Landscape painter and TV personality Bob Ross, with his glorious round perm and calming demeanour, appeared on The Phil Donahue Show back in 1994. “You say out loud: Your work will never hang in a museum,” Donahue, then the king of daytime talk – as anyone of a certain age will recall – yelled into his microphone, pointing his finger at Ross (whom he admired).
“Well, maybe it will,” replied Ross, evenly. And then, ever humble and well aware of his place in the art world hierarchy, Ross added, “well, probably not the Smithsonian.”
Ross was right about so much. “There’s nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.” Or, another famous quote: “we don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” But about the fate of his work, he has been posthumously proven wrong.
Ross is having a moment. The Joy of Painting, his PBS show – where he taught what looks like a simple method of creating landscape oil paintings – still airs on public television across the United States. Twenty-five years after his death, his shows have also become a sensation on the gaming platform Twitch, and on Netflix. There are documentaries about him. He has more than four million subscribers on YouTube.
In 2019, several of Ross’s works and personal items were acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Last year also marked the first gallery-curated solo exhibition of his work, in Purcellville, Va.
Now Canada is home to his second solo show. The Penticton Art Gallery, a tiny institution in an Okanagan beach town, has created an original exhibition, Bob Ross: Happy Little Accidents.
“He was a magician,” gallery curator Paul Crawford says. “It was just the magic of it all; you take a blank canvas and pull something out of the air. … It’s such a seductive thing.”
As the weirdest summer draws to a close and the kids prepare for back to school – whatever that looks like – I decided to embark on one more adventure; the weirdest cultural road trip. It would be just a couple of days, but long enough to visit the beach, do some summertime things (bumper boats, Go-Karts) and spend some time with Bob Ross.
When I told my son, who is 11, about the plan to drive to Penticton to see the exhibition, he immediately replied: “Did you know that there’s a Bob Ross energy drink?”
No, I had not known this.
How do you know about Bob Ross, I asked him.
“Because he’s the chillest dude ever.”
My son has never seen his show.
In his quiet way, the man is an icon – even to an 11-year-old.
He is the stuff of memes, gentle parodies, and kitsch – there’s a Bob Ross Chia pet, a waffle iron, the energy drink.
“Even though Bob Ross is gone, his positive energy drink is here to give you a boost when you need it,” reads the online description. It’s recommended for people who like: “beverages,” “gifts for the inner child,” “strange stuff.”
Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1942 and served in the U.S. Air Force. He took painting classes while stationed in Alaska. In the 1980s, a PBS station in Falls Church, Va., gave him a shot at hosting an instructional painting show, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Bill Alexander, host of The Magic of Oil Painting, who had since left television.
Using what Alexander called a “wet-on-wet” oil painting technique and uttering soothing encouragement, Ross – working against a plain black set – painted mountains, rivers, trees, completing each landscape in under 30 minutes, while offering calm instructions, along with life lessons, to his viewers. It was the unlikeliest formula for television success. And yet. The Joy of Painting – which, as of Season 2, was produced by WIPB in Muncie, Ind. – drew a huge following and his simple instructional show was picked up by hundreds of PBS affiliates. Many Canadians – like Crawford, in Vancouver – grew up watching it, too.
“I came across it and got sucked into it. It was like a murder mystery; you have to stick around to the end to see what happens,” says Crawford, 50, who credits Ross in part with turning him on to art.
“It just sort of planted the seed with me.”
Ross completed 31 seasons or series, each with 13 episodes. He had hoped to do a 32nd season but was too ill. Ross died from lymphoma on July 4, 1995. He was 52.
On July 4, 2020, Bob Ross: Happy Little Accidents opened in Penticton, in a gallery on the shore of Okanagan Lake, with mountain views that would have delighted Ross. The show was supposed to open in March, but was delayed because of COVID-19. In less than two months, more than 10,000 people have visited the show and they’re on track for a record-breaking 15,000.
