Be like Bob Ross

Mark Mederson (TheLorian)

Even if you don’t recognize the name, you likely know who Bob Ross is. All I need to say to connect the artist with his name is, “Happy little trees.” Yep. The guy with the bushy hair who painted landscapes of mountains and trees. A documentary, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed,” was released last month on Netflix, but more on that later. According to an article on the website Artnet, Ross may be the most recognizable 20th-century artist in America.

Amid a pandemic, many of us found comfort in watching television. I jumped on the bandwagon and binge-watched “Tiger King” on Netflix in March of 2020 when we all were locked in our homes, only venturing out occasionally to restock the pantry.

At first, being shuttered at home was novel, even enjoyable. Anyone with slightly introverted tendencies was feeling pretty good about staying home. But as the infection and death rates grew, that good feeling gave way to despair. We needed comfort and I (and according to Artnet, many others) found it in Bob Ross.

If you have a Samsung smart TV (I bought a 55-incher on sale at Costco right before things got bad), then you have free access to TV Plus. This is basically a low-budget line-up of cable channels. You can find more than a dozen news channels and two dozen sports channels on TV Plus. But the cool part of Plus is the channels with content that you can’t get on most cable and satellite systems. Are you a fan of “Baywatch”? There’s a channel that shows only old episodes of “Baywatch.” Do you like surfing, or fishing, or cooking? There are channels for those too. And, Bob Ross? TV Plus has a Bob Ross channel that only shows episodes of his PBS series, “The Joy of Painting.” And when things got really bad last year, this is what I wrapped myself in for comfort.

In his calming voice, the artist tells us about those happy little trees, and mountains, and clouds. But, Bob doesn’t just teach us about painting. He sprinkles in life lessons as well. One of his more famous lessons is, “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy little accidents.”

What I discovered in watching Ross is the dichotomy that existed in his painting show. He painted an entire landscape – from a blank canvas to a completed painting – in about 26 minutes. The dichotomy is, he seemed so calm and relaxed but he was actually rushing to accomplish this Herculean task. It was magical.

Last spring, I discovered that the original studio where the first episodes of Ross’s series were created is now open to visitors. From 1983 to 1988, “The Joy of Painting” was shot at WIPB, a house that had been converted into the local PBS station in Muncie, Indiana. The living room of the house had been outfitted to work as a television studio. I immediately began making plans to visit the site. I was already planning a road trip to my hometown of Louisville in July. I decided that I would take a slight detour and visit Muncie on the way. I had purchased a ticket online before I left. I arrived early for my appointed time. The Ball State University student who was working at the entrance to the house/station directed me to Oakhurst, another Ball family mansion (of the Ball Jar fortune) where about 40 of Ross’s paintings are on display.

I walked over to Oakhurst where the paintings hung on the walls upstairs. As I walked through the rooms to view the paintings, I found that nearly everyone had a story about the painting mounted next to it. I spent so much time looking at the paintings and reading the stories, I was almost late for my studio tour.

When I stepped back into the old house/station, I was directed to the living room/studio. It had been re-equipped with two large television studio cameras that were similar to the ones used at the time. There was a re-creation of the easel with one of Bob’s paintings on the stand. I discovered that Bob’s TV easel was actually a metal step ladder that he had converted into the stand that held his paintings on the show. There were paint splatters on the easel, recreating the times during most episodes when Bob would dry his brush by “beating the Devil out of it” on one of the legs. In plastic display cases, I viewed some of Bob’s actual brushes and one of the giant plexiglass palettes that he held in his left hand during each episode. I sat down and looked through a photo album with pictures of Bob and the studio crew which gave a peek behind the scenes of episodes. There was a photo of Bob and the crew eating pizza and another where they appeared to be joking around between shoots.

After I left the studio I went to the gift shop on the grounds of Minnestria. Minnestria is a collection of museums on the grounds of what was once the sprawling estate of the Ball family. The store had a whole section of shirts, socks, and other items emblazoned with Bob’s name or likeness. These are licensed and sold through BRI – Bob Ross Incorporated. The words – greed and betrayal – in the documentary film title mentioned above are referencing BRI, the company that is now making millions of dollars off Bob’s name and image.

According to the documentary, husband and wife Walt and Annette Kowalski played a role in getting Bob’s PBS series off the ground in 1983. Today, the Kowalskis own BRI and exclusive rights to the “Bob Ross” name and images. About a dozen people who worked with or were friends with Bob canceled appointments to be interviewed for the film over concerns of litigation from the Kowalskis. They would be sued if they said anything bad about Walt and Annette.

You may not even know that Ross was only 52 when he died of complications from lymphoma in 1995. That could be because the Kowalskis, according to the film, made a concerted effort to downplay the fact that Ross died. They thought it would be bad for business. You see, Walt and Annette had made some dubious legal moves to gain full rights to Bob’s name and likeness before his death. BRI now has complete control over everything “Bob Ross”, and they keep a very firm grip on that control. If you buy the Bob Ross mints or chia pet, the profit goes to Walt and Annette.

The film begins with Bob’s son, Steve, who is interviewed from his very modest home. If you watch a lot of Bob’s painting shows, then you’ve seen Steve. He occasionally filled in for his dad, giving similar painting lessons. Unfortunately, Steve gets nothing from the millions of dollars that BRI is now taking on the legacy of his dad. Steve’s only income appears to come from the painting lessons that he still occasionally gives to groups of wannabe painters.

For those of us who have watched Bob calmly rush to create magic on his “Joy of Painting” series, the thought that his legacy is under the control of the greedy and litigious Kowalskis is disappointing, to say the least.

I am not watching Bob paint his happy little trees as much this year as I did last. Although the pandemic has reared up and splashed a new wave of infection and death, the fact that I, and about half of the people in the country, have been fully vaccinated is a source of hope. In the summer of 2020, that vaccine and hope were non-existent. At a hopeless time, in 26-minute spurts, watching and listening to Bob Ross gave me comfort. While his financial legacy is tarnished by BRI, his philosophical legacy remains strong. “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy little accidents.”

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