Bob Ross might have called it a happy accident.
The itinerant painting instructor was making his way across the country in the early 1980s, looking for a place to film his work, when he walked into Muncie’s public television station. Ross asked to speak with the general manager and surveyed the surroundings. If the make-do studios of WIPB dismayed him, he never let on. Perhaps the cozy charm of the structure—a historic home repurposed for educational broadcasting—was exactly what he was looking for. Or maybe he was simply grateful to find someone who would help him get the word out about his anyone-can-do-it art classes.
Whatever brought Ross to Muncie, it was a lucky stop. From 1983 to 1994, WIPB filmed almost all 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting, distributing the half-hour program across the country and turning the bushy-haired artist into a pop-culture icon.
Ross died in 1995, but the series lives on, rerun on public television across the U.S. and broadcast in 23 countries around the world, accessible on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch. With his whisper-soft delivery, his half-hour masterpieces, and his calming insistence that everyone has talent, Ross seems like artistic kitsch personified. But last year, the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago featured his work in an exhibition, and—icing on the cake—the Smithsonian recently acquired four of his landscapes.
The L.L. Ball House where Joy was filmed is now part of the Minnetrista Cultural Center—a 40-acre campus that holds the grand homes that once belonged to the brothers who gave America the Ball jar. On October 31, Minnetrista opens The Bob Ross Experience—an exhibit devoted to the program and its star, designed to capture The Joy of Painting’s soul-affirming zeitgeist. It has been in the planning stage for more than two years, so no one could have anticipated the tumultuous events that have cast a pall over 2020. A cynic might say the current climate makes an exhibit built around Ross’s feel-good work profoundly out of touch.
But as Ross would insist, “We don’t make mistakes. We only have happy accidents.”
Most fans of The Joy of Painting don’t realize the show originated in Muncie. Neither did Jessica Jenkins, who oversees Minnetrista’s collection of historic material. She was interviewing for the job when someone mentioned offhandedly that there were a couple Bob Ross paintings in storage. “I said, ‘Hold on. Like, the PBS painter? Why would you have those?’” Likewise, George Buss, Minnetrista’s vice president of visitor experience, says he learned about the curious connection shortly after he joined the staff. “I thought, How have we not done something with this?”
The two are leading the first phase of the project—a $500,000 effort funded by private donations and a grant from the Indiana Tourism Council to create The Bob Ross Experience on the first floor of the L.L. Ball mansion. They are working with Bob Ross Inc., which owns The Joy of Painting and the Bob Ross name. There will be pictures to see and workshop space for people to flex their artistic muscles, but it won’t be a traditional art-museum exhibit. Visitors will hear his voice, read his fan mail, watch a documentary, and soak in his quotes about creativity, happiness, nature, and life.
Center stage will be the studio where Ross did his thing, recreated with Reagan- era broadcast equipment and outfitted with his easel, palette, the gigantic brush he swept across the screen at the show’s opening, even a vintage J.C. Penney shirt like those he used to wear. Buss calls it an immersive experience and says it’s aimed at getting to the heart of what the man was about. “He was trying to make art accessible to everybody, and trying to open everybody to being creative,” he says.Error: Video not found
The exhibit can’t help but take on the aura of a shrine, given some fans’ devotion. Which would certainly have amused the man whose hair, voice, and career launched a thousand parodies, and who managed to become a national celebrity while gently guarding his private life.
Robert Norman Ross grew up in Orlando, Florida. He was an indifferent student who dropped out of school, worked as a carpenter just long enough to lose a finger, then enlisted in the Air Force in 1961—a 20-year career spent mostly in Alaska.
That’s where Ross began painting landscapes; later, he was taken by the “wet-on-wet” method championed by Bill Alexander, a bombastic German-born artist who hosted The Magic of Oil Painting on PBS. He studied with Alexander, becoming so proficient that he left the military and was substitute-teaching for his mentor when he met the woman who recognized that he was more than a guy with a two-inch brush.
