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Mountain Home Magazine

From Eels to Eagles

Jun 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes

When Courtney Oley was six years old, she wanted just two things: to be outside and to draw. The native of Rome, Pennsylvania, was ten years old when she knew two things: she was not going to college, and she was going to be an artist.

“Luckily, I was raised by parents who taught us that you could do anything you wanted, if you worked hard enough for it,” Courtney remembers.

An artist is what she became, specializing in animal portraits of all imaginable sizes, from wall murals down to small enough to fit on a water bottle. But not just any water bottle. More about that in a minute.

As a kid, Courtney wanted to see if her art could translate into cash. She decorated miniature sleds and sold them for Christmas money. The connection between art and income had been made, and there was no turning back. She went to vocational school to earn her cosmetology license and worked in Florida while painting when she could, often commission work from her hair clients. She describes her style as a combination of realism and pop art, drawing the viewer into an interaction with the animal she depicts.

Then in 2020 she made the leap of faith to commit fully to her art. She returned to Bradford County, showcased her work on Facebook and Instagram, and began selling out of state and even internationally. She formalized her specialty as an animal portrait artist during a unique arrangement with the people who make Yeti water bottles.

“They reached out on my social media,” she says, “and asked if I would paint animals on sixty-six Yeti cups that they would ship to me.” Then the catch—they needed it all done in two weeks. Courtney managed to pull it off “with little sleep,” and still gets folks sending her their new cup to be adorned with an Oley original.

All animals are subject material for her, including the family pet. She’s done a lot of dog portraits, often after the passing of a beloved animal, and admits to shedding a few tears with the grateful owners.

After years in Florida, Courtney has a following there and returns to the Sunshine State for painting projects a few times a year. But a year and a half ago, she was approached for a special project right in her home county. Towanda Borough Manager Lauren Hotaling had overseen one mural project and wanted another, this one on the Merrill Parkway along the Susquehanna River. A retaining wall had thirty-three panels in need of something eye catching, so Lauren started asking businesses to sponsor one of four panels. The Bradford County Conservation Council raised their hand first and selected an eel for their panel, as they were reintroducing them into the river.

“Once Courtney started, and the community and businesses caught wind of the project, it exploded, mostly on social media.” Lauren recalls. “Where I had once struggled to find four businesses, people were now coming to me.” The demand was so great that the first round of panels were spoken for in weeks, and the team decided to expand it to every available space on the retaining wall, even the smaller panels. The sponsor picks the animal—the only stipulation is that it has to be indigenous to Bradford County.

“Eagles are my favorite to paint because their eyes are so piercing. You can’t help but be drawn in by an eagle’s gaze,” says Courtney. The eels were another story. “I had never seen an eel in real life, but the Bradford Conservation people had a tank of them in their facility. So, I went over there and spent an hour looking at eels and learning about them.” The parkway project posed some logistic challenges. The walkway workspace is narrow, and traffic is a constant concern. Courtney also recognizes her weakness for chatting, and would get caught up in conversation with folks coming to admire her work. “I have traffic cones for safety and now I have signs stuck in them, asking people not to interrupt. It’s for my own good. I like to talk too much!”

Her headphones also dissuade distractions, as she listens to anything from country to rap to classical. “Once I’m in the zone, music without lyrics is best. Then I just lose myself to the art.” If she gets a break with the weather, Courtney can finish some of the panels in two days.

The Bradford Conservation folks are also writing descriptors of each animal. Those will appear on the walking trail fence across the road from the mural. Signs will also thank the sponsors. In addition to the businesses, families and individuals came forward for a panel, sometimes to honor a loved one they had lost.

Lauren says the artist herself was a big part of the draw. “Courtney is incredibly sweet and thoughtful. She incorporates the little touches into the paintings. For one family, she drew in the name of their loved one inside the ear of the fox.”

For another family, she painted the brook trout on their son’s birthday, and the family children came to help with the background.

“Courtney doesn’t just paint beautiful animals,” Lauren adds. “She is caring inside and out that she makes every painting she does so special for all involved.”

“I am over the moon to be doing this project,” Courtney says. “To be a part of this in my home county? It’s such a sweet honor for me.”

Beautifying her home region—one panel, one animal at a time. Follow Courtney on Facebook at OleyArt and on Instagram at To discuss a potential project, email her at [email protected].

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