Release Date: July 27, 2021

by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office

ADA, Okla. -- Illness from COVID-19 has proved to be both a scourge and a renaissance for Chickasaw artist and former Chickasaw Nation employee Nicole Willis.

In November 2020, COVID-19 struck Willis, and symptoms continue to this day, but she is gradually improving. Her sense of smell and taste are slowly returning. It is easier to breathe. An underlying physical ailment was diagnosed during her COVID-19 illness and is now being addressed with medication.

COVID-19 forced Willis to reexamine her life and what she desired from it.

She decided to leave her job as a fine arts assistant for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Culture and Humanities, and open Nicole Willis and Co. Art Studio and Workshop in Ada.

“Catching COVID-19 was horrible,” Willis said, “but also kind of a blessing, if that is possible. I have fought it for so long it made me realize what was most important in my life. I have always wanted to begin a studio and work with young people. It seems right to me, and my old department supported me in starting it,” she added.

Willis’ graphic art design is available to enjoy and purchase at the Artesian Online Art Market through Aug. 2. Five works – from fine arts to the whimsical – are available at ArtesianArtsFestival.com.

She is most pleased with a portrait titled “Resilient Woman” a moniker that could describe her battle with the pandemic virus she has struggled to beat.

The portrait depicts a dynamic Chickasaw ancestor. When Willis’ grandmother, former Chickasaw Legislator Dean McManus, died a few years ago, boxes of photographs were given to McManus’ grandchildren. Among the photos received by Willis was a portrait of “a full-blood Chickasaw woman” whose identity is unknown to the family.

“She most likely is my grandmother’s cousin. She is a beautiful, mysterious Chickasaw woman. Her facial features are very strong. I was so inspired by that photograph. I took her features and her pose, and created the work. She looks like so many of the dynamic Chickasaw women I have met in my life,” Willis said.

“I wanted to bring her resilience – her strength as a Chickasaw woman – to the portrait. “I used a lot of colors on her face. She is not dark. She is not light. There are so many different shades to First American people. People sometimes say things such as, ‘You don’t look Native,’ or, ‘You look too European to be Native,’” Willis said. “I specifically did not choose a skin tone for her. I wanted her to be all things.”

Opportunities In May, Willis opened her art studio. She calls the new endeavor a “leap of faith. God provided some opportunities for me that I never thought were available,” she said. “Leaving the Chickasaw Nation was scary, but starting the studio is the most rewarding experience I’ve had in a long time.

“COVID-19 forced me to examine what I desired to do with the rest of my life,” Willis said. “I loved my job with the department of culture and humanities, and it was very difficult for me to leave. I felt God was calling me to do something different. Being able to teach digital art classes to children in our community has been so fulfilling.”

Technology has exploded to a point where digital art is moving into forums heretofore unavailable. Creating art digitally is becoming more accepted and appreciated.

“Kids are using technology daily. They are constantly on a phone; they are constantly on an iPad or regularly using some type of technology. In Ada, there are not very many people who teach any type of digital art to young, talented children,” Willis observed.

“It really tugged at my heart to provide that service to young people. I have purchased iPads for the studio so potential students do not have to go to the expense of acquiring one. I have one available for them,” she added.

Digital art makes it possible for children to experience creating art with minimal expense. “Students don’t need to purchase pens, pencils, oil or acrylic paints. They do not have to carry all that stuff around. It’s all right there on an iPad,” Willis said.

At 218 E. 12th St., in Ada, Willis opened shop.

“Digital art is great. However, it does not replace fine art. Students must still hone skills painting or drawing the traditional way,” Willis said. “Technology is a tool to augment the artist’s vision of what is created. I encourage my students to draw in their sketchbook or paint, because you do not want to take away from that craft. You want to improve and grow in the arts.

“I love First American pop art. I love anything that is bright and bold. I also want to incorporate First American aesthetic in my work, especially Southeastern First American iconography.”

Sense of humor

Another Willis-inspired work for Artesian Online Art Market patrons to admire is “Granny at Bingo.”

It may be familiar to art lovers. The main focal point is “granny,” a character seen in Looney Tunes’ Sylvester and Tweety cartoons. “Granny” is celebrating a win playing bingo.

“It is a lane I’ve wanted to step into – that ‘Pop Art’ feel that includes popular culture icons,” Willis said.

Nevertheless, Willis saw the work as needing a First American theme. So she dressed granny in a ribbon skirt and a turquoise squash blossom.

“My sister-in-law saved all her bingo cards and I glued those together and took a picture of it,” Willis said with a laugh. “I then painted the image of granny and all the other aspects of the work over the bingo cards. Granny looks happy. I’m pleased with it,” she added.

Other works by Willis are available at ArtesianArtsFestival.com through Aug. 2. She is accepting students and may be reached by phoning (580) 320-7426. Email her at ArtByNicoleWillis@Gmail.com or visit her website, NicoleWillisCo.com.