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heart of an artist
Story by Susan O'Connor, Photo by Dero Sanford

Art and an appreciation for the design of surroundings are intertwined. Claudia Cathcart Shannon is a designer with the heart of an artist.

She was drawn to art and painted from an early age, tutored by Sister Bernadine of Holy Angels convent. Her first show of art was at age 16.

“From a very early age I had a passion for art and architecture,” Claudia said, “so it is no surprise that I chose an education path that combined the two, a degree in interior design within a fine arts department. It was a professional, five-year degree, which gave me time to accumulate 33 hours of cultural history — architecture, art, furniture and ornament. This led to my specialty in historic preservation.”

A Jonesboro native, Claudia ventured to the University of Kansas as a freshman, but found her niche at the University of Memphis — Memphis State at the time — where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in interior design in 1973. During those years she worked as an assistant designer for Holiday Inns International at the Memphis headquarters, where she was mentored by Punk Aycock, the hotel chain’s first interior designer.

“I learned how to organize a project, how to inspect a project, how to keep up with the installers,” Claudia said. “ She (Aycock) taught me a lot. The experience was invaluable.”

Also momentous at the time was her introduction to Howard Shannon, her husband of 37 years. He was also a designer for Holiday Inns, his first real job out of college. They married soon after Claudia’s 1973 graduation and moved briefly to Jackson, Miss., Howard’s home. Claudia worked on two projects in hospital design, including the first women’s hospital in the south.

But the couple began to think about where they wanted to raise a family and Jonesboro beckoned, though Claudia said it might not have been the best decision for their careers.

“I don’t think Jonesboro was ready at the time — did not understand what we did. We work in space planning and interior design, not just decorating. It wasn’t the best career move. The great thing is that Jonesboro allowed us to do a broad range of things. In a large city, you get tagged at doing one thing.”
Claudia and Howard have worked together on numerous projects over the years, though Howard is partially retired now. Since 1991, their firm’s name has been Shannon Design Enterprises, Inc.

Claudia’s career has been varied and impressive, evolving into her expertise in historic preservation. She is a National Trust Leadership Training graduate, and completed work through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Rural Heritage Development Initiative. She has directed several major preservation projects around the state, including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza and the Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village.

Claudia was also interior designer for the preservation of the Governor’s Reception Hall and the old Supreme Court Chamber in the Arkansas State Capitol. These projects involved research of historic papers and photographs, exploration of the attics and basement and the development of the concept of the rooms when they were opened in 1915. The completed interiors contained original items from the capitol, period furnishings, fabrics and carpets made from historic looms and custom-made furnishings, each requiring a great deal of research for their availabilities.

In Jonesboro, her work with historic properties in the downtown area has been a fulfilling part of her career. Claudia directed projects such as the Dickson-Grigbsy-Cate home on Main Street, the Allen-Hill home on Matthews, First Baptist Church, First Methodist Church and early in her career, the home of Charlott Jones.

Her hand can also be seen across Jonesboro in new construction, such as the Dean B. Ellis Library and Arkansas Bioscience Institute at Arkansas State University as part of the Brackett-Krennerich team, as well as both major medical centers, The Surgical Hospital of Jonesboro, The Children’s Clinic and many corporate projects.

I love architecture, new and old,” she said. “I want to see it used to its best purpose.”

Claudia was also a founding member of the Downtown Jonesboro Association, and worked from 1993-1997 with Main Street Arkansas in the model business grant program across Arkansas.

“In my opinion, no one has yet to develop a better economic model than the downtown; the combination of government, retail, entertainment, services and residential mixed with pedestrians and automobiles in a compact environment,” she said.

Now, Claudia has added author to her list of accomplishments. She wrote a section on the Delta, covering 23 counties, for a book about significant historic buildings in Arkansas for the Society of Architectural Historians. There is one being published for every state. Arkansas’ will be released in 2012.