Dorothy Henzell Willis was born In 1899 in England and immigrated to Chicago in 1907. In 1912 they moved to Winnipeg and a year later to Edmonton. She married at the young age of 18. She had an interest in art from a young age and was an active member on the arts community in Alberta and B.C. including member and president of the Edmonton Art Club Art, member and secretary of the Alberta Society of Artists, member of the Women Sketch Hunters of Alberta and the Vancouver Art Gallery Association. Her early artist education began under the art instructor J. Gordon Sinclair at the Edmonton Technical High School and later during summer classes under A.C. Leighton. Other information on artistic education and exhibitions is sparsely documented.
Art historian, writer and independent art curator, Mary-Beth Laviolette writes about Dorothy Henzell Willis as “Like many other Alberta artists of her time, she strove to give a realistic representation in an academic style of painting from Britain that was predominant in the province in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s” but with a desire to explore and travel her work evolves and “By the time the artist leaves Edmonton in 1946 following her divorce, the gentility, which had formerly characterized Willis’ art, had evaporated. She had transformed her practice into a more subjective and psychologically charged exploration of the human condition that encompassed her own life as well as friends and family. It seems her expressionistic approach and knowledge of European modernism gave her the tools by which to convey her inner feelings more freely.”
For three years Dorothy was an artist in residence living in a trailer on the University of British Columbia Campus. Her desire to travel must have been great, because in 1949, She packed up and moved to Paris where she formed a close friendship with Joseph Plaskett, another fellow artist from Canada. She spent 25 year abroad including living in England, France, Wales, and Denmark and travelling around Europe and North Africa. Like many artists, she lived basically, but her need to paint was great. With expressionistic vigour and often bold colours her work is filled with emotion and energy. Dorothy painted in oil mostly, but also enjoyed painting in watercolour, drawing, and printmaking including woodcuts, linocuts and monoprints.
Dorothy Henzell Willis returned to Canada in 1975 and settled in Victoria, BC with her son Robert and his wife, Verna. Only one double sided painting is document as being painted after her return to Canada. Dorothy died in 1985 in Victoria. She great contribution to Canadian modernism is undeniable. Her work has been exhibited in numerous exhibits in Canada including the Art Gallery of Alberta Vancouver Art Gallery, Glenbow Museum, Montreal Art Association, Manitoba Society of Arts, Canadian Society of painters in Watercolour, National Gallery of Canada - Travelling Exhibition, and the Riverside Museum, N.Y.