Who was Bob Ross? Was he the gently soothing voice behind a Brillo-haired perm, mapping out happy clouds and trees on canvases for TV’s The Joy of Painting in the ’80s and ’90s? Or was there more to the story?
The Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed, attempts to dig past the serene surfaces, and uncovers perhaps more than it bargained for.
Ross, who died in 1995, left behind an iconic presence, something prized both by ironic and non-ironic devotees. It partly derived from his appearance, sporting a huge Afro, open-button shirt and general hippie mellowness on-camera. It was partly the easy repetitiveness of his canvases, which — say what you will, art critics — came from a steely focus and discipline, earning a few of his works a place in the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection.
And it was also something about showmanship. He was like a magician who only revealed his tricks, devoting each half-hour show to producing a completed work on camera, delivering frequent mellow asides as he worked in that patented “Bob whisper” (something that’s earned him a reputation as the “Godfather of ASMR” by young advocates of auto sensory meridian response — kids who swear by audio recordings of gentle whispering, fingernails gently tapping on wood or plastic, or the crinkling of certain fabrics that offer soothing comfort).
About that voice. Was it as natural as his hairstyle? Women fans were apparently soothed — and yes, seduced — by his slow speech patterns as he spread the paint around the canvas. There are different explanations for how he came to adopt it. Ross himself said that, when he left the military and its braying drill instructors, he vowed never again to raise his voice.
The documentary also suggests he was consciously trying to develop a speaking voice that was less abrasive than his mentor, Bill Alexander, a chattier TV predecessor who taught him his “wet-on-wet” paint technique. Either way, the chill vibe fit with the times, and The Joy of Painting series became a huge hit globally.
His basic message was, anybody can do what he was doing: create imaginary landscapes, and create art. It was enormously empowering to fans.
Born in Daytona Beach, Florida, Ross was the antithesis of the “Florida Man” we keep reading about these days: no sordid tales of alligators, strippers or meth deals gone bad on his résumé. His story’s about as far from Tiger King as it gets.
Turns out Ross — a former Air Force recruit who was stationed in the open Alaskan wilderness for a decade — was as Zen-like and chill in real life as his televised art persona. His basic message was, anybody can do what he was doing: create imaginary landscapes, and create art. It was enormously empowering to fans.
And he passed away early, from cancer at age 52, leaving behind not only a subtle but lasting impression, but an avalanche of Bob Ross branded products on the market — and, as it turns out, a pile of lawsuits in his wake.
As documentary producers and longtime Bob Ross fans Melissa McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone found out, those lawsuits could land pretty close to home.
She tells NPR the directors had about 40 people they wanted to contact to interview the film, but “only one” agreed. The rest feared legal action from Ross’ former business partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski, who staked the artist’s early teaching classes, steered his rise to televised fame, and handled what would become a prodigious merchandising empire — producing and selling everything from branded sketchpads, easels, brushes and paints, to Bob Ross Chia Pets or a toaster that produced toast branded with the artist’s smiling visage.
The Kowalskis, according to the documentary, were very skilled at handling the artist’s fortune — particularly his name and image — squeezing every last drop of Bob Ross magic from the tube.
But as Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed paints it, not a cent of that money went to Bob’s son Stevie or the Ross family, despite court battles. In fact, McCarthy and Falcone wonder aloud to NPR whether they’ll be facing a lawsuit for even making a documentary about the man, or talking about him.
Of course, the Bob Ross image now echoes through eternity. He’s routinely referenced in pop culture — whether it’s Family Guy or Ryan Reynolds channeling the Zen master painter in a Deadpool teaser. He’s an embodiment of cool that’s only half-ironic.
Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed won’t necessarily make you appreciate the lasting impact of Bob Ross’ work on art history — though he has inspired countless thousands to pick up paintbrushes for the first time to battle depression, illness, or simply to find their own mode of self-expression through the relaxing rhythms of painting.
But it may make you think twice before purchasing a Bob Ross coffee mug or T-shirt, knowing the profits will probably never go to the artist’s family.
Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed is on Netflix.