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On a farm out in New Norfolk, Tasmania, a young Emma was surrounded by cows as she played outside, built fences, and fed the chickens.

Young-Emma


Inside, she would pull out pencils and markers and paper to draw:

 
“I drew all day, every day. My mUm's house is still full of all my sketchbooks.”

 

And despite her love for art, the idea of being an artist as a career was barely a thought. In her isolated hometown, Emma saw women become full-time mothers or work in part-time jobs… but career women? They were rare.

That’s not to say she didn’t have career dreams. At first, with her love for animals, to be a veterinarian was the ultimate goal. Emma worked hard for it… until she had to dissect a frog in year 10.

“I panicked and went to see the careers counsellor because we were about to do work experience. She was like, ‘Well, you really like to draw. Have you ever thought about graphic design?’ I was like, ‘What is graphic design?’.
“We didn't have a computer at home. We had very little money so the idea of making things on computers was completely separate from my understanding of the world.”

 

But the world of art opened its gates to more than impromptu notebook sketches, as Emma discovered powerful conceptual works from the likes of Barbara Kruger. More and more, the realisation that this could be a job dawned on her teenage self.

Barbara-Kruger

“I can put images with text and make these stories and pictures. I was making similar art in my art class and then applying them in computer graphics, so I started to get quite into it and think... ‘Oh, this is a job.

This is a thing that people do for a living.’”

 

 

But where to start in small, sleepy New Norfolk?

Emma-Uni-Collage V2

 

Far from a design hub, when work experience opportunities popped up, Emma seized the chance at a small boutique agency ran by Peta and Elizabeth.

“I hadn't really come across women that were running their own businesses like that before. It was a big learning experience for me. I learned if you don't know what you're doing, you should probably just ask someone; not pretend that you know how to do it.”


She learned not to make booklets in Photoshop. How to work with clients. How to create a presentation.

Then another big opportunity fell into Emma’s hands: the chance to manage a hotel owned by Tassie hospitality royalty. It would be stable.

“Set for life,”

Emma says. Her partner encouraged her to pursue the steady job offer, but there was a catch: she would have to quit all her freelance work.

“There's no way I came all this way out of New Norfolk to just stop."

 

Street art had lit a fire in Emma during her university studies, and there was something calling from the mainland, telling her of the potential to voice important stories.

Hobart-to-Melb
“I saw design as a vehicle for change where you could actually communicate things, and educate, inspire, and provoke people and evoke them to take action. At that point, I was designing flyers for gas companies, banks and private girl schools, so...

 

I had to go see if I can do the thing that I was so deeply passionate about for years.”


With her suitcase packed, Emma watched Tasmania fade into the distance as she stepped into bustling Melbourne in her early 20s, with the aim to stay for a while and return home eventually.

But we all know what happens with Tasmanians who move to Melbourne.

 

 

“Coming to Melbourne was the best thing that I ever did but it was harder than I thought it was going to be.

 

Separated from her partner, struggling with the cut-throat big city competition, and the finances of moving to a new city, finding a job was easier said than done. With time, Emma was finally able to get a creative job in her first big agency role.

With the freedom to be creative and a lot of on-the-ground learning, she took on both the dull and cool jobs, thriving when there were social enterprise facets of the business. But as she grew her skillset to a managerial level, the fulfilment began to fade, and her work-life balance began to skew more and more.

“I was listening to a podcast where someone said, ‘Does your time, money and effort align with your values?’ And at that moment, I realised that was what was missing. I thought, is this all I'm going to contribute to the world? Is this it? I'm going to make ads for people? And that's when I quit my job.”

Taking a leap of faith back into the world of freelance was terrifying, but pursuing passion was worth it.
BE-Collective-V1
“There was that burning feeling in the back of my mind and my heart that I was supposed to do something else.
There was something that I was meant to be doing and I didn't know what it was or how to get there. But I knew I'd wanted it for a long time, it'd driven me for a long time. I'd stepped away from it but I can come back."


Her big break came unexpectedly in a tumultuous time. As the Black Lives Matter movement rose against police brutality, the bushfires razed Australia, and COVID-19 infected thousands globally, Emma started feeling fired up again.

Here was all this horror caused by political negligence or straight-up oppression. Here was a chance to respond to what was going on in the world with her own voice.

On Instagram, she began showcasing her own illustrative and political work. She didn’t expect the numbers to grow; but with authenticity came a positive reception from underrepresented communities and more.

“The more in tune with who I am, and the more that was in what I was putting out into the world, the more that work started to come to me.”

Amplify-Your-Feminism-Billboard-for-IWD-2019

“I am lucky now that all the work that I do is things that I am passionate about and that the work genuinely comes to me. People overuse the word 'authentic', but genuinely being your unapologetic, authentic self does work.”


Now, Emma’s work embodies her values. It embodies her time, money, and effort.

As part of BE. Collective Culture, she created a Hoddle St billboard for International Women’s Day that showcased an intersectional feminism that was rarely found in advertising at the time.

There have been activity books for vulnerable young girls who couldn’t participate in their local sports due to COVID-19, representing girls playing sports, mazes of their menstruation journeys, and more.

Emmas-work

And now, as a Collarts lecturer across design units, Emma is able to impart the valuable lessons she’s learned to make a direct impact on her students—and help the future industry shift, in turn.

“I want to plant tidbits for them to think about as they go through their studies and through their careers, so that we can make the industry a safer, more inclusive, more accessible space...

that's about creating better things in the world, not just stuff for the sake of it.”

 

Emma-BTS-35mm
 
WRITTEN BY JENNIFER PARK
IMAGES PROVIDED BY EMMA ISMAWI
35MM PORTRAIT BY KAYLA MORTON
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