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My great grandmother Joan has had a profound impact on my life. Not many people can say that about a great grandparent. Her life has been an inspiration to me in so many ways. I was incredibly lucky to have known her the way I did. 


The memories I have of my great grandmother are endless, and I will never forget the countless Christmases and Thanksgivings my family spent packed into her small house in Des Moines, Iowa. I can still see her sitting at the table over by the window, a cup of tea in hand, as she observed her family laughing and enjoying each other’s company. She had a great sense of humor and would tell us story after story of her mischievous ways as a child. By the end of the night, my stomach would hurt from laughing so hard.


She was born in England on August 10, 1922, not long after the end of World War I.  She passed away on August 30, 2017, just two days after my 21st birthday.  She was just 17 when World War II broke out.  At the age of 22 she married an American airman, my great grandfather Bob, and immigrated to the United States all by herself.  I am 22 now.  I can’t imagine leaving my home and family to live in another country. Her courage, to come across an ocean and start a new life, has always given me the courage to take on anything in my own life. She showed a resilience of character at a young age that followed her throughout life. 


Not only did I look up to my great grandmother for her strength of character but also for her  incredible artistic abilities. Because I am artistically inclined myself, art was something that connected us.  She found her passion for art early on.  No matter how complicated life got, she never gave it up.  She was an exceptionally talented painter and created many works in her 95 years of life. She didn’t do it to make money or to become famous. She did it because she loved it. Through painting she was able to reconnect to her days in England and bring to life memories of her homeland, a place she loved so dearly.


Her love and passion for art inspired me to pursue a career in the field of graphic design. Being surrounded by someone who showed me that art is valid and important gave me an appreciation for it at a young age. She always encouraged my cousins and me to create. She would sit with us, explain techniques, and teach us about color, balance, and other principles of art. This kind of encouragement helped shape me into the artist that I am today.


I wrote a short biography and curated this gallery space as a glimpse into the life of Joan Hayes. I want my audience to gain an understanding of her experiences; to know who she was as an artist; and how art was a part of her life until the very end.  She was stubborn, tough, brave, courageous, beautiful, hilarious, kind, and loving.  Her strength was inspiring.  Her love was magnificent.  Her smile will live in my heart forever.  She was my great grandmother.

The book

Joan Agnes Fenn-Hayes, also known amongst her family as  Gramcracker, was born on August 10, 1922, in St. Mary’s Hospital in Hampstead Heath, London. She spent her childhood in southern England and then lived northwest of London, finally residing in Abbot’s Langley, Hertfordshire in the 1930s.


Born only four years after World War 1 ended in 1918, Joan’s formative years were rooted in a time when England was recovering from the deep wounds of their fallen soldiers in the trenches of France’s bloody battlefields.


Joan’s father was a surviving WW1 battlefield motorcycle messenger, and their family of four found peace in the English countryside. Her father became a chauffeur and her mother a cook to the landed gentry (wealthy people who own land) at their cherished home in Awbridge. Joan joined John Dickinson’s of London, a paper manufacturing company at age 17. She was selected to work in the art and design department when World War 2 broke out in 1939 and all non-essential work at Dickinson’s was halted. 


Her teen years were spent serving her country in the Land Army in 1940 at the age of 18. She served until 1944 when she met 1st Lieutenant Robert P. Hayes, and airforce Bomber Navigator from Villisca, Iowa. They married in October of 1944 in London. In early 1945, she and thousands of war brides immigrated to the United States. Bob and Joan made their home in rural southwest Iowa until coming to Knoxville and Des Moines in the late 1960s. 


Joan was an accomplished oil painter and painted her memories of England and Scotland as well as her new homeland in the midwest. Her paintings found homes with friends, family, business associates and complete strangers across the midwest and beyond. 


She studied under the famous artist course of Norman Rockwell, Sculptor Lincoln Fox, and naturalist and wildlife painter Randy May.

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