Annette Kowalski wasn’t a talent agent. She was a homemaker from Virginia struggling with depression after losing a child. To ease her prolonged grief, her husband, Walt, took her to Florida for a Bill Alexander workshop. Alexander had retired, and Ross was at the front of the class instead. He had disco-era hair and a velvety voice, and he demonstrated the rapid brushstrokes of the wet-on-wet technique with calm, almost hypnotic, assurance—tap-tap-tapping out greenery, adding a forest of “happy little trees,” peppering his instruction with buoyant bromides and reminding students that “Every day is a good day when you paint.”
“I was so mesmerized by Bob,” Annette told The New York Times, “I couldn’t paint.”
Before the week was out, Annette and Walt approached him with a plan. Ross went to their Washington, D.C., suburb to teach and film the fledgling episodes of what would become The Joy of Painting. But the classes were poorly attended and the show with the local PBS affiliate fell apart unfinished. So Ross and Annette hit the road, scrounging for exposure.
When the two rolled up to WIPB in a VW van, “Bob was doing workshops at the fairgrounds,” recalls Jim Needham, the station’s general manager at the time. “He wondered if we’d ever done a painting show.”
WIPB had a small staff and a facility that bore little resemblance to a real TV studio. But Needham’s station was adept at doing a lot with a little, and in three days, the content bungled by the East Coast broadcaster had been turned into a 13-episode series, which was offered by satellite to other PBS stations. Needham made a deal with the two: If 25 outlets picked up the show, they would do a second series. “We got 30 stations,” Needham says. “The next series, 60. The third, around a hundred. Then it really took off.”
Stations could air each episode as often as they liked for seven days, so viewers were discovering Joy morning, noon, and night. Needham says the most popular times seemed to be between 3 and 5 p.m. Fans remember those afternoons fondly, settling down to eat a snack, rock a baby, or roll an after-school doobie while watching the happy painter.
Annette, Walt, Ross, and his wife, Jane, became Bob Ross Inc., powered by PBS ubiquity, offering workshops, selling books and paints, and certifying others to teach his methods. Their daughter, Joan Kowalski, now president of the company, recalls the Thanksgiving when her mother tossed a tablecloth over the boxes of art supplies crammed into the family’s dining room. “My parents were all in,” she says, “off and running on a new venture.” Ross’s celebrity propelled him onto The Phil Donahue Show and into ads for MTV. He was a brand before branding was a word, so recognizable that even when he tired of his hair (that frizz was a perm), he stuck with the style.
Four times a year, Ross and Annette were in Muncie filming in “that sweet little house,” as Joan describes the L.L. Ball mansion. The station staff used Lucius Ball’s former parlor, laying down tarps and hanging black drapes—a thrifty, barebones set somehow suited to Ross’s intimate style.
He didn’t work from a script, “except the one he had in his head,” Needham says. And his inner clock was unerring about the time allotted to finish a painting (26 minutes and 47 seconds), even when Ross included a visit from a wild critter like Peapod the squirrel. He filmed one episode after another live-to-tape, droplets flying as he’d thwack a brush on the easel leg to clean it. When the paint-flecked crew needed a break, he would join them on the front steps to drink iced tea. Then they’d turn back to the business of mighty mountains, fluffy clouds, and happy trees.
Like Fred Rogers, Ross could look into the camera and deeply connect with viewers. The same was true in person. “He was our friend,” Needham says. “We looked forward to filming. We’d commit ourselves to having a week with Bob, and we loved it.” Those weeks continued when the station moved to new digs on the Ball State campus in 1988, and ended in 1994. When Ross died at home in Florida of lymphoma the next year at the age of 52, it was a shock to many. True to form, the ceaselessly happy painter hadn’t let on he was sick.
It’s not as if Minnetrista is uncovering a lost legend.
