Ila McAfee moved from Colorado to Los Angeles to attend the West Lake School of Art and the Haz Art School in 1917. She then traveled to Chicago where she became a student of muralist James E. McBurney and served as his assistant until 1924. During this time she was also influenced by sculptor Lorado Taft. In 1925 she attended the National Academy of Design in New York, as well as the Art Students League in 1926.
In 1928 Ila McAfee moved to Taos, New Mexico, and built the White Horse Studio. In Taos she became known for her pueblo paintings and her depictions of horses and other animals as well as Native Americans, ranch scenes and landscapes. In 1981, McAfee was voted Taos Artist of the Year. She also worked as a WPA artist, completing many commissions for post office locations.