Oceana Wills: Fisherman, Mermaid Artist

Meet Oceana Wills! We grew up with Oceana in Homer, Alaska. She fishes commercially for sockeye salmon during the summertime in Bristol Bay and works on her artwork the other parts of the year. Her ocean-inspired prints cover the walls of our own home and we are so happy to share them with you! Find her prints on our web shop and at oceanawills.com.

Where is your business located?
My artwork is available online. I grew up in Homer and this winter I’ll be living in a little cabin there, hopefully making lots of art.

How long have you been in business? 
I had a show at The Bagel Shop in Homer during the winter of 2016 and I think that was the catalyst for a lot of good things, including the confidence to put more work out there! Before that, I’d gotten some postcards printed which I sold or gave away, and since then I’ve been trying to grow as both artist and entrepreneur. Each step has been new and I’m learning from my mistakes all the time—it has been an exciting process.

Tell us about your process and the pieces you create. How do you (literally) create them? Can you speak to the subjects and themes of your pieces? 
I draw a lot of ladies; ladies with fish tails, ladies with rain gear, ladies with funky outfits, ladies with nothing on… Part of this might be that I find it more challenging to draw convincing masculine bodies but also, I really love depicting a world of women/feminine/androgynous figures. I started going to life drawing during high school and I think that helped my sense of the human form a great deal.

Gouache replaced watercolors and pens as my medium of choice a couple of years ago and I am still learning how to be the painter that I want to be. For paintings that become finished “pieces” I usually begin with an idea of a scene and pencil it in, then I layer paint until my eye is satisfied. I have a sketchbook with me almost always and sometimes I have drafts and development of an idea but usually I just go for it. I tend to draw from my mind’s eye rather than using a visual reference which might give my figures a stylized quality. I try to remind myself to draw from life more but I’m not always patient enough to sit and look.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Are there special people, places, things that you look to?
It feels kind of celebratory right now to be a young fisherman in Alaska, especially as a woman.  Maybe it’s the influence of social media and the stewardship and reach of entities like Salmon Sisters, but there seems to be a network growing that supports ocean/fish-inspired art and awareness. My experiences in the commercial fishing industry fit into this movement and I like exploring that nautical perspective in what I hope are fresh ways. I try to be aware of the line between romanticized and more realistic depictions of fishing life which is hard because I find myself romanticizing life on the water all the time! When I sit down to paint it’s easy to forget things like sleep deprivation or trying to making spaghetti sauce while it’s blowing thirty knots; it’s easy to stumble into clichés so I try to focus on the details that connect viewers to the experience in an interesting way. The more fishing experiences I have the more I think about what is shared in this community.

Do you have a favorite piece?! (It's OK if you can't play favorites.)
I’m pretty fond of Labrador Tea. The tundra plant that it is named after is the smell that brings me back to set-netting on Egegik’s North Beach, my formative fishing experience. I painted it after a drifting season where I was on the boat instead of on land for most of the time there and I feel that it captures that moment of connection back to land and memory as well as the textural pleasure of sitting in the bouncy, fragrant tundra. I was also happy with the way the classification of plants and boats worked into the composition.

Tell us about your customers. Where are they from? What draws them to your work
Most of my paintings from my first show were bought by people I know and I feel honored by the support of so many people in my hometown. As I put more work out there online and on social media, it’s exciting to have people that I don’t know express interest. Fishing captivates a lot of people, not just fishermen, which is pretty cool.

When I was younger I drew really thin, twiggy people—they all looked like fashion sketches. Eventually I realized that it is far more satisfying to draw the body shapes of real people with curves and folds and variety. It’s especially fun to defy the typical mermaid depictions. I’m having a lot of fun with mermaids and that seems to be something people respond to.

What (or who) sparked your interest in pursuing the life of a maker?
Besides the many artists who inspire me from my own communities, I have to say that social media has been a big influence in getting started. Seeing small-scale art communities and artists displaying their work on Instagram helped me visualize a way of putting my own work out there.

What does being an Alaskan maker mean to you? How does the place influence your work?
As a seasonal worker, the most dramatic influence Alaska has on my art making is the seasonality. Summer brings the frenzy, the fishing season, the social buzz. Winter slows things down with room for introspection and time to draw upon the experiences of summertime for inspiration. I get lots of ideas in the summer but the creative work gets done when there is less distraction. I’ve been traveling the past few winters so my art time has been squeezed and I am excited to have a whole winter ahead to get into the creative groove.

What's the best advice that was given to you when you embarked on your artistic career (and adventure!)? 
|Things that I’ve been advised on that I have carried in my pocket have been that the experience will be the teacher, and to believe in my work and be my own advocate.

Do you have any dreams for your business in the future? Any goals you're chasing after?
I’m hoping I will develop as an artist and a business person in a balanced way and that creating a business won’t detract from artistic exploration. When I start thinking more about what will sell instead than what is meaningful to me, I try to take a step back. This adventure has felt very seat-of-the-pants so far and I’m hoping that I will be able to look back in five or so years and recognize that I have come a long way in promoting and producing my work and that I will be exploring ideas that are only seeds in this moment.

Anything else you'd like to share about your business?!
I’ve got a website! It’s oceanawills.com and it even has a shop component that I am still learning how to use.

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