in memory of bob ross
The music is slow, low, in a blissful major key. The sky is a lavender that even my cynical eyes concede is pleasant, and the arms of trees embrace a river that lazily meanders its way toward me. The painting pulls me in, convincing every atom in my body, one by one, of the brilliance of nature and the superiority of this new acrylic reality to my own when, suddenly, it disappears. Before me stands a blank canvas and a red-bearded man, smiling with a flicker of pure contentment, like everything in the world is exactly where it needs to be.
“Hello,” he says, directly to me, with a subtle southern twang within each of his words. His baritone is rich and smooth, like cream from a pitcher, and it pulls me along with every word. “I’m Bob Ross, and it gives me unbelievable pleasure to welcome you to my painting television series, ‘The Joy of Painting.’ I’nnat fantastic?”
Bob’s fingers twirl the brush with expert dexterity as he lists the colors he’ll be using in today’s episode: Titanium White, Prussian Blue, Sap Green, among others. When it’s time to begin, the thumb and forefinger toss and catch the brush, then effortlessly mold themselves to its handle, as if reverting to their default position. “It’s really very simple,” he explains, left hand absentmindedly swirling Yellow Ochre and Dark Sienna together on the palate. “The canvas is your world, so you have to make some big decisions. You have to decide what’s in your world, and where you want it.”
The camera zooms in on his new color, Van Dyke Brown, and follows his brush as it lifts a small portion from the puddle, travels up to the canvas, and begins to fashion some sort of amorphous line. What could that possibly be? I begin to wonder—before he clarifies, as if having read my mind, “This is a happy little landmass.” He’s drawing some more brown lines now, assuring me that “we have all, at one time or another, mixed a little mud.”
His voice rings from my computer screen in a tiny dorm room with paint peeling from the walls. Through the window, I can see the roof of Rhode Island Hall, a building that’s home to one of the most prestigious archaeology departments in the country. Beyond that, dorm room windows with lights on, silhouettes darting back and forth within. Beyond that, a city with smokestacks adorned with blinking lights, office buildings with darkened windows, Providence’s urban hustle and bustle abandoned for the night. Beyond that, the highway, pairs of piercing eyes weaving in and out of each other at breakneck speed. Beyond that, green mountains and a patchwork of autumnal trees, a world that has existed long before this mad rush began, and will exist long after. Somewhere far, far beyond that, Bob Ross’s tranquil wilderness waits.
Bob Ross’s television series, “The Joy of Painting,” aired from January 1983 to May 1994. Each half-hour episode details his journey through the creation of a pastoral oil painting. His style heavily influenced by the scenery of Alaska, where he lived for a time. As he outlines, shades, highlights, and fills in his worlds, he gives general advice for painters, advice that often translates nicely to the lives of non-painters, conveying ideals of agency, self-care, hope, and everything in between. “Any piece you paint, anything you do, should make you happy,” he muses as fully-fledged purple mountains spring to life across one of his canvasses, seemingly of their own accord. “If it makes you happy, that is good.”
This year marks the 20-year anniversary of Bob Ross’s untimely death from lymphoma at age 52. October 29 would have been his 73rd birthday. In his honor, Twitch, a video-streaming website, streamed a marathon of his show, all 200 hours of his mesmerizing paint strokes and gentle, knowing grin.
Browsing Twitch while procrastinating on a midterm paper, I encountered Bob Ross for the first time. “Enjoy!” read the title. I put my paper aside and joined the hundreds of thousands who seemed to be complying.
I’m sitting on the steps of my dorm, fully immersed in Bob, when a stranger approaches from behind me. “Oh my God, is that “The Joy of Painting?” she asks incredulously, plopping down next to me and peering over my shoulder at the screen. Today would have been his birthday, I explain. “That’s so sad,” she responds somberly—she’s a big fan. Is she an artist? I ask. “Of course not, I can barely draw a stick figure. But Bob is so…happy.” I’m right there with her, and we’re clearly not alone: The forums and comments sections I’ve skimmed appear to be full of people like us, people who have no interest in visual art but find a strange appeal in Bob’s unconditional happiness, innocent wonder, and poignant commentary.
We wax on in this manner for a while longer. Then, she is off.
