With interests and pastimes ranging from the Newport Symphony to continuing education for retirees, from landscaping to crafting items from wine corks, Newport retiree Conrad Willett manages to keep busy and active. His interest in crafting with cork leads him to produce quirky maritime art, wine paraphernalia and a passel of sea creatures.
Willett started creating things out of wine corks several years ago, and his subject matter keeps expanding. Although he has always had a fondness for art, he has never worked in any other medium, and while he taught a variety of grades and subjects, from elementary school through high school and community college, he never taught art. But when he was in high school himself, he took as many mechanical drawing classes as he could, and later was a technical illustrator with the Air Force.
Willett’s early years were spent in Maine before the family moved to California. He retired from teaching in 2002 and has owned his home in Newport since 1988, moving there permanently in 2005.
“I was given a wine cellar by my wife and daughter, and decided to decorate it with wine labels and corks,” he recalled. “I had seen a few wineries make wineglasses out of cork, so I started with that. It grew as I began removing wine labels and decorating my wine cellar.”
Then he turned to maritime themes — ship’s anchors and helms, lighthouses, the compass rose, starfish, seahorses and sea turtles, the latter mounted on driftwood and oyster shells. Recently, Willett has expanded his subject matter to include owls perched on branches of driftwood.
“And I love wine, too,” he said, so working with cork was a natural. “Many friends, wineries and restaurants have contributed corks to my work.”
He also creates seasonal items from cork, such as Valentine’s hearts, Christmas ornaments and wreathes, planter boxes with artificial florals, floral designs within cork framing, wine label collages within a cork frame, signs, serving trays and bird houses.
“I’ve done a few craft shows, but the pandemic has closed that door for a while,” he said. Some wineries have displayed his work on commission, and he will often make gifts with winery-specific corks and labels “to get my foot in the door,” he said.
He briefly brought his creations to the indoor Newport Farmers Market, has shown his cork art at craft shows in Newport and Yachats, and has work on display at the Flying Dutchman in Otter Rock.
Willett said corks come in a large variety of shapes and lengths. “Sometimes I’ll buy a wine for the type of cork in the bottle rather than the type of wine inside,” he said. In addition to regular wine corks, he decorates with champagne corks as well, saying, “They add a touch to my work, especially for borders.”
Willett said he first draws a design on a paper bag or Kraft paper. “I get the proportions and transfer the design to a foam or plywood board,” he said. Other tools include a glue gun and band saw.
“Then I incorporate acrylic paint and pyrography,” he added. For something like a sea turtle head, he makes a mold and attaches cork to it with a glue gun.
Willett and his wife have traveled widely, from New Zealand and Australia to Europe, and visited a cork farm in Portugal. He compares wine to birding — “wherever you go, there are birds, and wherever you go, there are wines,” he said. But creating cork art is not all Willett does with his time in retirement. He and his wife are season ticket-holders at the Newport Symphony and house symphony musicians when they come to town. They also work with Joseph and Christina Swafford to prepare lunches for the musicians on their weekend visits to the coast to perform.
“We get to know the musicians really well, and love the symphony,” he said. “I enjoy the quality of the music, and how a community this size can have the quality this symphony provides.”
While the pandemic has currently shuttered both the Oregon Coast Learning Institute, a group of retired and semi-retired persons who continue their education through presentations on history, music, natural science, art, economics and life experiences, as well as another favorite group of his, the Yaquina Birders and Naturalists, Willett continues to cycle with a local gathering of bike riders.
With the COVID pandemic, he has even more time to create. “When I’m not out riding my bike or looking for speakers for the Oregon Coast Learning Institute, I can usually be found in my garage,” he said, explaining that he converted it into a studio for his cork work, and has filled it with his cork art inventory. And when the weather allows, he might be found out in his yard, which he landscaped front and back.
“I put the down time from COVID to constructive use,” he said, noting he has plans in the works to create a rock cod on a bed of cork.
“Maritime art is my favorite,” he concluded. “I do it because it uses my time wisely, and I enjoy it very much.”
To find out more about Willett’s work with cork, email him at [email protected]
Conrad Willett, of Newport, enjoys creating art out of wine corks. He said his subject matter, some of which is pictured on the wall behind him, keeps expanding. (Photo by Steve Card)
This sea turtle, made using a variety of wine corks, was created by Conrad Willett, of Newport.