Bob Ross the Dreamer Got a Rude Awakening

Bob Ross may have died over two decades ago at the age of 52, but the memory of the man continues to linger on in pop culture as a symbol of all that’s good and comforting in the world. 

Directed by Joshua Rofé, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed has already been slammed by Bob Ross Inc. — one of the villains of the film — as “inaccurate and heavily slanted.” That criticism seems overblown, since the filmmaker has clearly spoken to a wide cross section of people in the painter’s life, and the story he tells is rich and varied. 

Where I believe the film goes wrong is by continuing to perpetuate the image of Ross as an innocent figure who could do little wrong, offering us just another soothing image of everyone’s favorite ASMR painter, who wielded a palette knife in the way chefs handle their culinary tools, with speed and mad skills. But the bigger question here is why does Ross appear so naive? Did he not know what he was doing with the business of his TV show?

Ross clearly loved to paint, and his mission to bring that passion to the people was partly successful. Yet, Ross comes across as more Pollyanna than ever in the film as he conjures up happy clouds, silhouetted trees, and rough mountains all within 26-minute slots. You quickly realize how much his show worked like a visit to a soothing friend or counsellor who just wants to tell you everything is going to be ok. 

At the heart of the Bob Ross myth is the belief that anyone can learn to paint, which has become pop culture catnip in the last few decades: think Ratatouille (2007) or graffiti or even social media, where everyone is a “creator” nowadays and gatekeepers are seen as an evil that needs to be overcome. Ross promoted this attractive idea that anyone can be an artist to a mass audience that still saw art as very much elitist and exclusionary, and while as a straight White man he wasn’t really being structurally excluded, as a landscape painter in Alaska (where there is a strong tradition of this, particularly in Fairbanks) he wasn’t exactly what the art world at the time was clamoring to see.

The documentary doesn’t try to suggest that Ross was unique, which is refreshing, and they mention William Alexander, another TV artist who convinced Ross to see painting as an awe-inspiring thing done for the camera. Ross took what Alexander did and made it sexier. As the film explains, Joy of Painting came at a time when Joy of Cooking and Joy of Sex were revolutionizing American culture with their how-to guides to things people did naturally every day. The success of Ross is illustrated by his many media appearances, and in one case talk show pioneer Donahue introduces Ross to his studio audience as “the most famous painter in the history of the universe.” Not quite, but ok.

For over a decade (403 episodes over 31 seasons, lasting from 1983 to 1994), Bob Ross grew his reputation while his partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski, grew the business. The documentary leaves you with a bad aftertaste as you realize how the Kowalskis legally robbed the Ross family of the estate, severing their connection to a legacy that continues to inspire people to pick up a brush. 

An advertisement in the shape of a palette for Gen. Tom Thumb’s Museum in 19th-century New York City. The figure of Zoe Meleke, one of the “Circassian Beauties,” is typical of the moss-like haired White women that were part of sideshows during the period. In this ad it means Meleke will appear with her “performing canary birds.” (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

One thing I haven’t been able to understand about Bob Ross was his decision to perm his hair, which has become his calling card of sorts. Why he chose to do that is unclear, and it certainly wasn’t a common thing for White American men to do in the 1980s. During a time period when afros, a word Ross’s son uses to describe his dad’s hair in the film, were associated with Black power and liberation, the choice seems particularly interesting. It makes me wonder if the appeal of Ross’s afro-like perm wasn’t connected to a longer fascination in the American imagination with racial hierarchies. In the 19th century, there was a popular American sideshow attraction called “Circassian Beauties.” These women, who appeared White, and were almost never Circassian, were a creation of the P.T. Barnum and his masterful skill at mining American anxieties and curiosities for profit. He would enlist pretty young women and have them wash their hair in beer to appear “moss-like.” These women almost all had names that began with the letter Z and attracted audiences during the second half of the 19th century, when they clearly appealed to White Americans and their fascination with race, slavery, and the Orient. The fictional Circassian women created for US audiences also plugged into larger fantasies about “White slavery,” and it’s worth mention that it is the same year that the Civil War concluded that the first Circassian Beauty appeared in a sideshow. Is Bob Ross’s appeal tied to that larger fascination in US culture? Was there a subconscious stirring of this longer circus tradition in the way audiences embraced the curiosity of Ross’s fake curls? Is the fact that a man was donning the hair particularly titillating for fans? There are lots of questions around his hair, but few answers, and not something the documentary explores. I’ll add, would this have been seen as a form of appropriation today?

What I didn’t expect was to learn why Bob Ross actually loved to paint. At one point he explains, “It’s the only place in my whole life I had total freedom,” which is a peculiar thing to say when elsewhere we don’t exactly see what was holding him back, and from what exactly was he not free? It’s a head scratcher and something I wish the documentary explained. But that feeling of escape does capture the general mood of the Joy of Painting and the allure it continues to have. It also explains partly why Ross may have turned a blind eye to the business of what he was doing, preferring to escape to his canvases for refuge when reality got too difficult to deal with. 

Yet, his freedom came with a price. When things fell apart during his long illness from lymphoma, and eventual death, the Kowalskis, who would play down news of his illness and didn’t even attend his funeral, pounced and convinced Ross’s half brother, Jimmie Cox, to sign away his rights (he owned 51% of the estate).

The tale of Bob Ross serves, in part, as a warning for all the dreamers. Seduced by the idea of the artist as hero, Ross wielded his paints and palette knife like a Greek mythological figure using waxen feathers to fly closer to the sun. What Ross didn’t realize, like Icarus before him, was that the thrill always comes with a price. Art, he ultimately may have realized, isn’t an escape from reality but a lens through which we see and experience it with more intensity. Ross’s legacy, built on a beautiful fiction that anyone can be an artist, was faced with the reality that artists can be exploited, and are — just like everyone else. Now if we could only build a system that protects the dreamers in our midst from the cruel reality of waking up.

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is available on Netflix.

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