Deep Roots at the EAA Seaplane Base

By Kate Stevens

For me a trip to EAA AirVenture isn’t complete without a visit to the serene EAA Seaplane Base. The sight of seaplanes gently gliding just above the Lake Winnebago waters, landing on the bay and then proceeding through the cut and settling in the inner bay is a picturesque sight to see. These colorful planes parked in the bay, set against the backdrop of cattails and the “old barn” has inspired many photographers (including my husband) to capture beautiful pictures of this unique seaplane respite. Upon visiting this past summer of 2021, my husband and I were fortunate to meet a talented artist who uses a different artistic medium to encapsulate her vision of this tin bird oasis, that being watercolor. What I found even more interesting than Emily Willey’s beautiful art work was the story behind that work. After chatting for a moment I realized that the seaplane base was more than a mere subject of interest, but a second home where she has spent a significant part of her life and, as a result, has deep roots in this special place.

Emily Willey at the EAA Seaplane Base

How did you come to spend so much time at the seaplane base and what are some of your earliest memories?
“Well, my father was an avid aviation guy who had me up in planes since the time I was in diapers. He was a pilot and airplane mechanic who had been taking me to the seaplane base since I was a kid. I started volunteering at the base when I was 10 years old. My first job was volunteering as a greeter and dock worker. So, I would haul bags from the planes out to the campsites for pilots, which was fun and made me feel special. I also liked getting tips to pay for t-shirts at the end of week! I then graduated to being a tow boat driver which meant towing the planes to and from the docks. I actually may have been the first female driver to tug planes in on my own! It was fun to meet other kids at the base who have become lifelong friends, a lot of whom still volunteer there.”

FUN FACT: Emily has earned a “20 yrs of service at the EAA Seaplane base” award!

What’s the most memorable experience at the base?
“I would have to say that it was getting married there. We stood in front of the overlook with the greater bay view of Lake Winnebago in the background. We both love airplanes so it was a fitting place for us to say our I dos and to create another special memory there.”

When were you first inspired to express your view of the base through your artwork?
“My Dad encouraged me. I started drawing when I was 14. First a big dolphin mural on my bedroom wall at home, then turtles, ninja turtles, ocean scenes, etc. I’ve never been afraid to try new things and to try new processes, plus I love water and its calming effect. So, I guess it made sense that I was inspired to paint the serene water scenes around the seaplane base.”

Emily’s booth at the EAA Seaplane Base

FUN FACT: Emily’s dad used to fly the family to her aunt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner!

What was your first piece?
“Well, technically before my booth I had some pieces hanging in the pilot check in/check out office at the base that the ladies there were nice enough to display for me. But my dad always encouraged me to have my own booth at the base and I got that chance about one month before Oshkosh 2015. The first piece I created for my booth was a watercolor (my go-to medium) from a photo taken of the Albatross aircraft that visited the base back in 2007. They are massive planes and it sat at the dock for a month or two waiting for repairs. I just remembered how uplifting it felt to see it leave. It was like this huge bird was being freed from captivity in the inner harbor. It even clipped a few limbs as it left and it was very memorable. So that was the first official piece that launched my booth at the seaplane base.”

Albatross Departure by Emily Willey

What do you like most about painting airplanes?
“I like to reflect the intricacies of the planes through my work. It is fun to capture a photo of a plane at the seaplane base and then recreate that scene in a watercolor. I like to paint all the details of the aircraft and to be very accurate. Airplane owners often commission me to paint a portrait of their plane and it’s important to people to get their plane right. So my goal is to provide that service and I enjoy doing it.”

FUN FACT: Emily is working on obtaining her pilot’s license.

What is something else that you want to share about your work?
“I guess that I just have so many fond memories of my many years of experiences at the seaplane base that it feels like a little bit of my heart is painted into each piece that I create and send out around the world.”

What are the three words or feelings that come to mind when you think about the seaplane base and your art work?
“Passion, happiness, and fond memories of shared experiences meeting interesting people from all around the world.”

I think these sentiments universally sum up the experience that we all feel when we visit the EAA Seaplane Base. Emily’s work is a beautiful reminder of that experience and brings the added depth of an artist that is deeply connected to the subject she so beautifully portrays.

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~ Emily loves to paint everything from full murals to painted furniture. Any subject matter too! She also paints on canvas and loves painting watercolor!