Willis, Eola


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A native of Dalton, Georgia, Eola Willis was a multi-talented artist, musician, historian, and writer. She studied literature and drama at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, an interest that led to the publication of the seminal volume, The Charleston Stage in the Eighteenth Century, with Social Settings of the Time. She studied voice and art in New York City. At the Art Students League from 1896 to 1899, Willis’s instructors included William Merritt Chase, Helen Smillie, and Rhoda Holmes Nicholls. A year later, Willis left for Paris to study at the Collège de France and at the Louvre and where she attended the 1900 Exposition Universelle. She returned to the United States and settled in Charleston, South Carolina. Early in her residency there, Willis was appointed chairman of the Fine Art Division for the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition of 1901–1902 and was awarded an honorable mention for her own work.

Willis was one of the original members of the Sketch Club of the Carolina Art Association, which was founded in 1912. She never seems to have taken a leadership role in the organization, because, perhaps, she was busy with numerous other activities and organizations. In 1915, she was appointed to the Charleston Art Commission, the first woman and first artist to serve on the panel. Willis participated six times in the annual exhibitions of the Southern States League.

In addition to painting, Willis was active with the Society for the Preservation of Old Buildings and wrote two articles for Country Life magazine: “Catfish Row Comes to Life” (January 1924) and “Two Historic Restorations” (April 1929). She also researched and wrote a pair of articles for national magazines on Charleston’s earliest known artist, Henrietta Johnston: “The First Woman Painter in America,” International Studio (July 1927) and “Henrietta Johnston, South Carolina Pastellist,” Antiquarian (September 1928). Her research on the Charleston stage was pivotal and in recognition of her contribution to theater history, she was awarded two scholarships for travel abroad, one given by the Drama League Bureau for English Study.

As a painter, Willis was accomplished in both oil and watercolor and usually depicted impressionistic landscapes near Charleston. Upon her death, an admirer wrote the following tribute: “Miss Eola had become such an institution in Charleston that it is difficult to realize that this woman of slight stature, with her eager birdlike ways, her intellect constantly on the alert for something new, the dynamism which positively radiated from her now lies for ever quiet in her grave.”


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