Since 1983, Ross has been a cultural constant. But he reached a new audience in 2015, when the gamer platform Twitch launched its creative channel by live-streaming The Joy of Painting in an eight-day marathon that 5.6 million viewers watched. Today, you can see Ross on any device you own, or close your eyes and chill with his voice on the meditation app Calm. The challenge for The Bob Ross Experience isn’t just to show visitors what Ross was like back in the day, but to capture what he means now.
That mystique is hard to pin down, because different people see the phenomenon differently. For some, it has always been about painting—about the creation of a majestic landscape in oil, the medium of the Old Masters. His everyone-is-an-artist conviction inspired a generation of viewers to take up a brush in the 1980s, ensuring the success of the art-supply business that Ross and the Kowalskis started. And it still does. Joan says that her company’s small staff was slammed with orders when the quarantine hit. “We were hearing from people at home, and all they wanted to do was paint,” she says. “It’s not due to any brilliant promotional genius. It’s because Bob is Bob.”
There are dissenters who don’t consider Ross’s populist approach sufficiently rigorous, since he taught with little discussion of fundamentals like composition or color theory. “You need the dark in order to show the light” is a beloved Bob-ism, and it’s true. But it’s a T-shirt motto, not a deep dive into the concept of chiaroscuro. Ross understood the fundamentals; he just didn’t need them to get his viewers engaged. He sketched Needham once, and the station manager suggested he do a drawing class on-air. Ross explained that it wasn’t something he could teach in a half-hour. “He said, ‘I’m looking at my audience,’” Needham says. “‘I do things they can do.’’’
Julie Rodrigues Widholm, former director of the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago, included Ross in last fall’s exhibit New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival. In writing about putting the program together, Wildholm notes that she had always been interested in people excluded from the canon of art history. She knows respected contemporary artists who learned about painting thanks to Joy, so she has never dismissed Ross’s influence. But even she was surprised when his canvases arrived for the DePaul exhibit. “They are really extraordinary as paintings,” she says. Widholm hopes the increased exposure helps people see him as an artist, not just a personality.
In reality, though, few viewers actually paint along when they watch Ross. That’s not to insult the man; few people actually debone a chicken along with Julia Child either. It’s just to say that the surge in interest in the past few months isn’t only about people stuck at home under quarantine, dabbing paint on canvas. There’s something bigger going on with Joy these days.
“He’s clearly filling a need,” Buss says. “In part, he gives a sense of stability in a time of uncertainty. He gives a sense of realness at a time when everything is digital. And he’s encouraging people to try something at a time when everyone has fear.” Buss compares him to Mr. Rogers (albeit a version of Mr. Rogers who might be talking to a furloughed barista). “He’s saying, ‘You’re important,’” says Buss. “‘And you can do something great right now.’”
Ross’s program isn’t about the joy of painting, Jenkins contends. “It was about being open to new things, to seeing things from someone else’s perspective. What it was for him was the joy of life.”
For Needham, the Tao of Bob that speaks to our own fractious age can be summed up by Ross’s insistence that there are “no mistakes, only happy accidents.”
“He really believed that,” Needham says. Ross assured viewers that a careless smudge on canvas wasn’t a tragedy. It could be transformed into a bird, or a cloud, or a puff of cabin smoke. “He would talk about how you could make this world what you wanted it to be. And if you think about all the things going on today, it’s really nice to be able to snuggle up to Bob and realize that, at least in this environment, I can make it something good.”
Buss, Jenkins, and the staff at Minnetrista expect the exhibit will attract visitors from far beyond Muncie. But they probably shouldn’t expend any more energy trying to figure out what it is about Ross that speaks to people now, a quarter-century after his death. Annette Kowalski has certainly given up.
The woman who discovered him is 84 now. In the summer of 2019, a team of reporters from The New York Times prepared a video feature about Ross’s paintings and the Kowalski family business. An interviewer sat down with Annette and asked the inevitable question: “Why has he become so popular in the past few years?”
There was a small sigh of exasperation. Clearly this wasn’t her first Explain Bob Ross Rodeo.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why are you here? You tell me.”
Illustration by Curt Menlo, animation by Guide and Anchor.