Born in Connecticut, the artist moved to New York City where he was employed in the manufacture and sales of silk thread. In 1880, he ventured into business for himself, taking commissions from owners to portray their well-known New York area yachts. As his reputation grew, he received many commissions from the elite New York Yacht Club.
Proving himself an adept creator of oil on canvas backgrounds (often with Long Island Sound as backdrop), he employed fine satin and plush velvet for the vessels' hulls. With intricate embroidery to accurately describe flags, rigging, and details, his unique artform may only be subscribed as a success.
From the most proper Victorian Age, works by Willis are individual pieces of Americana which serve as mementoes of the magnificent yachts in the great city of ships around the turn of the century, during a height of upper class society widest involvement in maritime endeavors. Recently his grandson corrected his date of death as 1925, from previous published versions listing it as 1912.