(Local Stories and Interviews, Arts, Books, Movies, Creative Endeavors, and Fascinating People)
JoAnne Heaney, Los Osos Treasure
by Nicole Lonner Dorfman
JoAnne - Photo taken recently at Dibner Hall of the History of Science at The Huntington
Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
Climbing the stairs to the front door of JoAnne Heaney's Los Osos home, I thought I had the wrong address. I wondered how the 90-year-old woman I would be meeting could manage these stairs. But once JoAnne opened the door and welcomed me in with such grace and agility, it all became clear. And not only these stairs, but also the ones that led to her second story studio, filled with art and photographs and various projects in the works. I see these stairs now as a symbol of the heights that JoAnne has climbed in her life, the challenges she taken on gladly, and her pioneering spirit.
JoAnne's story began far from these ocean views in the river valley of the small Connecticut town where her father farmed tobacco, and then, with the coming of the Great Depression, potatoes. Her early penchant for science—perhaps formed on the farm—eventually led her to study chemistry at Smith College in Massachusetts and finally to Stanford College in California. Here JoAnne abandoned science for the study of art and English that would serve as a foundation for the rest of her life's work.
After graduating from Stanford in 1943, JoAnne headed back east to look for a job. She landed in New York City at the naval architecture firm of George G Sharp. Here she found her place working under the direction of Jack Heaney, her boss and husband-to-be, designing interiors for cargo ships. JoAnne became an essential member of the design team. This was during WWII. Although the ship building business was operating at full capacity, JoAnne's job was to prepare drawings for profiles of ships that steamship companies would want once the war was over.
While JoAnne was not directly involved in the war effort, George Sharp's firm built hundreds of vessels for wartime service during her tenure. With such a large workforce, shipbuilders were under a lot of pressure to unionize, and JoAnne contributed to the job of developing a company union. For this endeavor she and Jack worked directly with personnel. They designed and set up a house publication to keep workers involved and to facilitate communication, cooperation, and camaraderie between workers at all levels.
Then as the war drew to a close in the mid 1940's, shipping companies sought out the firm for peacetime ship design and JoAnne's work was in high demand. The push now was for a new blend of passenger-cargo vessels that carried 100 or more passengers as well as for traditional cargo ships, which carried few. Whatever the number of passengers, JoAnne's efforts assured that all those who came aboard had very elegant quarters. The Robin Line, the Great Lakes Ore Carriers, the Delta Line, and the American President Line are among the accounts that JoAnne worked on.
In 1947 Jack started his own design firm, Jack Heaney and Associates, and JoAnne went with him. The two got married in 1950. JoAnne continued her work from home after the children came.
Cutaway Model of the NS Savannah
Interior Design and Exterior Styling by Jack Heaney & Associates
Read More About the Savannah
Having been intimately involved in the design of ships for many years, JoAnne had long wanted to go on a "shake down" cruise, which was for the company insiders: crews, management, venders, builders and the like, but women on board were considered bad luck. The Gulf and South American Steamship Company recognized her worth, however, and asked her to travel a segment aboard one of their old ships, which served in South America, to learn about their operations and clientele. They had asked JoAnne to observe how things worked for their crew and passengers, and to assess their on-board amenities and furnishing in preparation for remodeling and new construction.
To start the journey, JoAnne flew to Peru where she visited Machu Pichu along with other amazing sights. Boarding the ship in Lima, she then cruised up the coast to Panama where she caught a flight back home. During her journey, in considering interior design, JoAnne was asked to capture the color and feel of the Andes, which she was thrilled to do. It was here that she fell in love with South America and the folk art of various regions. This deep love of folk art remains with her today.
Although JoAnne had a husband and children waiting for her at home, she cherished her solo travels and had many other opportunities to go. At a time when few women traveled on their own, JoAnne flew frequently to US ship yards—mainly on the Gulf Coast—to inspect ships during construction. It was her job to make sure that the interior details were carried out as designed.
True to her pioneering spirit, JoAnne moved back to California after the death of her husband in 1975. She originally chose the San Diego area for the richness of its art and culture. The Museum of Man in Balboa Park was one beneficiary of JoAnne's talents. Here she volunteered for many years helped to design and set up shows, a service which she also performed for the folk-art centered Mingei International Museum in La Jolla.
JoAnne's sense of beauty and art are apparent in her Los Osos home. She has a unique collection of folk art, from reverse appliqué "molas" from San Blas Island off the coast of Panama, to pottery made by Mata Ortiz Indians just over the boarder into Mexico. She has a set of teak wood chairs that were among those designed for a steamship's dining room. Among her collection is the maquette of a full size welded metal scupture for the NS Savannah, made by noted sculptor, Jean Woodham, the world's first nuclear powered merchant and passenger ship. JoAnne describes the original as much larger and made out of nickel silver, standing inside a beautiful curved stairwell on the ship.
Examples of San Blas Molas
The Central Coast has been her home now for 16 years, since she moved north to be closer to her children. Bishops Peak Elementary School in SLO, where JoAnne volunteers in the Puentes Program, is the current beneficiary of her philanthropy. Puentes, which means "bridges" in Spanish, is devoted to advancing the education of children of non-English speaking parents.
Her biggest project of late however, while quite different from designing ships, is equally as important. Along with a friend in Connecticut who knew Jack well, JoAnne compiled and arranged all of Jack's papers, renderings, and artwork into one collection. This collection was eagerly accepted by the Huntington Library in Los Angeles where it has been made available to the public. And although the collection focuses on Jack's life and work, I imagine that within its pages there is much more to learn about JoAnne's history as well.