The gift shop is doing a brisk business. Looking at the Ross landscapes in person, I felt an unusual desire to paint and inquired after the Bob Ross Paint-By-Numbers set. Sold out. Along with the Bob Ross tote bags and bobble heads.
All of this is in spite of the absence of international tourists, and the fact that attendance is kept limited for physical distancing. Every time I went by the gallery during my short visit, people were queuing outside.
As soon as we walked into the building, we encountered a woman bursting with emotion, having just seen the show.
“I remember some of those paintings; I remember those actual episodes,” said Michelle Panton, 40, who had watched the show with her family every Sunday, growing up in Surrey, B.C.
She and her father had driven from Vancouver that morning, bringing along her own Bob Ross Pez dispenser (she offered a candy to my son; I forced him to decline: #pandemic). They were turning around to return to Vancouver that afternoon. Nearly 10 hours of driving to see some landscape paintings, each made in about half-an-hour.
It was worth it, they both said.
At the centre of the exhibition is an area set up to look like a 1980s TV room – loud patterned couch, clashing rug and other era-appropriate furnishings (borrowed from Habitat for Humanity) – with Bob Ross being broadcast from the very contemporary flat-screen.
Then, the paintings. They represent all of the genres, calendar seasons and TV seasons, with the exception of Season 3.
Ross did three paintings for each episode: the initial one, where he worked out what he was going to do prior to the show, using it for a reference off-camera; the one he made on camera, in 26 minutes or so; and the final painting, done afterward, used for the closing shot (and for his books). In every case but one, the works in the show are those final “book” paintings.
For the wall plaques, Crawford extracted quotes from the episode in which the work was made. The plaque for Pretty Autumn Day, 1992 (Season 24, Episode 5) states: “I’m a firm believer that you can do anything in life that you believe you can do, not just on this canvas. Anything, as long as you believe.”
One painting has particular resonance here. First Snow, 1992 (Season 26, Episode 3): “I spent a little time up in British Columbia a while back, and they have some of the most gorgeous mountains like this,” the plaque states. “I just absolutely adore them.” (Another B.C. connection: Alexander, Ross’s predecessor, wound up retiring in Powell River.)
The final painting in the exhibition is the last one Ross made on The Joy of Painting, and the one work in this show that is the made-on-camera version. Wilderness Day, 1994 (Season 31, Episode 13) features trees in the foreground, including one completely stripped of its leaves, a mountain far away, and the hint of a hazy sunset. “Experiment. Just do crazy things. What’s the worst thing that can happen? On this canvas – nothing,” reads the plaque.
Ross is certainly iconic, but his work is another matter. These landscapes are familiar, but hardly provocative or groundbreaking. They might be nice to look at (depending on your taste) but whether they belong in a museum – or even a small public art gallery – is another matter. Crawford acknowledges these might not be “great” paintings, but he pooh-poohs those who would pooh-pooh his show.
“Our challenge is to get people in the doors today. And I think the more we distance ourselves from the average person and make it inaccessible to people, what’s going to be our purpose of existence?” says Crawford, who has fielded calls about the show from across Canada and the U.S. “There’s a lot of people who love this. And who am I to tell somebody this isn’t a good painting? If it rocks your world, you come here and it brings you to tears? Fantastic.”
And if Bob Ross is “the cannabis of the art world” – the gateway drug to something more obscure – that’s great, too, Crawford says.
This may also be an optimal time for simple pleasures, for pretty pictures that remind you of your childhood, that give you a break from the uncertainty all around us created by the pandemic and other difficult contemporary issues.
“It’s the perfect antidote for all the crap that’s going on in the world,” is how Crawford puts it.
“We need more stuff like this; we need more escapes and we need to have license so we can just tune out for a while and be happy. Why do we always have to look at art as morose? There’s enough misery in our lives.”
Editor’s note: (Sept. 1, 2020): An earlier version of this article included an incorrect photo caption for one of the paintings.
Bob Ross: Happy Little Accidents is at the Penticton Art Gallery until Sept. 13, 2020.