On the heels of some discussion on whether or not schools kill creativity and Sir Ken Robinson’s fabulous TED Talk on the same subject, I thought it would be appropriate to remember a man who made promoting the arts his life work – Mr. Bob Ross.
I remember watching “The Joy of Painting” many nights, usually at my grandparent’s house. They had discovered a channel called “PBS” and weren’t shy about introducing it to me. My parents weren’t quite old enough to watch PBS yet, but that time was coming. From the moment I saw the white man fro and the un-buttoned shirt with accompanying chest hair, I was hooked. His voice was calm and soothing, like some sort of drug that puts old people to sleep. As my grandparents snored, I watched in amazement.
At the age of 18, long before he was placing happy little trees beneath snowcapped mountains, Bob Ross was a proud member of the Air Force. For 20 years he served in the area of Medical Administration. 12 of those 20 years were spent in pre-Sarah Palin Alaska, a land full of beautiful landscapes that inspired many of Bob’s paintings. After retiring from the Air Force, he decided to turn his hobby into his profession. So he started painting. A lot. He painted so much, in fact, that he eventually landed a prime time spot on PBS and into my grandparent’s living room on “The Joy of Painting”.
For 30 minutes each episode, he shared some of the beautiful images he’d seen on his travels around the world using his God-given ability, a canvas, and a variety of oil paints. But his goal wasn’t to merely show us all how awesome he was at painting; his goal was to teach. He gave tips, showed techniques, and proved to his audience that painting could be fun and didn’t have to be perfect. He encouraged many to use their own creativity (sadly, not my grandparents, who were still asleep). He even created a multi-million dollar business with his own line of paint brushes and art supplies, and certified many instructors in the Bob Ross technique.
But what’s interesting about Bob Ross is that he’s not usually remembered for his paintings. His white man fro, excessive chest hair, and Tylenol PM voice made him into this pop-culture character who loved trees a little too much and probably smoked weed on the grounds at PBS. In fact, it became (and still is, to some extent) chic to make fun of this character, as if he were the Richard Simmons of oil painting. From ‘Family Guy’ to ‘Tosh.O’, this reputation continues to build. And I’m guilty of this myself. Not too many years ago, I dressed up as Bob Ross for Halloween wearing clothes from my grandfather’s closet. This was the very same grandfather who so snored so loudly during his show. And if that’s not irony, I’m not sure what is.
Now, I’m certainly not saying that it’s wrong to poke fun at Bob Ross. I enjoy ‘Family Guy’ from time to time, and must say that my Halloween outfit was pretty clever. All I’m saying is maybe we should remember his life’s work and contributions to the arts also, because he certainly made contributions. He had a gift and was passionate about sharing it and teaching it to others. And maybe we can learn something from that. If you have a gift, don’t just promote yourself; teach others and promote the craft, like Mr. Bob Ross.