The Real Bob Ross: Meet The Meticulous Artist Behind Those Happy Trees | KERA News

The Real Bob Ross: Meet The Meticulous Artist Behind Those Happy Trees

Aug 29, 2016
Originally published on August 29, 2016 6:22 pm

We're not going to bury the lede here: Bob Ross' hair was actually straight. Just ask his longtime business partner, Annette Kowalski, who knew Ross better than anyone — he had just gotten out of the Air Force, and was unsuccessfully trying to make a living as a painter, she says.

"He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts. So he let his hair grow, he got a perm, and decided he would never need a haircut again," Kowalski explains.

Before he could change it back, though, the perm became his company's logo — Ross hated it. "He could never, ever, ever change his hair, and he was so mad about that," Kowalski says. "He got tired of that curly hair."

But viewers never got tired of Ross or his show, The Joy of Painting. With his soft, hypnotic voice, he'd bring his viewers in close as he created 30-minute masterpieces — distant mountain ranges, seascapes, forest scenes, always with those happy little trees. He'd sling his palette around, blend the titanium white paint, whisper about his life in Alaska, then gently tap his fan brush to create a canvas full of fluffy clouds. With his partly unbuttoned chambray shirt, his halo of tight curls and his soothing demeanor, Ross was a fixture on PBS.

Re-watching the show decades later — it's now streaming on Netflix — The Joy of Painting still feels like a personal art lesson. And yet the oil painter we spent so many hours with remains a mystery. Ross led a private life and did only a few interviews during his career.

So, if you want to get to know Bob Ross, you have to seek out Kowalski. When she discovered Ross 35 years ago, she was in the aftermath of a family tragedy.

"My oldest son was killed in a traffic accident. It was very difficult," Kowalski says. "I was so devastated. All I could do was lay on the couch and watch television."

She watched a painter named Bill Alexander, who was big on PBS back then. Kowalski's husband was desperate to get her out of the house, so he signed her up for Alexander's painting class, 900 miles away in Clearwater, Fla. But then Alexander stopped teaching and passed his classes off to an unknown protege.

"I was very disappointed," Kowalski says. "I so wanted to paint with Bill Alexander. But my husband said, 'Get up. Get in the car. We're going.' "

It was a five-day class in a hotel conference room. At the easel upfront was a guy with a perm who went by Bob. His paintings were good, but when he started talking to the class, that's when Kowalski knew she had met someone special.

"I was so mesmerized by Bob," Kowalski says. "Somehow, he lifted me up out of that depression. I just think that Bob knew how to woo people. I said, 'Let's put it in a bottle and sell it.' "

The Kowalskis took him to dinner at a fast-food joint and brokered a deal; Annette Kowalski would become Ross' manager. They packed up the paints, hopped in his motor home and hit the road. Kowalski bought ads in local papers while Ross held poorly attended seminars in shopping malls. They needed to generate some buzz, so Kowalski created a toll-free Bob Ross hotline: 1-800-BOB-ROSS

They eventually filmed a commercial and launched a TV show, and it was on TV that Ross hit it big. In the first Joy of Painting episode, he's already using those friendly Bob-isms that made him famous: "Let's have a happy little tree right in here," he says. "There he goes."

From 1982 through 1994, Ross filmed more than 400 episodes of The Joy of Painting. But most viewers weren't tuning in to paint alongside him. They were watching Bob Ross just to ... watch Bob Ross.

"Shoot; we have a pretty nice lookin' little sky," Ross would say as he stood back to assess his work. "And there wasn't anything to it."

Then, unveiling his "almighty" 2-inch brush he'd say, "Now then — let's get crazy."

"He's making you think it's so easy," Kowalski says. "Well, let me tell you something — these are not as spontaneous as they look."

In fact, Ross made three of the same paintings for every episode. The first was sitting off camera and was used for reference. The second was the one viewers saw on TV. And the third was a more detailed landscape used for his instructional books. Ross was meticulous.

"Bob used to lay in bed at night, he told me, he rehearsed every word," Kowalski says. "He knew exactly what he was going to say on every one of those programs."

Like this famous phrase: "You know without question that we don't make mistakes here. We just have happy accidents."

Ross made viewers in living rooms across the country believe that they could pick up a paintbrush and whip up some majestic snow-covered mountains. On TV he appeared so relaxed.

But Kowalski has a different way to describe the real-life Ross: "A tyrant."

"You don't believe that?" she asks. "Do you really think this company would be as successful as it is, if he didn't insist that everything be done a certain way?"

After all, they had a company to look after, and Ross was as much a businessman as he was a painter.

"I don't want to leave the impression that he was rude or nasty," she says. "He just wanted things done his way. He was wonderful. He was really wonderful. I want Bob back."

Ross was diagnosed with lymphoma, and as his last days approached, he would sit beside Kowalski outside the hospital on a bench overlooking a lake.

"Bob was not always full of compliments, but he said to me, 'Annette, you are the wind beneath my wings.' And that is what I'm left with and it means so much to me," Kowalski says.

Ross was 52 years old when he died on July 4, 1995.

The company was left in the hands of Annette and Walter Kowalski, and Bob Ross Inc. remains an art supply giant. It includes paint and brush manufacturers, certified Bob Ross instructors, and now a deal with Netflix.

"I think I'm doing this just the way Bob would've wanted it done," Kowalski says. "I'm very proud of the fact, and I think Bob would be happy if he could see it now."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The hypnotic voice, the poofy hair, the beard - Bob Ross passed away more than 20 years ago. But apparently, he's as timeless as the happy trees he painted on his PBS show, "The Joy Of Painting." Time to get out those oil paints. Netflix is streaming episodes, which got our producer, Danny Hajek, thinking, what's Bob's story?

