April 2019: Fran Baker Bayless '47

“The ideal artist is one who knows everything, feels everything, experiences everything and retains his or her experience in a spirit of wonder and feeds up on it with creative lust.” It is easy to see why this quote from painter George Bellows is a favorite of Fran Baker Bayless ’47. Fran reared her two daughters, Margaret Bayless ’74 and Nancy Bayless Cross ’77, and taught Kindergarten at Laurel for nearly twenty years before finding an outlet for her artistic dreams. A trip to Antarctica led her to discover her passion for wildlife photography and at the age of 62, Fran started studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Now in her ninth decade and still braving Antarctic temperatures for the perfect shot (see them at www.worldnaturephotos.net), Fran’s work has been featured in countless galleries and exhibitions. She has been a guest artist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was the first female wildlife photographer to be published in Kodak’s professional magazine and is featured in Dr. Sylvia Rimm’s book How Jane Won: 55 Successful Women Share How They Grew from Ordinary Girls to Extraordinary Women. Read on to learn more about Fran’s adventures and head to The Federated Church’s art gallery (76 Bell Street, Chagrin Falls, OH) to view Fran’s work on display through the end of May.

What your fondest memories from your time as a student at Laurel?
I entered Laurel in Eleventh Grade—far too late, but my memories are numerous and have guided me throughout my adult life. The faculty, scholastic excellence, friendships and the new and motivating opportunities gave me the self-confidence to explore and achieve in so many areas. The presence of Miss Lake greeting us every morning upon arrival and sending us on our way after school always assured me that I was in the right place at the right time.

How did growing up during and immediately after World-War II influence the woman you are today?
Due to the shortages and lack of resources (food, clothing, fuel), I learned how to budget my time, money, products and maintain the household, along with managing school, homework and other activities. It was a very difficult time but I learned that through thought, patience, kindness and determination all is possible.

You’ve had a long relationship with the School—as an alum, as a longtime Kindergarten teacher and as a parent to two Laurel alumnae. What would you say has changed the most since your own student days and what has stayed the same?
Laurel has always been known for scholastic excellence as it is today. A broader and more inclusive staff and student make-up has been a wonderful change. And the Butler Campus has certainly opened new and exciting educational and physical development opportunities.

What prompted you, in the early 1990s, to enroll in photography classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art?
My late husband, Tom, and I frequently took our daughters on camping trips. I gave them cameras to capture our experiences, but it never occurred to me to pick up a camera. After our girls were grown up, Tom gave me my very first-ever camera, a small “point and shoot,” and my life changed. From my first roll of film, I was amazed at the wonderful images that could be captured. So, at the age of 62 I started taking photography classes (from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm daily!) at the Cleveland Institute of Art under the then-head of the photography department, Bob Palmer. Art school absolutely fulfilled the creative need I had.

You’ve traveled the world—from the Galapagos Islands to the Kalahari Desert of Africa to Australia and the Amazon. Wildlife photographs from your travels have been featured in countless galleries and exhibitions. What about the power of photography speaks to you and what message do you hope to share with those viewing your work?
In my images, I wish to portray a personal contact so that the viewers are able to relate to and enjoy the natural activity and beauty of the subjects. Really, I want to convey a story without words. I hope that my images inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature and all living creatures. Photography as an art has brought the wonder of the world to me and I am ever grateful. It is the ultimate thrill and also very humbling to know that individuals enjoy or relate to my work enough to hang my images in their homes to enjoy the beauty of the world.

Happy 90th birthday! You returned from your 14th trip to Antarctica earlier this month. Can you share with us a little about what Antarctica means to you?
It all began with my fourth grade teacher, Edith Turner. During geography class, she would talk about a special place at the bottom of the earth called Antarctica—a cold and lonely place about which little was known, and where few would dare to venture. Thus, my very first dream was formed and I carried it in my heart and imagination for many, many years. When our two daughters were married, Tom announced that we were going to Antarctica. Stepping off the boat onto the continent for the first time was a dream come true. Tears of joy and wonder froze on my cheeks. That was the beginning of many trips to various locations in Antarctica, including a visit to the South Pole.

What are some of the biggest challenges of photographing wildlife?
There is no easy shot when you are photographing in the wild. So much of it is being in the right place at the right time. I feel strongly about respecting the animals and the environment. I never use a flash and try to be very low key, never disturbing or interfering with the animals. Because I never try to create a situation for a good picture, I spend hours observing. Once in Botswana I made eye contact with a leopard for almost half an hour before I captured the photograph. In Antarctica, I sit among the penguins. They are very curious creatures and, after a short time, they accept us into their lives.
Below the Antarctic Circle, maintaining a healthy body temperature and keeping eyes shaded are the paramount considerations. On days when it is 50 to 60 degrees below zero, we have to dig our tents out of the snow---but slowly to avoid perspiring, which would cause wet clothing. Food intake is most important in maintaining a proper core temperature---6,000 calories a day is the norm, so I eat frozen butter like candy bars. Needless to say, butter is no longer on my list of favorite foods. I have survived a hippo attack, an alpha lion sleeping at my tent door, 50-foot waves, 100-mile-an-hour winds and wild airplane and helicopter rides. It all adds to the excitement of the adventure and the daring needed to take that awesome photograph.

Did anything in your youth prepare for this later life of adventure?
When our children were young, we spent our summers as a family backpacking throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. Those experiences gave me a great appreciation for grand scenery, nature and wildlife.

To what do you attribute your ability to stay active? How do you stay physically and mentally fit?
Keeping physically and mentally strong is a daily challenge. I aim to read one book a week and keep active with swimming, hiking, dancing at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Chagrin Falls, gardening, taking care of my dog and cat and enjoying the company of friends and family.

Photography isn’t the only thing that has kept you busy. You’ve been involved with various volunteer endeavors from Rotary International to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. What drives you to give so much back to the community?
The concept of community service began for me as a young child helping a physically challenged neighbor. Service always has been an absolute part of my life and faith. I served as Rotary International District 6630’s Governor in 2008-09, which opened up so many opportunities to serve, especially with the polio eradication program and in building wells internationally. I am proud to have been only the second women to be Governor in 75 years and am thrilled that since my term, three more women have been elected Governor. The theme during my Governorship was “Make Dreams Real,” which reminds me of Laurel’s motto to “Dream. Dare. Do.” Travelling the world, I have seen so much poverty. Helping and aiding those in need is a natural part of my life.

So what’s next? :)
I would like to travel to Borneo to photograph orangutans!
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