“Bob Ross, 52, dies; was a television painter.” That was the headline on July 13, 1995 New York Times Obituary section. No headline, no picture. Just a blurb.
Yes, that Bob Ross. The white man with the Afro and the soft voice, who painted landscapes for the PBS show incredibly quickly and beautifully The joy of painting, and which has now become a fascination for pop culture. How did he do it? Who was he exactly? And what happened to him?
Such questions are the subject of the documentation, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, produced by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone.
In the early days of the pandemic, they looked for a project and thought about doing a biopic about Ross, which they admire very much (they even have a toaster that burns Bob’s likeness into a piece of bread). But when the two began researching Ross, surprised to find fascinatingly little information about him, they switched to a documentary that teamed up with filmmakers Joshua Rofé and Steven Berger, who began the investigation. That investigation resulted in many closed doors: more than a dozen people close to Ross declined to speak to the filmmakers for fear of retaliation. Even the filmmakers themselves have been warned not to go too far.
The story told in Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is sad and confusing, full of personable characters including Kathwren and Gary Jenkins, two of Ross’ cohorts in the painting world who have been influenced by the same forces as him. It is also an incomplete picture of Ross himself, which, like us, all contained contradictions in spades.
But it is possibly Bob’s son Steve Ross who stands out the most. Impressed by his father’s paintings, Steve followed in his footsteps and lived his life as an artist and teacher, even appearing in the exhibition from time to time. This story is as much Steve’s as Bob’s, and he has had to live with some harsh realities since his father’s death.
Ross had an unusual technique of painting landscapes from memory. Many of these scenes showed Alaska where he was stationed during his military service. His first pictures were on old metal pans of gold diggers that he painted with his wife Vicky, sometimes he stayed up until the early hours of the morning to complete projects before he had to go to work the next day.
One day he saw a video of William Alexander who had a television show in which he was quickly painting landscapes using a wet-on-wet technique. He couldn’t believe anyone could paint that fast, but after studying with Alexander for about a year, Ross developed his own technique and reduced his time per picture to just 30 minutes. In contrast to Alexander’s cheeky, high-pitched voice, he took on a calm and calm personality. He began to travel the country, giving lessons alongside Alexander and selling painting utensils on the side.
How did Ross transform into the calming icon who painted landscapes on public television? Annette Kowalski, already an accomplished painter, visited Ross and was enthusiastic. She and her husband Walter, a retired CIA agent, partnered with Ross. He would be the talent and they would be the people thinking of ways to raise money. But money wasn’t the only driver that changed things; even the hobby art scene had its scandals. As Gary Jenkins noted at the time, “Everyone slept with everyone.”
According to Steve, the bob you see on TV is a pretty accurate representation of the man himself: a kind soul who loved nature and animals. He was an artist, but he was also a man with a business acumen. The money he made from the company allowed him to pursue other interests, such as rehabilitating wild animals, starting a children’s television show, and driving around in his 1969 Corvette. But as the documentary illuminates, things started to fall apart around it.
The joy of painting aired on PBS for 31 seasons over 11 years, 1983-1994. Bob Ross: Happy accidents draws a fascinating story of human error while also showing how Ross’ legacy lives on. Ross is loved; Kitsch aside, he really cared about people and helped thousands discover passions and skills they didn’t know had within them. He believed talent was just a pursued interest and anyone could paint. This was a view he consistently expressed on television and in person. He often said, “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.” TV 14. 92M. NETFLIX.
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