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The enduring popularity of artist Bob Ross

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In the 1980s and ‘90s Bob Ross hosted the public television series “The Joy of Painting,” until his death in 1995 at age 52. But ever since, the artist’s instructions in how to paint “happy little trees” have only grown more popular. Correspondent Lee Cowan looks back at the canvas of Ross’ career and the big picture of his life lessons.

Video Transcript

- Almost a year has passed since the pandemic forced many of us to shelter inside. And as we did, millions turn to an old friend for comfort and inspiration. Here's Lee Cowan.

BOB ROSS: Welcome back. I'm glad you could join me today.

LEE COWAN: Bob Ross, with his curious hair and his whisper of a voice--

BOB ROSS: In our world here, there lives a happy little mountain.

LEE COWAN: --was perhaps an unlikely TV celebrity.

BOB ROSS: Here's a happy little bush. He lives right there.

LEE COWAN: But he became one of America's most famous painters, not only for his creativity, but for his positivity.

BOB ROSS: We don't make mistakes. We have happy accidents.

LEE COWAN: It was like watching a magician reveal the secrets of his trade.

BOB ROSS: Look at that. Isn't that a nice little tree?

LEE COWAN: But at the height of his fame at only 52, Bob Ross died of lymphoma. That was 26 years ago. And yet, the happy little painter is perhaps more relevant now than ever.

JESSICA JENKINS: We've been in a time where things have been so frantic, and people have been so stressed, and Bob Ross is the king of chill.

LEE COWAN: But what many may not know is that when Bob Ross came into our homes all those years ago, he did it from a home, this one in Muncie, Indiana.

Nobody really thinks about where the show was made.

JESSICA JENKINS: So many people are surprised. They walk in and they're like, this is not a TV studio. This is a living room. Yeah, it's a living room.

LEE COWAN: They basically just took an old house--

Jessica Jenkins is curator of that living room, what is now the Bob Ross Experience.

- Oh, wow.

- This is cool.

LEE COWAN: At Muncie's Minnestrista museum.

BOB ROSS: Be brave.

LEE COWAN: This very spot is where for years the "Joy of Painting" was taped. Those are his paintbrushes, his palette, and of course, his easel.

JESSICA JENKINS: Every episode he would have a moment where he would beat the devil out of the brush, and he would take it, and he would just thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.

[BRUSH BEATING]

BOB ROSS: And just beat the devil out of it.

JESSICA JENKINS: People come in and they recognize that. They know exactly what that is.

BOB ROSS: But why Muncie? Well, because this was the home of the local PBS station. Traveling through the Midwest on a teaching tour, Ross approached the station with the idea of teaching in front of a camera.

LEE COWAN: He was an unknown painter though, at the time. Nobody knew who Bob Ross was.

JESSICA JENKINS: They did not know who he was. But he had a lot of charm.

LEE COWAN: Jim Needham was WIPB's general manager, and he knew Ross had something.

JIM NEEDHAM: His mantra was, I'll never do anything harder than my audience is able also to do.

BOB ROSS: Even if this is your first seascape, you'll have some super, super results.

LEE COWAN: It wasn't really just about painting. The show was about a lot more than that.

JIM NEEDHAM: I think the show was about giving the person agency, and doing what they want to do, or doing something they were afraid to do. And I'm not talking about painting. I'm talking about life.

LEE COWAN: Ross practiced his TV paintings for days, making sure that he could complete them in front of a camera in less than a half an hour.

BOB ROSS: Maybe back in here.

JESSICA JENKINS: He was very planned out and very methodical.

LEE COWAN: But it sure didn't come off that way. It came off as very spontaneous and-- and calm. It wasn't like he was racing through it.

JESSICA JENKINS: That's the thing about Bob. You know that on the inside he was on a speed clock, getting through that painting. But on the outside, he was just so relaxed, and made it look so easy.

DOUG HALLGREN: I'm just tapping here right along the bottom.

LEE COWAN: Part of the Bob Ross experience is trying your hand at painting--

- You go like this.

LEE COWAN: --myself included.

Oh, just a little.

- Take out a little bit on it.

LEE COWAN: I see.

DOUG HALLGREN: So everybody needs a little friend.

LEE COWAN: For certified Bob Ross instructor, Doug Hallgren, that discover that anyone can do it is the real joy of painting.

DOUG HALLGREN: Sometimes we grab their hand. We go, it's going to be OK. We're going to do this together. Just trust me on this. And they're like, oh, it worked.

- Nice.

- Voila.

- That did come together. I'm pleased with it.

LEE COWAN: Your trees especially.

Even mine was recognizable as something. It was a remarkable ego boost for everyone here.

- Oh, so good.

- After sitting down and painting a painting, I really believe I could do anything.

LEE COWAN: His simplicity though often brought criticism.

What did the art world think of him, in general?

JESSICA JENKINS: The art world had mixed reviews. There were certainly a lot of people who categorized him as kitsch art. But if you look at the canvases that Bob did on his own time for himself, they are complex.

LEE COWAN: Like this one, for example, an elaborate seascape that hung in his own home.

DOUG HALLGREN: The later he got on in years, those paintings just got sharper, and sharper, and sharper.

LEE COWAN: Bob Ross rarely made a dime off any of his paintings. And he never expected any of his work to ever hang in a museum. But recently, the Smithsonian acquired four Bob Ross paintings to add to its permanent collection.

BOB ROSS: Now then, look right here.

LEE COWAN: In that at least, the man who just wanted to paint a happy little world has cemented his place in it as well.

JESSICA JENKINS: The message of having self-confidence, of trying new things, that doesn't get old. And because of that, I think that it just continues to resonate for generation after generation.

BOB ROSS: So from all of us here, I'd like to wish you a happy painting. God bless.

[MUSIC PLAYING]