Photographer adds spark to father-in-law’s life through art

Collection to be displayed at Woodbourne Branch Library.

Bill Franz retired more than a dozen years ago and took up photography as a way to keep himself occupied and challenged; now, he’s using that medium to challenge his father-in-law, Wally Willaman, who went into full nursing care at Bethany Village when he was 99.

“I’d drop by for an hour or so every week,” said Franz. “He was slowly losing his memory, but still cognitively aware, and we could talk about the news.

“Later, he’d forget about the years following his retirement, but remembered his distant past — so we started talking about our early days and laughed together.

“I wasn’t always sure how to spend productive time with him, so got the idea of involving him in one of my art projects. We selected jobs from A-to-Z: A for accordionist, B for bronco rider, C for carpenter, and so on. I’d do several drafts of each, set them on a table, and the residents could vote — it was a riot, and we kept changing them.

“We had all 26 exhibited at the downtown Dayton Metro Library in October, and I was able to take him. It will be shown at the Woodbourne Branch Library, at 6060 Far Hills Ave., down the street from Bethany, from June 14-July 25.”

After that project, however, Franz noted that Wally, who’d turned 101, had lost all of his memories, and he ran out of ideas to keep Wally involved and interested.

“Then, I found some old photo albums at a garage sale, and came up with the idea of imaginary relatives. I’d take a photo, cut in an interesting background, and then would ask him to give that person a name and story. Anyone who walked by could add to the imaginary story. I even posted some on Facebook, and people would add to the stories.

“He enjoyed that, but eventually, I saw I was having more fun than he was. He got confused with the imaginary relatives and tried to remember how they were related. So, I just started making imaginary photographs of him; he’s a great subject, still looks good, and doesn’t care what I do with his image now that we’ve done so much art together.”

Franz shared a book of work by various artists with Wally, and the first one Wally liked was by James Pate, a local artist who has a gallery and a current exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute. Franz copied Pate’s style of “Techno-Cubism,” drawing lines through and around Wally’s head.

“I also did one where his head is encircled with maps of where he lived and raised his family — he laughs every time I show him that picture, he thinks he looks funny, like an old man. I use the same face in every one — we have just a few now, and may do some more.

“It’s been great, so different than anything he did before, and it’s been so good to get him involved in something new. He always knows my name, but not why I came or how we’re related. But he does know the work we’ve done, so we just go through the books I’ve made of our projects and we talk about what a good job we’ve done.

“And, I’ve learned more about him — in the jobs alphabet, W was for welder, and he mentioned that he did welding, but I never knew that.

“We were recently joking about what to do for his 102nd birthday on March 4, and he thought that maybe having an accordionist or receiving 102 birthday cards to count would be fun.” People can send birthday cards to Wally Willaman, c/o Bethany Village, 927 Far Hills Ave., Dayton OH 45419.

“Wally’s advice to the elderly is ‘Just tell them that no matter how old you get, they (family) manage to squeeze some work out of you,’” said Franz. “And I guess that’s what I was doing.” But he wouldn’t take back a minute of their shared project times.

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