Written in HerStory | Emma Steer
Tired from working a 9 to 6 retail job, Emma took doodles from her notebook and turned them into published art, and started her illustration company called Steer Illustrations. Unaware of the artistic opportunities beyond prints and wedding invites, she got her first break doing illustrations for ANZ, and the ball just kept rolling.
Her work is now in windows and sold at the quirky Iko Iko, Wellington.
Emma’s ongoing success comes from her unending drive to keep learning and be the best version of herself and her artwork.
Tell us about yourself - your childhood, passions, hobbies, etc.
Hi, I'm Emma! I just turned 26, and I live in Wellington.
I'm currently working at Iko Iko on Cuba Street and also doing the window displays there too! I work as a freelance illustrator, as well as doing jobs here and there for different companies around New Zealand.
I'm also engaged and about to get married next month! My boyfriend’s name is Luke. We went to the same school and met in Youth Group about 10 years ago.
We just bought our first house too!
I love illustration, interior design and home renovation. We just did up our house and it was one of the most fun things I've ever done! I love dumplings, Disneyland, and pretty much any sort of puppy.
What was the path that led you to discovering and founding Steer Illustrations?
It was at the beginning of the year as an intern for my church. I was in the middle of a lecture, doodling in a little notebook (which I was meant to be taking notes in). I uploaded it to Instagram for fun, and that’s when people around me found out I could draw. Friends in the office started asking me to help them with projects they were doing, like drawing a little cartoon for them, or help make a new brochure. I started to realise there were more creative paths, which I could take that would fulfil my desire to create.
Then, I worked at a job that I really hated. Art was my escape, and it pushed me to create an Instagram page to remind myself that working one day as a full time artist was a realistic possibility.
Friends started to suggest my name for jobs and slowly but surely, I got a few emails asking to be part of advertising projects.
Then I think the most important step was the one I took towards Iko Iko. I seriously love my job. I am coming up to my fifth year now and I could not imagine my life without the people or the things I've learned and how they have helped me with my brand. I have met some of my very dearest friends there, and I have learned to be a smarter wholesaler and brander. This is where my work took a more refined turn. I started making greeting cards for them, as well as jewellery. It gave me a stable income to be able to venture out into projects.
I'm so incredibly grateful to have such wonderful friends, bosses and a church community behind me supporting me!
Do you remember the first few weeks of your business? What was the most challenging part of starting your business?
Yes! I was so excited to start this journey of maybe working properly in the art field. But I had no idea what I was doing!
I only thought of prints and wedding invites. I was pretty clueless to the different job opportunities that were available. So, I think the most challenging part of it all was figuring out what my purpose was behind starting all of this. Did I just want to randomly make art? No.
I was trying to transition from doodles in a notebook to a published artist. I didn’t know how to get bigger. I was stumbling my way around in the dark hoping I could find the light switch. So I watched videos, read blogs and learned from others about their progress, and that helped a lot!
Your designs and prints have been featured in Capital Mag, Iko Iko, ANZ, and Arise Church productions. Tell us about these experiences.
For Capital Magazine, it was through a friend who was a photographer for them. He contacted me, and said he had put my name forward for an illustrating job if I was interested. I gave the Creative Director an email, she gave me the brief, and I went from there. It turned out to be a lot harder than I initially thought, but I kept pushing through, doing it over and over again. I finally submitted it and had completed my first real job as a paid illustrator. The rest of my work with them came from having my name on file.
Arise Church projects are one of my very favourite things to work on!
I've known the people who I'm working with for so long that I don't usually feel so embarrassed or nervous because they are my family. I once did this print for Mother's Day, and it got handed out as a gift in church. It was pretty cool to look around, see people with big smiles on their face, and being so stoked about their wee present!
Another fun part is doing the Passionate Conference Women's Conference window art. Each year I'll come in after work, spend a few hours drawing on all the Michael Fowler Centre Window Panels, Restroom Mirrors, and chalkboards! It's very calming – I just chuck on some music and just go nuts with decorating!
Iko Iko is another part of my life that is merged so that came very organically, doing artwork for them. They gave me creative freedom to put forward what I thought would work for the store. That’s why I think I've stayed for as long as I have. Iko is a special kind of working environment where they really look after you as a wholesaler and worker.
ANZ was one of the jobs I was most nervous about. This was one of the biggest commercial companies that had reached out to me. It was a job for these massive murals inside the ANZ building. It was about eight big white walls that had to be filled with cartoons and text. I had never done any information design work before. It was banking terminology that I had no clue about. Nothing made sense. I was 100% out of depth and was ready to bail. As time went on, I got more confident. I booked more jobs with them, and year after year, it’s become one of my favorite jobs to turn up to. I don't upload much of their work since a lot of it is a private commission, but it's helped me build my skill in so many areas.
