A native of Dalton, Georgia, Eola Willis was a multi-talented artist, musician, historian, and writer. She studied literature and drama at Columbia College, Columbia, South Carolina, an interest that led to the publication of her seminal volume, The Charleston Stage in the Eighteenth Century, with Social Settings of the Time. When Willis relocated to New York City, her educational pursuits included voice and art. While enrolled at the Art Students League from 1896 to 1899, her instructors included William Merritt Chase, Helen Smillie, and Rhoda Holmes Nicholls. In 1900, Willis left for Paris to study at the Collège de France and at the Louvre; her experiences abroad included a visit to the Exposition Universelle. Upon her return to Charleston, she was appointed chairman of the Fine Art Division for the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition of 1901–1902. Her leadership in this position was widely respected, as was her painting which received an honorable mention.
Active participation in local and regional arts organizations was important to Willis and occupied much of her attention. She was one of the original members of the Sketch Club of the Carolina Art Association, founded in 1912. In 1915, she was named to the Charleston Art Commission, the first woman and first artist to be included on that board. 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 scholarly 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). In recognition of her contribution to theater history as it pertained to the Charleston stage, Willis 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 which she used to create impressionistic Lowcountry landscapes. 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 easy, her intellect constantly on the alert for something new, the dynamism which positively radiated from her now lies for ever quiet in her grave.”