Last week I was really sick. I had one of those illnesses (some sort of evil virus?) that made me weep when I tried to swallow and spiked my temperature. In the morning, I went upstairs to get dressed and inadvertently took a two-hour nap. One of those.
Lucky for me, my husband was home to take care of me. He made me lunch and turned on the TV, searching for something that might distract me a little from my misery. Bingo: The Joy of Painting. Just moments into the show, my husband noted that I was smiling for the first time all day. That, readers, is the power of Bob Ross.
I came into the show maybe five or ten minutes after it had started. Ross was in the beginning stages of painting a seascape with a dramatic, orange sunset. He was painting “happy little clouds” floating over the sea. He reminded us that their only job is to float happily in the sky. It’s mesmerizing to watch the man paint. Slowly, waves and rocks and sand and light began to appear on his canvas. It was like magic.
Bob Ross is no secret. Talk to any hipster out there and you’ll probably get something along the lines of “He’s hilarious” or an ironic “I love him.” But that sort of irony undervalues the man, I think. He’s deserving of our appreciation, rather than our mockery or outright dismissal. No, I don’t think his work should be included in the canon. No, the aesthetic of his paintings is not what I’m going for in my own home art collection. But that’s not the point.
Ross is a rare example of someone who seems to utterly lack pretension and I find that so refreshing. He paints for us, celebrating the dreamy landscapes he envisions as well as the potency of art and its ability to transport us—to conjure up before us those magical worlds that lurk in the corners of our imaginations. And we are given access to this freely on public television? How fabulous! Would that we all had such a pure approach to life and art and beauty.
Ross’s persona is especially interesting when you learn a little bit about his biography. Ross was in the Air Force for twenty years, stationed in Alaska. He became a first sergeant, and reportedly hated the need to command others by yelling at them. Surely his gentle, happy persona was in part a reaction to that. He learned a fast “wet-on-wet” painting technique during his time in the Air Force, and quickly began painting the natural wonders he saw around him in Alaska. The rest is history. His show The Joy of Painting premiered in 1983 and remained popular until his death in 1995. He was tremendously successful, and a commercial business sprung up around his show. He sold books and videos and painting supplies. A “Certified Bob Ross” painting technique emerged, and one can become a Certified Bob Ross Instructor.
Clearly, then, the joys of Bob Ross and his paintings are not lost on the general public. His soft demeanor and his landscapes that unabashedly celebrate the beauty of nature are appreciated by a wide swath of the population. Still, among the intelligentsia, Ross is a little bit of a joke, which I think is small-minded and unfair. Watching Jackson Pollock moodily drip paint on the ground with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth will not bring a smile to my face when I’m sick. Ross’s “happy little clouds” will. I think there’s something to be said for that.