It's the world's biggest museum exhibition of Bob Ross paintings. So how'd it wind up in B.C.?
Few have seen these happy little landscapes in person, and they're in Penticton all summer
When a shipment of paintings from Bob Ross, Inc. arrived at the Penticton Art Gallery, Paul Crawford realized he was looking at mountains and meadows and "happy little trees" that few, if any, had seen in decades.
"It was crazy opening them up," says Crawford, the curator at the PAG. "I don't think they'd seen the light of day since they were put in the boxes. They still smelled of turpentine."
To September 13, Penticton — a city of 33,000 in the Okanagan Valley — will be one of the only places in the world where you can find an authentic Bob Ross. And the solo exhibition, Happy Little Accidents, is the largest of its kind to happen anywhere to date. Still, with more than 30 Bob Ross originals on view, the selection is nothing — a mere drop in the babbling brook — when you consider the volume Ross produced on The Joy of Painting alone.
'Let's get crazy'
Between 1983-94, the series taped 403 episodes out of a local PBS station in Muncie, Ind. And beyond the occasional guest appearance — from Bob's son Steve or Peapod the Squirrel — the program's lulling, low-budget formula never really wavered.
In half an hour, Ross would conjure an original painting, pictures he actually created in triplicate for each episode. One painting was a reference image; another was for publication (instructional books were a pillar of the original Bob Ross empire, a business that was reportedly worth $15 million US by 1991). And the third piece materialized as the cameras rolled.
It's those canvases — familiar landscapes of nowhere in particular — that countless viewers have admired from home. But beyond the screen, these original works have rarely, if ever, been on view. Though Ross was known to occasionally donate his work to PBS stations, he didn't sell the paintings made on the program, and Bob Ross, Inc. — the company that manages his intellectual property — has never been in the business of dealing art. Originals are not for sale through BRI. Instead, you can buy Bob Ross jigsaw puzzles, novelty socks, even Fun Dip-style powdered candy (the Bob Ross "Flavor Palette"). On rare occasions, an authentic landscape will appear on the market. (This gallery, based in Minneapolis, has made a passion project of acquiring them.)
If you want to see an actual painting, traditionally there's only been one reliable option. A collection can be found in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., home to the Bob Ross Art Workshop and Gallery since 1992. But the motherlode's stored at BRI headquarters. Last year, the New York Times journeyed to their office in Herndon, Va., and made a charming, bite-sized documentary that solved the mystery of the missing landscapes. (Some 1,165 Bob Ross originals are stashed away in their building.)
Crawford saw that doc last summer. And then he sent BRI an email. He wanted those paintings in Penticton.
Making Happy Little Accidents
"I was really wanting to celebrate the legacy of Bob Ross, and really look at some of the larger questions that Bob presented himself: whose work deserves to be in a museum, and whose work needs to be remembered?" says Crawford.
A few years back, an exhibition devoted to the landscapes of Levine Flexhaug — Saskatchewan's master of the thrift-store sublime — appeared at galleries around the country. (A companion exhibition about Canadian "speed painters," Flexhaug included, is open at the PAG to Sept. 13.) Crawford says he's taken a note from that travelling Flexhaug show in curating Happy Little Accidents, and if there's a strict definition of "museum-worthy," the show aims to "beat the devil out of it," like some old dirty paintbrush.
Ross died of lymphoma in 1995, but if a museum retrospective eluded him in his time, he wasn't especially fussed about it. In 1991, the New York Times asked Ross about the subject. Already a low-key icon, he said he wasn't keen on the notion. "Most painters want recognition, especially by their peers. I achieved that a long time ago with TV. I don't need any more." And according to BRI, major arts institutions weren't exactly clamouring to get their white gloves on a Bob Ross painting — at least until last year.
The DePaul Art Museum in Chicago was the first gallery to make contact, says BRI; in April 2019, four paintings appeared there in the exhibition New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival. Later that year, the Franklin Park Arts Centre (Purcellville, Va.) opened Happy Accidents, a show devoted to Ross's TV paintings. When the PAG came calling, BRI says they were fielding similar requests from galleries around the world. Three paintings are now on view at ArkDes in Sweden (they're part of a salute to ASMR, the oddly satisfying genre of which Ross is hailed as the permed patron saint). Another solo exhibition is scheduled to open at the Museum MORE in the Netherlands this November. And a brand new attraction, a shrine to the man himself, will open this October in Muncie, Ind., long-time home of The Joy of Painting.