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: For most of us, he's just a man and his canvas, wearing a partly unbuttoned chambray shirt and a halo of tight curls. Here he is with his almighty brush, painting mist around a mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

BOB ROSS: I lived in Alaska for many, many years. And you see some of the most beautiful scenery there. God was having a good day when he made Alaska - beautiful.

HAJEK: These are landscapes out of his imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: In your world, you can do anything that you want. If you want this shrubbery and bushes and trees to come all the way across, then do it. Do it.

HAJEK: The way he talked, it felt so personal, and yet Bob Ross is a mystery. If you want to know about him, you'll have to seek out his business partner, Annette Kowalski. She has all the stories, and she can even tell you about that hair.

ANNETTE KOWALSKI: (Laughter).

HAJEK: The story goes that, when he moved down from Alaska, he didn't have much money.

KOWALSKI: He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts, so he let his hair grow. He got a perm and decided he would never need a haircut again.

HAJEK: So you're saying Bob Ross' natural hair was straight?

KOWALSKI: Oh, my goodness, yes. You haven't seen the pictures?

HAJEK: The perm became the company's logo. She says Bob hated it.

KOWALSKI: (Laughter). He did. He got tired of that curly hair.

HAJEK: Annette welcomed NPR into her home in Herndon, Va., surrounded by framed floral paintings on the wall, family portraits and an instructional book by Bob Ross on the coffee table. She was the one who discovered Bob Ross. It was 35 years ago, in the wake of a tragedy.

KOWALSKI: My oldest son was killed in a traffic accident. It was very difficult. I was so devastated. All I could do was lay on the couch and watch television.

HAJEK: She watched a painter named Bill Alexander. He was big on PBS back then. And Annett's husband, Walter, was so desperate to get her out of the house he signed her up for a Bill Alexander painting class 900 miles away, in Clearwater, Fla. But Bill Alexander wasn't teaching. He passed his paintbrush off to some protege that no one had heard of.

KOWALSKI: I was very disappointed. I so wanted to paint with Bill Alexander. But my husband said, get up, get in the car. We're going.

HAJEK: Up front at the easel was some guy with a perm who went by Bob, but his painting was pretty good. And then he started talking, and he was comforting, like his forest landscape.

KOWALSKI: I was so mesmerized by Bob. Somehow he lifted me up out of that depression. I just think that Bob knew how to woo people. I said, let's put it in a bottle and sell it.

HAJEK: The Kowalskis took him to dinner at a fast food joint and brokered a deal right there. Annette became Bob Ross' manager. They packed up the paints, hopped in his motorhome and hit the road. Annette bought ads in local papers, and Bob held seminars in shopping malls.

KOWALSKI: Maybe only one or two people would show up for a class.

HAJEK: They needed to generate some buzz. Annette though, why not set up a Bob Ross Hotline?

KOWALSKI: 1-800-Bob-Ross.

HAJEK: They filmed a commercial, then launched a TV show. And that's when Bob hit the big time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: Hi. I'm Bob Ross. And for the next 13 weeks, I'll be your host as we experience the joy of painting.

HAJEK: This grainy video is the first episode. His hair's not as big, but he's already using those familiar little Bob-isms that made him famous.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: Let's have a happy little tree right in here. There he goes.

HAJEK: They aired over 400 episodes of "The Joy Of Painting," but most viewers weren't tuning in to paint. We were watching Bob Ross to just watch Bob Ross - crisscrossing the canvas to paint the sky, drawing out his palette knife to blend the Prussian blue with Alizarin crimson, painting a distant mountain and then whipping his brush against the easel to clean off the bristles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: Shake off the excess.

HAJEK: Always with that classic catchphrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: (Laughter). And just beat the devil out of it.

HAJEK: Thirty minutes later, he had his masterpiece.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: We have a pretty nice-looking little sky. And there wasn't anything to it. Now then, let's get crazy.

KOWALSKI: He's making you think it's so easy. Well, let me tell you something, these are not as spontaneous as they look.

HAJEK: In fact, Bob made three of the same paintings for every episode - one for a reference that sat off camera, one during taping - that's what we see - and a more detailed one for his how-to books. The guy was meticulous.

KOWALSKI: Bob used to lay in bed at night, he told me. He rehearsed every word. He knew exactly what he was going to say on every one of those programs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: If you've painted with me before, you know without question that we don't make mistakes here. We just have happy accidents.

HAJEK: He was just so relaxed all the time. I asked Annette, what was the real Bob Ross like?

KOWALSKI: A tyrant. You don't believe that? Do you really think this company would be as successful as it is if he didn't insist that everything be done a certain way? He insisted.

HAJEK: They had a business to look after. He was as much a businessman as he was a painter.

KOWALSKI: I don't want to leave the impression that he was rude or nasty. He just wanted things done his way. He was wonderful. He was really wonderful. I want Bob back.

HAJEK: After he was diagnosed with lymphoma, the two spent his last days sitting outside the hospital on a park bench by a lake.

KOWALSKI: And Bob was not always full of compliments, but he said to me, Annette, you are the wind beneath my wings. And that is what I'm left with, and it means so much to me.

HAJEK: Bob Ross died on July 4, 1995. He was 52. The company was left in the hands of Annette and Walter Kowalski. And Bob Ross Inc. is still an art-supply giant - paint and brush manufacturers, certified Bob Ross instructors and now a deal with Netflix.

KOWALSKI: I think I'm doing this just the way Bob would've wanted it done. I'm very proud of the fact. And I think Bob would be happy if he could see it now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

ROSS: Tell you what, the old clock on the wall says it's about time to go for the day. I think, with that, we'll call this painting finished. And from all of us here, I'd like to wish you happy painting and God bless, my friend.

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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