For someone who has lived in Homer since the day they were born, like Oceana Wills, there is rarely uncharted territory left to explore. But that’s what the 25-year-old commercial fisherman found when she began to take her art to the next level and enter the Homer scene professionally.
Wills has fished commercially since she was a sophomore in high school — just for a few weeks out of the summer at first and increasingly so until she was gone for the entire season.
“I’ve gone to Bristol Bay every summer since then,” she said.
She set net for several years and has been drifting for the past few. It’s something she got into quite young through her neighbors, and she’s been able to work with some great teachers over the years, she said.
“I think getting into it young was a really neat way of entering it,” Wills said.
Her work in the summer influences a lot of her art, with many of her paintings depicting women going about the daily chores of fishing set against the backdrops of landscapes she’s been immersed in summer after summer. But these works of art haven’t been this public before. Always an artist at heart, Wills studied English while at college in Portland, Oregon, but took several art classes as well.
“That idea of being an artist, like it’s always been something I wanted but I never really had that … my identity hasn’t been in a public sphere of artist until more recently,” she said. “… It’s a new kind of role, and it’s exciting.”
Wills has been drawing and creating art since she was young, but had her first official art show in Homer in 2016, followed by a few more. She now has a website, oceanawills.com, and the Salmon Sisters have also made her pieces available to buy through their own website. The popular pair of commercial fishermen recently published a Q&A with Wills on their blog as well.
The tide really turned when, in the wake of a show at the Bagel Shop last year, Wills began to think of her art with a business aspect for the first time, she said. That show forced her to create a large body of work and also to learn all that goes in to having an art show.
“So many people are just really receptive because they either know you or they know of you, and that’s like something out of a small town that’s so sweet,” she said.
Wills has been learning to self promote, too, through social media and through word of mouth. Homer is a welcoming place to enter the official art scene as a young person, she said, because as a town it seems to pay attention to young artists in a way that doesn’t always happen elsewhere.
In Portland, Wills said there was so much art saturating the market, and so many varieties.
“All these different levels and strata of it was — I didn’t feel like I could enter it,” she said. “It kind of felt unattainable in a lot of ways.”
Having grown up in Homer, Wills said she felt like, in a way, there was already a community ready to receive her as an artist. She’s already found several role models along the way.
“A lot of things have kind of happened in steps that have moved me forward in a way where it makes sense to keep pursuing it. Things like having a website and promoting myself on social media and like putting my name out there more. Because it’s all kind of new.”
When it comes to the kind of art she creates, Wills is very much inspired by her summer surroundings. There’s no time to paint on a boat, but she said she keeps a journal and uses the imagery the summer fishing scene presents in her paintings during the winter.
“And it also feels really natural to draw those things because when you’re on the water there’s so much in your mind that you kind of want to put some interpretation of,” she said. “That’s how I feel usually.”
Wills said a lot is happening right now in terms of the ocean and commercial fishing, and that she feels a bit as if she’s riding the wave of female artists and makers who are representing that.
Over the last few years, she said she’s noticed more and more women, especially young women, entering the commercial fishing industry. It’s fun to center women in the visual landscapes that inspire her, Wills said.
“I think I really love trying to represent women in the commercial fishing field because it’s … there’s more and more women working on boats it seems like, in the past few years especially,” she said.
One section of Wills’ website is devoted entirely to art she’s created of mermaids. Many of her subjects are women, and they come in all shapes and sizes. This is a concious effort on her part, Wills said.
“I try to make things that a lot of different people can see themselves in,” she said. “And not to speak for any group of people, but just, I think it’s way more fun to explore that rather than stick to one sort of body type or expectation, especially with mermaids because they’re so kind of classically… you know there’s kind of the classic image of a mermaid.”
While Wills said it’s hard to see the future, she’d like to pursue art professionally in the ways that make sense for her.
“I feel like things can grow here organically,” she said of Homer. “It’s a place where when you put stuff out there, you get like so much back in ways that you wouldn’t really imagine.”
When it comes to fishing, she doesn’t see herself buying a boat anytime soon and prefers to work as a deckhand for now. Homer is always the anchor, but commercial fishing allows Wills the freedom to travel, she said. There are days when working as a deckhand are terrible, she said, but they are weighed against the feeling of using one’s body, becoming strong, and taking moments to oneself out on the water.
In the winter, though, Wills comes back to painting.
“I get a lot of satisfaction when I’m painting or when I’m working on a project,” she said. “… I think it’s sort of just a centering thing for me. It’s like this is kind of where I can be really focused.”