“Go out on limb. That’s where the fruit is.” ― Bob Ross
I have spent the majority of my life studying art history, from the earliest neolithic doodlings of the long gone ancestors through classical, pre columbian, renaissance and abstractism of all flavors. I have poured over the catalogues of the holiest museum collections and spent countless hours pondering the meaning of life and art at the tomb of Perneb. From an historical perspective, in the end, little matters beyond art. The wealth of civilisations vanishes, along with power, status and politics. Caesar had more wealth, territory and power than any other man and yet Rome’s empire is gone. The only meaningful things by which we can truly, physically know anything about our past is the art left behind.
Of course, before all things return to stardust, we small human people occupy our short lives arguing about what is the most “important.” Who is the most important artist? What is an important piece?
A friendly but somewhat ruthless gallery owner I worked with in my younger years once told me I should be prepared to defend “the importance” of my work during showings to patrons. That buyers wanted prestige. Creating the impression of value was paramount. I was never to dare to say, “why yes, Ms. Smith, when I sat down to paint this I was feeing very red. So here we have a red painting. Have you a red couch? A room with red accents, perhaps? Then this would be perfect for you, if it moves you and you find it beautiful.”
These would have been the words of a plebian. I would have immediately outed myself to the community as a naive faker. In order to avoid being a poseur, I would have to pose as someone else. The truth is, I only ever wanted to make the world a more beautiful place with my passion and my skills.
So this question of “importance” has been on my mind for 25 years.
My first mentor often referred to “Ross” as a “four letter word.” She was an art teacher and historian. Her frustration was visible when her high school aged students knew only one artist: Bob Ross. The Happy Tree Guy. She wanted so much more for us. And this essay isn’t to say there is no fabulous American art out there. All aritsts should look at Mary Cassat’s work! Georgia O’Keefe, James Whistler and Chuck Close. Lovers of art should see the work of Gilbert Stuart, the creator of the most famous portrait of George Washington- the half finished one. Don’t lie, you know which one I mean. We should all ponder the landscapes of Frederic Church. When I look at Church’s works, I can hardly believe they were not an influence on Mr. Ross.
All the artists listed above are wonderful, but what does it mean to be important? What does it mean, especially, to be an important American artist?
While we have world class art museums here in the United States, our young country lacks the historical and contextual body one might find in Europe. I would chance a bet that most Americans have never been inside an art museusm, much less a private gallery, where they would be likely to encounter many examples of beautiful works from many cultures and times. When I ask about artists, most people report back to me that they like “the flower lady” (watercolourist Georgia O’Keefe) or Ansel Adams (her photographer friend). People have heard of Van Gogh, though a recent patron of mine had him confused with Henri Matisse. true story.
Many times I will cite Franz Marc or Paul Gaugain as an influence only to be met only with blank stares. When I try to trigger memories of Mondrian, I tell people “he’s the guy who paints like legos.” (Oh yeah, THAT guy.)
Recognition is clearly part of importance. Folks recognise Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollack, although many people I meet say things like “soup cans are dumb” or “my 5 year old could have painted that.” Warhol would have loved these remarks- infamy and fame: same thing. How very American.
On the upside, the shortness of America’s art journey allows us to understand intent through recorded and preserved information directly from artists. This I think is the second part of “important.” Did the artist succeed in her intent?
Which brings me to Bob Ross.
Bob is a singular character in American art mythology. Modern but classically inclined in his style. Unassuming, pleasant, kind. Most obviously earnest. In many ways Bob Ross the opposite of the cultural zeitgeist “artist.” When I was a child, I would dress up as an “artist,” which meant carrying around a paint brush, wearing a beret and scarf and refusing to speak to the “regular” people. Perhaps my parents indulged me too much in my exposure to Salvador Dali. I believe this is what many people think an artist is: unreachable, pretentious, wearing strange clothes, possibly insane (from too much exposure to paint chemicals?) We believe that creativity is not for the masses, only for the special. Bob Ross shatters all of these conventions.
After a number of years teaching live painting classes in suburban shopping malls, Mr. Ross managed to wriggle his way onto television. He single-handedly brought art into the living rooms of millions of Americans for decades to come. His recently remastered show, The JOY of Painting, can be seen on the highest def of high def tvs or the littlest of cellphone displays, brought to us by a bevvy of free and paid streaming services. How many millions of Americans who have never gone to a museum or a gallery have seen at least one Bob Ross show?
During his short life (he passed away at just 52 years of age) it’s reasonable to say that more people have experienced a Bob Ross work than any other artist. And thanks to the death defying magic of syndication, Bob will never leave us.
He was pointedly aware of what he was doing. Bob’s mission in life was to bring art to the most people, to make the world more beautiful with his work, to spread a kindly philosophy of creativity and self confidence to every person he could reach in whatever way he had to reach out to them.
Here are a few quotes that come to mind:
“Traditionally, art has been for the select few. We have been brainwashed to believe that Michelangelo had to pat you on the head at birth.”
“I can’t think of anything more rewarding than being able to express yourself to others through painting. Exercising the imagination, experimenting with talents, being creative; these things, to me, are truly the windows to your soul.”
“This is your world. You’re the creator. Find freedom on this canvas. Believe, that you can do it, ‘cuz you can do it.”
And my favourite:
“Look around. Look at what we have. Beauty is everywhere—you only have to look to see it.”
By rejecting the notion of what we believe an artist is, by embracing a classical convention of beauty and nature, by refusing to be anything but honest about his intentions, Bob Ross singlehandedly changed America’s relationship to art and the artist. He did it because it brought him joy and he wanted to bring that joy to others.
It makes me think back again to my first mentor, G-d rest her. If there is a heaven I hope that rather than looking down on me in shame, she can see the reasons Bob Ross deserves to be celebrated. In these dark times, I hope we can all be a little more “Bob Ross.” A little happier, a little more go-with-the-flow. More patient and more open. That we can speak with a quieter voice and choose to uplift others instead of tearing others down. Bob saw art as a way to renew humanity. We need it these days.
If you’re having a rough day, just remember, when all this around us is dust and our troubles are lost to the ages, it’s possible that someone in the future will find one of those Bob Ross chia pets in an archeological dig. If all that’s left of our civilisation is the work of Bob Ross, I think we will have done pretty well for ourselves.