What was the riskiest business decision you have made with Steer Illustrations, and what was the outcome?
To be honest, there haven’t been many. I'm not much of a risk taker.
I was getting tired working five days in a 9-6pm retail job, and I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere with my art. I dropped a day at work to focus on working art projects every Tuesday. And it worked! About a month later, I got hired by ANZ to come in and do murals. The only thing was it lacked consistency. Once I finished a job, they wouldn’t need me for a while.
I'll now compare it to how much would I be making if I was working another day at Iko Iko.
I have to be proactive to find different ways to finance my day, whether it be making new prints to sell or making some jewelry. I have to be making a hypothetical quota to justify working from home and being worth it financially.
What is your relationship with God? How do you connect with Him in your daily life?
Every morning on the way to work, I will say a little prayer to help me for my day.
Then throughout the day, if there are things that come up that’ll make me angry or sad, I will pray over them, just simply letting God into the little things of my day.
I pray through that day that God would protect different things, and to help certain people.
Then at night before I go to bed, I will read a bit of the Bible. It’s different every day, but I think it's incredibly important to make God a priority in everything I do and to also get to a place of genuine love for others.
What's a verse of scripture that means to you the most, and why?
“The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.”
(Psalm 23:1-3 NLT)
My favorite! I think it resounds so much to me because I naturally doubt myself quite a lot (which I'm sure a lot of people do the same). I find it hard to have self-confidence in what I do. I think to myself that I'm not quite good enough, but this particular scripture gives me hope. It makes me feel safe. It makes me feel that no matter if I fail, everything will still be okay.
What is the importance of integrating your faith into your work and business? How do you do this with Steer Illustrations?
It’s very important to me. I find God puts the reason for doing this whole thing back into perspective. When I feel myself getting overwhelmed with a project, I will take a minute to pray, ask for help and reset myself. When I remember that the most important thing isn’t money, recognition or even succeeding, there is a spiritual weight that comes off. It brings freedom to create better work.
"When I remember that the most important thing isn’t money, recognition or even succeeding, there is a spiritual weight that comes off.
It brings freedom to create better work."
If you could name one important person in your journey, who would it be and why?
Without sounding too gushy, I would 100% have to say, my partner, Luke.
Now, I'm a little more 'go with the flow' type personality, and he is more get-things-done kinda guy! He has been in the Steer Illustrations mix since day one and he was brave enough to confront me with the big question of: "What are you doing with your life?"
He has been someone who teaches me how to be more self-motivated for sure!
Thinking about most of the decisions I've had to make, he's been in the middle of them too.
For instance, my first job for Capital Magazine - I was about to say no after my first horrendous attempt of a watercolor celebrity face, but he convinced me to keep pushing through. I was ready to throw in the towel with ANZ, but he taught me about the banking terms until it made sense. I was walking around Cuba Street handing in my CVs, I walked straight past Iko Iko because I didn't think I had a chance and he made me turn back since he knew it was my favorite store.
He also taught me about restricting my work to things I actually love doing, meaning cutting some forms of art projects out that took a really long time, and didn't bear much fruit. There have been countless scenarios like these where I look back and if I didn't have a friend like him helping me, I probably wouldn't be in illustration anymore, or too frustrated to WANT to be in illustration. He pushed me to do things that I don't feel comfortable to do, and differentiate the things that I should and shouldn't be pursuing.
He's also 100% honest. It's hard to get perspective when it's a project you're creating.
Basically, having someone close to me and keeping me accountable, cheering me on, was the most helpful thing I could have ever asked for!
What are your top five pieces of advice for young women who wish to pursue a business in the art industry?
Don't be lazy. Set up an environment you WANT to work in.
Learn. Whether it's learning about new pens or paints or taking a class. You can always improve!
Pray. Simply involving God in my everyday life has opened it up to something bigger than myself.
Practice. Your work can always be better, even if it's redoing something. It will be better than your first.
Reach out. Work won't always come to you. You have to go get it. Make friends, send emails, and get your work out there!
What does it mean to be a work in progress to you?
To be continuously trying or doing something new. I'm trying to do something that will improve my skill set, or help me get one step closer to being a full-time illustrator.
Whether it's reaching out to a new client, or trying a new project, I hope I won't ever get tired of chasing something that will help me get better!
Where to from here: What does the future look like for Steer Illustrations?
A website is a goal for sure! I think something like a little online shop would be an amazing side job. But what I'm really interested in is getting more into local advertising projects as that’s where I have found most fulfillment in a project!