Though I loved watching him paint, I found Bob Ross a wee bit smarmy—like a Mister Rogers for grownups, but less earnest. Only in recent years, when I started to see his face on mugs and socks, breath mints and boxer shorts and Chia Pets (everywhere, that smile! that ’fro!) did I pay him the attention I now know he craved. And as it turns out, he was a really nice guy. He loved his son. He rehabilitated wild animals who had been injured and kept a pet squirrel called Peapod. The “happy little clouds” that now act as a meme won him millions of fans, mainly because he took such a soothing approach to art (and, they assumed, to life).
“I can make this world as happy as I want it to be,” he remarks as he paints, the footage now part of the new Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed. At the time, this felt like a promise to his audience. They, too, could find a sanctuary by painting a landscape: “It’s your creation,” he reassured them. “You can do anything here you want to do.”
Now I think Ross needed that happy place, that sense of control, for himself. Early on, he had allowed himself to be marketed by a woman who, grieving over her son’s death, came under his gentle spell and made him her project. Annette Kowalski persuaded her husband, Walt Kowalski, that Ross was a wunderkind and a potentially lucrative business partner. The Kowalskis even had Ross and his son living with them for two years.
At the time, the doc tells us, Walt had just retired from the CIA, and Ross watched with fascination as he recorded business calls with a suction cup glommed to the back of the phone. That innate suspicion made him a wily businessman. Ross had no time for such foresight; he was painting an entire landscape in twenty-eight minutes three times a day.
“We don’t make mistakes,” he reminded his PBS viewers. “We have happy accidents.”
The happy accident of teaming up with the Kowalskis would leave him with a minority share in his own business after his wife died. Now it was two against one, so Ross had no control. They made him a multimillion-dollar brand—and when he died of cancer at fifty-two, they took charge of everything he had ever done, his name, his image.
They could not, however, take charge of his son. Steve Ross sued (unsuccessfully), based on an amendment Bob made to his will near the end of his life, leaving all rights to his name, his image, and the rest of his intellectual property to his half-brother and his son. But a judge found the will irrelevant because Bob Ross Inc., controlled by the Kowalskis, already owned Bob’s name, image, and intellectual property.
Nothing was as happy or as simple as Bob made it look. His ’fro was a lie; he had his hair permed to keep the iconic image. The sinuous voice that creeped me out was a carefully rehearsed attempt to be sensuous, half-whispering his painting instructions to an imagined audience of a single woman. The fact that I never guessed tells you he was not an obvious sex symbol, but women did descend upon him in a frenzy, and he flirted and hugged them back. There was an ego at play, one he tried to hide by using the pronoun “we” instead of “I.” (That trick seldom works—for royals, newspaper editors, or celebs.)
What was true about Bob Ross was his facility with a paintbrush. He lived to paint, and thanks to the wet-on-wet technique he learned from Bill Alexander, he was stunningly fast, which made it look easy, which made all of us think we could do it. And we could, he insisted generously. “Talent is a pursued interest.” It required no sprinkles of pixie dust; you just had to want to do something and work at it.
Did he even use the word “work”? Probably not. Was the reassurance hollow? That depends on your expectations. He was not Picasso himself; his genius was making painting look playful and delightful and doable. He made one landscape after another, about thirty thousand all told, constantly dipping his brushes into a vat of toxic paint thinner so carcinogenic it probably caused his lymphoma. And still, he smiled. The New Yorker published a cartoon series about Bob Ross teaching in 2044: “Today we’ll start with a radioactive background. . . We’ll paint some little drones whipping through a thin, blanched atmosphere. Aren’t they cute? Just dab a little phthalo blue for their fear-seeking sensors. . . Now let’s paint some happy little trees. They’re holograms, but they’re still happy, doggone it.”
Is it any wonder that sleep tapes and relaxation tapes by Bob Ross are part of the Kowalskis’ empire? Reportedly, they were less excited about his last project: a children’s show, Bob’s World, that would be a wilderness version of—wait for it—Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
However sympathetic you feel toward his son, you cannot deny their success at keeping him alive. Ross’s official YouTube channel has more than a billion views. He is so culturally important, Banksy satirized him; Mountain Dew used CGI to resurrect him just long enough to do a commercial.
“In our world, we only have happy accidents,” Bob says again and again on his reruns, and the phrasing explains everything: Our world. It was just you and Bob. He spun a cocoon for the two of you, so you could paint together (or pretend to paint) and ignore everybody else. Even the Kowalskis.
The ultimate irony? Hardly anybody who got addicted to Bob Ross’s show bothered to paint. They just watched, rapt. His encouragement was comforting, like a compliment with no strings attached: “You coulda gone pro!” “You should write a book!” No expectations, no judgment. Just a happy reminder that possibilities existed. That is why so many people loved him, why a new generation is discovering him all over again, and why everybody wants a piece of him.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.