Writes Sarah Strohl, an executive assistant at BRI: "With the recent resurgence of interest and love for Bob Ross in the past few years, we have displayed paintings in exhibits as well as donated four paintings to the Smithsonian." (Oh, yeah — that happened in 2019, too. In addition to the artwork, Smithsonian National Museum of American History acquired an old easel from the show and some production notebooks.) "However," says Strohl, "our focus has always been the same as Bob's on the show: to interest others in creating paintings of their own."
On the surface, yes, The Joy of Painting is designed so folks can dabble along from home. But it's a rare fan who's squeezed out a tube of Prussian Blue. Ross knew it. As he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1990: "The majority of our audience does not paint, has no desire to paint, will never paint." Instead, the show's appeal is more abstract. It's less about the art lesson, and more about the mood: cozy, nurturing — an audio-visual pat on the back, coaxing the audience to try something new. For 22 minutes, at least, there's no fear of failure. As Ross used to say, "We don't make mistakes, we just have happy accidents."
But a Bob Ross fan doesn't necessarily get the same huggy vibes when they think about contemporary art. In curating Happy Little Accidents, Crawford says he was thinking about Ross's gift for reaching the masses. "So many people feel they don't have the knowledge that they can engage in art, and that, to me, is appalling. We need to change that."
Even in a pandemic, Happy Little Accidents has likely attracted some first-time patrons to the PAG already. The gallery is keeping extended hours to match demand, and is open seven days a week through the summer. According to Crawford, people have been lining up every morning since the show opened July 4. (Because of COVID-19, only 13 guests are allowed in the exhibition at a time.) Additional programming includes painting classes with a "Bob Ross-Certified" teacher. The first round sold out, and more have been added. (There are thousands of these official instructors around the world, it turns out. Says Crawford: "There must be a dozen that are living within a three-hour drive of us here in Penticton.")
The paintings selected for the show represent every season of The Joy of Painting's 11-year run, right up to Ross's final piece for the program. ("It's a very solemn painting with a sort of dead tree that sort of sits in a very ethereal sort of landscape," says Crawford.) In person, he says the landscapes are more impressive than he'd imagined. "There's a luminosity to them, you know, for as beguilingly simple as they are."
And in researching the exhibition, Crawford says he came across a surprising B.C. connection — one that's only touched on at the museum. Before Ross made his TV debut, he studied with William Alexander, another guy known for painting landscapes on PBS. A former German POW, Alexander moved to North America after the Second World War, and lived all over Canada during his lifetime, including Powell River, B.C. His Emmy-winning series, though, The Magic of Oil Painting, taped at a Los Angeles public-broadcasting station from 1974-82, and it shares plenty of aesthetic DNA with Ross's format, right down to the all-black set. "It's remarkable how similar they are," says Crawford. "But he was a rough, gruff-spoken fellow and didn't quite have Bob's smooth way of delivery." Alexander wasn't cool with Ross's fame, though. (As he told the New York Times in 1991: "I trained him and he is copying me.") Despite the bad blood, his influence is briefly mentioned in the PAG show.
Ross's paintings, though, are the focus of the exhibition — a blur of familiar lakes and clouds and trees. At face value, they're arguably not "museum-worthy," but to Crawford, they're worth bringing all the way to B.C., especially as Ross's legacy has grown in recent years. "I guess it's the whole question of what belongs in art history," he says. "To me, art history is really social history." And since the '80s, Ross hasn't left the public consciousness. At any time, you can see his paintings on screen, the place they were originally intended to be seen. (Find The Joy of Painting on on Twitch and Tubi and YouTube.)
"To people out there in the real world," says Crawford, "certainly his name is better known than any of the most famous of Canadian painters."
Bob Ross: Happy Little Accidents. To Sept. 13. Penticton Art Gallery. www.pentictonartgallery.com