Back on my screen, Bob is etching a cluster of tiny black streaks into a corner of the canvas. I’m having trouble imagining how this ungainly array is going to become a “lovely cluster of trees,” as he’s previously claimed. And yet, as I continue to watch, it does. A group of pines bursts forth, as if it’s been hiding in the whiteness of the canvas this whole time, and Bob Ross has finally set it free. I’m almost proud of them. You go, trees. You go, Bob.
As this semester begins to wind down, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. Leaving a friend’s dorm at 2:30 a.m. one night, I’m walking across the main green of my university and stop for a moment to think. For so much of my time here, this green has been filled with crowds of students, professors, parents, and many others. For 251 years, hundreds of thousands of these feet have pounded across its stone slabs, so many feet which are now gone, entirely forgotten. For god knows how many more years, it will continue to stand: this green, the oldest and most recognizable image of a world-famous university, an icon, a symbol as much as a location. Feet will continue to pound, names will rise and fall from lights, and one day I will be long gone, and long forgotten.
But right now, I am the only human here. The street lamps shine only for me, and I can’t help but think that this is my green. Before I know it, I will be 10, 20, 30 years away, and this moment will be absorbed by my whirlwind of a life. Before I know it I’ll be back to the way I was when college was only a daydream, back to staring at this green on Google images, back to searching its tags on Tumblr and Twitter from time to time, wondering how it’s doing, how its new 10,000 owners are treating it. These thoughts will be a memory, and then nothing. But right now, I’m standing on the grass, staring at the infinite canopy of stars, my canopy of stars, trying to draw this moment out as long as possible.
In the blink of an eye, I’m in the back of the library, another night, another episode. On my screen, Bob calls forth a river to wind its way around the forest. Then, he dabs a minuscule amount of Alizarin Crimson onto his brush and, by some work of magic, no doubt, weaves it into the blue waves, creating a late-afternoon shimmer across the water. I have been once again sucked into his painting; the water laps at my toes, birds chirp among the trees, the sharp scent of pine prods my nostrils, and above all, Bob’s voice washes over me like warm water. “There, there,” he whispers as he dabs Cadmium Yellow onto the leaves of his trees, as if caring for a small child. “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents. And you learn to use anything that can happen, and that’s when it really becomes fun. You don’t have to spend time thinking about what you’re doing. Just let it happen.” As the yellow crosses the canvas, the scene erupts into life; the water sparkles, the trees reach hopefully towards the sky, the sun becomes a beacon against the dark studio backdrop.
In his very last episode, just over a year before his death, Bob Ross is more somber than usual. Fans are unsure whether he knew the episode would indeed be his last, but it seems, from his mannerisms, like he had some inkling.
His painting is dark, depicting a morosely beautiful landscape of dead trees and fog. “I’ve decided this tree should be in the foreground,” he interjects towards the end, gesturing to one of the barren figures. “Because in our world, we can move trees, we can bend rivers. Anything that we want to do.”
“That’s why I got into painting originally. Because I could make any world that I wanted. A world where everything is happy.”
Eventually, we will forget Bob Ross. We are now 20 years into the eons that will pass without him. I know that his life was stuffed full of appearances, interviews, and promotions. I wonder, however, how long these moments—the ones alone with his brushes, his colors, and a camera, where he was king of his canvas, where he could do anything in the world—lasted for him.
After putting the finishing touches on his final wooden carcass, Bob begins to sprinkle Midnight Black across the sky. “You absolutely have to have dark in order to have light,” he explains. “It’s like in life. You gotta have a little sadness once in a while you’re waiting for the good times to come.” He ventures a smile, through which the melancholy shines. “I’m waiting on the good times now.”
I wonder if he knew, as he said his final goodbyes to the cameras, just how much longer he would be painting and musing for the world. I’ve never believed in an afterlife, yet as I watch him craft his mountains and rivers, it’s hard for me to imagine that he’s not out there somewhere, in his vast and beautiful wilderness, creating worlds for himself. Whether they involve canvases or campuses, lifetimes or college educations, I think it’s okay for some moments to last forever. As the months accelerate, and I turn towards the future, I am waiting on the good times and the bad, on the mixed mud and the happy accidents. I am ready.
Bob signs the lower left corner of his painting in loopy red ink. “There we go,” he says, with a pure honesty that seems to come from the center of the universe. “You and I. I think we have a painting.”
You have more than a painting, Bob. You have a legacy. Tens of thousands showed up to your birthday party, for a few moments of peace.
In the last few seconds of the episode, just before the credits roll, he looks directly at me. “Are you happy today?”
I am happy, Bob. I am.