filled with her hand-made creations and shop merchandise. The same whimsical style influences across her mediums. In Emma’s work you’ll always find clean simple lines, wacky scenarios, and larger than life scenes inhabited by industrious miniature characters.

Dreaming up illustrations to support the 2023 Wellington Advent Calendar businesses came naturally to Emma. She knew many of the businesses already. “Heaps of them are mates thanks to the shop. They come in all the time, and we’ve talked about window displays or illustrative work.” The joy of working in a close-knit Wellington community allows this sort of connection. When Emma sat down to brainstorm ideas for the calendar, the concepts for many of the businesses were already being formulated.

Emma finds inspiration from a diverse range of sources. She loves old illustrations — the sort of thing you’d find on English Christmas cards or chocolate boxes. She’s also fond of the quaint illustrations that Beatrix Potter drew in the early 1900s for her children’s books. But it’s not all cutesy bunny tails for Emma. She’s also drawn to horror makeup, gore, and zombies from shows like ‘The Walking Dead’. She also pulls ideas from classic Kiwiana to inform her designs.

Formulating these ideas used to happen with a pencil and paper but technology has revolutionised the way she works. She’s retired the pens and is fully digital now. An illustration from conception to finished product is made on her iPad. Though she misses the tactile nature of traditional illustration techniques, the speed and flexibility of digital makes up for it. Making a change would mean starting from scratch. “If a client asked me to change this one thing I’d think, ‘that took me five hours!’ Now I can alter a file without having to begin again.” That also frees up time for Emma to devote to other things — like the Wellington Advent Calendar.

Find more of Emma’s art

Visit her Instagram to see more work from this year’s Advent artist

Emma’s Instagram
A whimsical gingerbread village illustration created by Emma Smith for Wellington Advent Calendar 2023.

The Wellington Advent Calendar

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