Joan T. Kanwisher of Woods Hole, who was a mentor to many local artists and instrumental in the development of the Shining Sea Bikeway, died September 28. She was 95.
The project of creating Falmouth’s first bike path began in early 1965, when the New Haven Railroad petitioned the Department of Transportation for permission to abandon the Woods Hole run. The announcement caught the attention of Ms. Kanwisher, and she wrote a letter to New Haven Railroad suggesting the path of the old tracks from Woods Hole to Falmouth become a bicycle path.
“I got an immediate response and thought, good heavens what do I do now?” Ms. Kanwisher said. She enlisted the help of a friend, Barbara Burwell, whose home abutted the rail line, and soon after another abutter, David Scott, joined the effort.
The effort took 10 years and included a lengthy legal battle over the town’s right to acquire the land. Then Ms. Kanwisher secured financial support from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Marine Biological Laboratory—which both owned land along the way—to contribute to the path’s construction. This initial section of the Shining Sea Bikeway was completed in 1975, 3.1 miles stretching from Locust Street in Falmouth to the Steamship Authority parking lot in Woods Hole.
Still advocating for the bike path in 2003, during a project to extend the Shining Sea Bikeway, Ms. Kanwisher prepared a report in her role as a member of the League of Women Voters of Falmouth observer corps in which she wrote, “The North Falmouth extension is not progressing, or is possibly progressing slowly behind the scenes.” She noted that the “Falmouth Bikeways Committee is a pleasure to observe because of their enthusiasm. The chairman provides an agenda and keeps the discussion relevant. All members are clearly devoted to the aim of providing bicycle paths and bicycle safety. Attendance is good.”
Years later, acting on the idea of a group of Ms. Kanwisher’s artist friends, the Friends of Falmouth Bikeways Inc. commissioned and installed a mural at mile 3.5, between Locust Street and Depot Avenue, dedicating it to Joan Kanwisher in celebration of her 90th birthday in 2015. The piece was designed and painted by Falmouth High School advanced art class students under the direction of Jane Fay Baker.
Ms. Kanwisher came to Falmouth in 1952. Her husband, John W. Kanwisher, worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They raised two daughters. She was an artist of line-sketch drawings.
“I liked the fact that you can create an image with paper and pen and that’s all,” she said.
She drew notable historical town buildings and homes, many of which are included in the book, “Along the Shining Sea Path” written by the late W. Redwood Wright, and which also documents Ms. Kanwisher’s role in the development of the bikeway.
Ms. Kanwisher’s pen and ink drawings of Falmouth and Woods Hole capture the essence of the region. She exhibited her work in the Woods Hole Art Show every year since it began 65 years ago and at times she would donate a painting or other works to benefit Woods Hole Public Library and other nonprofits; in October 1989 she donated her inventory of pen and ink reproduction prints to the Falmouth Housing Trust, so that all the proceeds from the sale of the prints would be available to the housing trust.
Falmouth Historical Society chose Ms. Kanwisher as a recipient of the 2015 Heritage Awards. Established in 2000 to mark the 100th anniversary of the society, the award recognizes individuals or organizations “who have provided outstanding leadership over time to help preserve the character, culture, stories, vistas or other aspect of Falmouth’s rich history, or have inspired others to do so, resulting in a lasting legacy.”
Ms. Kanwisher, along with Donald E. Fish and Karen A. Rinaldo, were cited for their use of “a visual and artistic medium to represent the town and its history.”
“All of the awardees have made a positive impact on the culture of the town and how the town is viewed and will be remembered,” said Mark Schmidt, executive director of the Falmouth Historical Society, during the announcement of their names in February that year.
“It’s the last thing in the world I expected,” Ms. Kanwisher said about receiving the award. “It is very nice.”
Ms. Kanwisher grew up in Rochester, New York, the only child of Gladys (Travis) Taylor and Robert F. Taylor. She was 5 when the stock market crashed and the country entered the Great Depression.
Although she received a full scholarship to the University of Rochester, she declined it to help support her family by working at a bank (for 28 cents an hour) and at Kodak. She enrolled at Rochester the next year and, at a freshman mixer, John T. Kanwisher asked her to dance. They were soon dating and taking flying lessons together.
After World War II broke out, she enlisted in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), where she trained pilots in a flight simulator called a Link trainer. Toward the end of the war, when it was announced that married WAVES could be discharged immediately, she and Mr. Kanwisher were married at her parents’ house and then resumed their studies at the University of Rochester, both graduating in 1947, Ms. Kanwisher’s degree in general science.
Her daughter Nancy Kanwisher wrote what happened after the couple had settled in Woods Hole:
At WHOI, John went on long expeditions on the research vessel Atlantis. During the summer of 1954, John and Pete Scholander sailed to Hebron Fiord in Labrador on Dartmouth’s 100-foot research schooner the Blue Dolphin to study why arctic fishes living in supercooled water don’t freeze. Joan was keen to join the adventure, but women were not allowed on the ship. So Joan, and Pete’s wife Susan, made their way to Labrador on missionary ships. They camped with their husbands for the summer, baking bread outdoors, serving cocktails with ten thousand year-old glacier ice, and doing scientific research of their own. Joan and Susan published a paper in Plant Physiology in 1959 showing that the respiration rates of many plant species living in northern Labrador were no different than that of the same species living in much warmer climates. At the end of the summer the captain of the Blue Dolphin had no choice but to allow them to return south on the ship, for which he received thanks in the acknowledgement of Joan and Susan’s paper for his “interest and cooperation.”
Ms. Kanwisher taught grade school in Falmouth before starting her family and then taught herself to sketch using her daughters as models. She soon expanded her repertoire to oil paintings and her signature pen-and-ink sketches of Woods Hole scenes.
She also put her energies into renovating houses; her interest in building was inspired from an early age by her father.
Her daughter writes: Her first project was a house on Buzzards Bay Ave. in Woods Hole with a large barn out back, which she converted into rental units. To rent the main house during the peak summer months, the ever-thrifty Joan moved the family into the two-room attic every summer until [her older daughter] was five. Joan’s family remembers her in this period as always up on a ladder, painting.
Ms. Kanwisher also developed a passion for preserving wild land, and served on the Falmouth Conservation Commission for two decades.
She loved traveling and adventure and had a particular fondness for Norway, where she and her husband traveled hundreds of miles down the Norwegian coast in a less-than-seaworthy old fishing boat. After her husband retired, the couple went on two round-the-world trips. Her daughter wrote: When Joan’s aunt Madeleine died and left her a small inheritance, Joan bought a French canal boat (the “Madeleine”), upon which she and her family and friends enjoyed many trips around France. Joan later traveled to the Peruvian Amazon with her granddaughter Aviva, to Stratford-on-Avon with Robyn and her daughter Shira, to Russia and Iran with her daughter Nancy, and at nearly 80 to Botswana with her granddaughter Zemora on a walking safari, camping out at night with only a canvas tent between her and the lions.
She sailed around Woods Hole in an old Sunfish and, at age 60 she took up windsurfing.
Her daughter added: At age 85, Joan got an iPhone and became an avid texter. At 92, after losing a leg, she gamely relearned to walk and could cover half a mile on her prosthesis. At 95 she continued to read the New York Times thoroughly every day on her iPad, threw monthly cocktail parties at her home, and commuted to her book club at the Woods Hole Library on her electric scooter.
She leaves her husband, John W. Kanwisher; two daughters, Nancy G. Kanwisher of Cambridge and S. Robyn Kanwisher Tevah of Germantown, Pennsylvania; and three granddaughters, Aviva Tevah, Shira Tevah and Zemora Tevah.