Bob Ross is one of the world’s most famous artists. Few people have ever seen his paintings. Although he created them on public television, completing one canvas on each 26-minute episode of The Joy of Painting between 1983 and 1994, they weren’t exhibited during his lifetime. More than a thousand remain warehoused in Herndon, Virginia even today.
Tomorrow two dozen of them will go on view up the road from Herndon in the town of Purcellville. Organized by the Franklin Park Arts Center and Bob Ross Inc., the exhibit is modest – appropriately so given that Ross never tried to put his work in a gallery or museum. (He believed they had plenty of exposure on TV.) For Ross fanatics, some of whom have spent years trying unsuccessfully to acquire an original for sale on eBay (and who were disappointed when the Smithsonian acquired several works but declined to display them), it will be a rare encounter with artifacts of a man they revere. Some people may find the experience moving, like communion with a holy relic. But Ross was right not to care about exhibition. His landscapes are monotonous, and all the more so when shown in abundance. What is astonishing is Ross’s performance. The unremarkable paintings are an enticement to discover what was so remarkable on screen.
Ross loved nature, and sought to portray it in an upbeat way. “We want happy paintings,” he explained in one episode. “If you want sad things, watch the news.” Nature was an escape, and the escape was made on canvas. “Almighty mountains” were a stock in trade, as were “big old trees”. Even if the formula was ecologically unsophisticated – and demonstrably formulaic according to statistical analysis on the website FiveThirtyEight – the encouragement Ross gave people to escape their everyday reality is worthy of deep respect. By teaching painting, Ross was instructing people to reengage their imagination.
The implications become more evident the more that you watch and listen to his preternaturally soothing voice. The blank canvas was presented as a space to take agency and begin exploring how that agency might be deployed in the world. “Find freedom on this canvas,” he implored viewers at one point. “In painting, you have unlimited power. You have the ability to move mountains. You can bend rivers.”
His meaning was literal – as he demonstrated by shuffling landscape features with his brush – and also metaphorical. The world is mutable, but enacting change depends on envisioning what you want and working toward it. “The secret to doing anything is believing that you can do it,” Ross said in his inimitably folksy way. “Anything that you believe you can do strong enough, you can do. Anything.”
Ross’s confidence seems at first to be dangerously Pollyanna, and his emphasis on happiness appears to encourage denial of real-world troubles (beginning with the state of the natural world, which wasn’t very happy even in the 1980s). Saccharine sweet, his kitsch paintings can have that lulling effect. However the pursuit of happiness for Ross was actually an appeal to core values: to examine what would truly make us happy as individuals and a civilization. It’s a call to recognize the responsibilities inherent in freedom, responsibilities demanding hard work and regular practice.
Yet Ross was careful also not to equate happiness with perfection, lest inevitable imperfections become excuses for inaction. “We don’t make mistakes,” he told his viewers. “We just have happy accidents.” Happiness was simultaneously a vision of betterment and the practice of tolerance.
“If I paint something, I don’t want to have to explain what it is,” Ross once said. He never had to, since his artistic skill was always sufficient to the task at hand and his artistic ambitions were sufficiently limited. But what he explained is worth much more than the hoard of 1,165 paintings in Herndon, Virginia. Ross was a philosopher who communicated with a brush. The paintings are mere backdrops.