If “zen” was a movie, he’d probably be on the poster for it. Perhaps then, between insurrections, contested elections, deadly pandemics and weekly mass shootings, there’s good reason he’s more popular than ever. Indeed, last year at the height of the pandemic, reruns of his show were the top-rated shows on the BBC in Britain. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for Bob Ross.
Ross might just be the most famous American painter. And the most critically panned one as well. But the dude with the big afro is a lot more than that. He’s a source of quiet relaxation for many and inspiration for millions more.
Ross, for the few uninitiated, was a painter from Florida who rose to fame in the 1980s with a half-hour TV show on PBS. In the 11-year run of The Joy of Painting (sometimes renamed things like “Bob Ross Painting” in re-runs) he became something of a cult figure, a stature only heightened since his unfortunate death from cancer in 1995. These days one can find Bob Ross bobbleheads, Bob Ross coffee mugs, Bob Ross calendars, Bob Ross coloring books, books of Bob Ross sayings…there’s even a Bob Ross chia pet for those who want their very own ugly clay Ross-head with a green afro!
The magic of Bob was two-fold. One was that he did a surprisingly good painting, generally landscapes, from start to finish in each half-hour show. Two, and perhaps more importantly, he did it while chatting away in a friendly and low-key way that defined “laid back”. Compared to Ross, the crowd at a Jimmy Buffett show would seem wound-up and out of control. Ross loved wildlife and from time to time would interrupt his show to bring in a little squirrel he’d rescued from a busted tree or film of some animal he’d seen outside. He painted serene settings, more often than not containing some mountains, a little lake and some trees… needed a place for the happy little squirrels to live, after all. Viewers began to love – and perhaps make drinking games out of – his regular little quotes like “happy little trees” and “we don’t make mistakes, just have happy little accidents.”
Surprisingly for such an incredibly laid-back guy, Bob was largely shaped by the Air Force. He signed up young and rose to the ranks of seargent. For several years he was assigned to a base in Alaska. He loved the scenery there and decided to try and capture that and share it for others. But he hated the job, per se. He had to be “the guy who makes you scrub the latrines, the guy who screams at you for being late.” He decided once done with the military he wasn’t going to be “that” guy again.
Ross had a real flair for painting, and a well-trained artist’s eye for lighting. He also had a gift for teaching simple techniques to the masses…and for irritating critics. He took some art courses and found instructors were big into minimalism and abstract – not his brand of folksy realism. “If I paint something, I don’t want to have to explain what it is,” he said. Over the years, he painted an estimated 30 000 canvases. What they lacked in diversity (there were an awful lot of paintings of mountain lakes, forest trails, cabins in the woods and the like) he made up for in charm, and broad appeal.
The magic of Bob Ross though, was that he showed us it was OK to do something we enjoy, even if we aren’t very good at it. It’s OK to have pictures on the wall that you like and tell a story no matter what art critics might think of them. You could be a surgeon or air traffic controller, but when you got home, you could “chillax” and do something where your screw up was soon rectified and turned into a “happy little accident.” I can guess that thousands upon thousands of people have taken up painting, or other arts because of his influence and his reassurance that you don’t have to be great at something to make it worthwhile. And certainly thousands upon thousands more get reprieves from the daily stresses of the world by laying back, watching his little trees and cabins take shape and wondering if this will be one of the extra-lucky weeks where he has a baby squirrel on his shoulder.
So if you’re bored, or stressed out this weekend, why not think of Bob? Pick up a canvas and a brush. Or maybe a sketchbook and some pencils. Or even just head out to the garage with an old guitar. Have some fun, be a little creative and be content in the moment.