Wayback Wednesday is a series featuring historical figures with a record of military service and a connection to the Arts.
This week features Robert “Bob” Ross painter and airman.
Imagine yourself as a recently discharged airman circa 1983. Having enlisted in 1980 you’ve completed your 36 months of service, and while you are proud to have served you are also delighted to be a civilian once again. In particular, on this Sunday, you are thrilled to be watching a ball game with friends, food, and beer. You only have to find the right station on the TV for the game. As you twist the heavy nob on your set, clunking past static and stations, a face appears that stops your sojourn through the numbers. The halo of permed hair is different, as are the civilian clothes and easy smile, but there’s no doubt about it. The man on the screen, talking about “happy little clouds” is Bob ‘Bust’em up Bobby’ Ross. Your old sergeant and tour guide to hell.
Robert Norman Ross was born in Daytona Beach Florida on October 29, 1942. At age 18, he enlisted in the Air Force and was trained as a medical records specialist. Over the next 20 years, he rose through the ranks to Master Sergeant. Towards the end of his career, he found himself posted as first sergeant at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks Alaska. Ross later stated it was the first time he had seen snow. Coming across such cold climes late in life Ross could have been forgiven for developing a distaste for his new posting, but instead, he quickly fell under the spell of the dramatic Alaskan landscape. After attending an art class at the Anchorage USO, Ross also fell under the spell of painting. This was despite some frustration with the teachers initially available to him, who were more interested in the philosophy of painting and abstract art. Per Ross, “They’d tell you what makes a tree, but they wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree.”
While working part-time as a bartender on the side, Ross came across a PBS tv show called The Magic of Oil Painting hosted by Bill Alexander. Alexander used a quick-painting method called ‘alla prima’ (first attempt) or ‘wet on wet’ that allowed him to finish an oil painting in 30 minutes. This suited Ross’s personality and philosophy perfectly, and he quickly adopted this new style. During short breaks during the day, he would paint landscapes and gold rush themed scenes on the backs of replica gold-mining pans. Eventually, in 1981 Ross found himself making more from his painting than he did with the Air Force and opted to retire, heading back to Florida to study and work with Bill Alexander. In his time in the Air Force, Ross had often been “the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work”. He decided he wasn’t going to yell again. Ever.
Ross’s wife Jane and several friends of the family convinced him he could succeed on his own in the painting business, and he parted ways with Alexander to start his own art supply company. At first, the going was slow; then, Ross got his big chance. Alexander was stepping back from his show on PBS, and the search was on for a new quick-painter to fill the niche. The Joy of Painting launched in 1983, first airing on the East Coast and the next year nationwide. The prolific Ross would go on to film 31 seasons, each of 13 episodes, over the next 11 years. The show would win 3 Emmys along the way and make Ross enough of an icon that he reluctantly chose to stick with the permed hairstyle he came to dislike because it had become a key part of his trademark. Each show, all filmed in a studio in Muncie, Indiana after the first season, was filmed in real-time with only two cameras. One medium shot, one close up. Ross became known for his calm and deliberate narrative style, and phrases such as ‘happy little clouds/trees’ inspired in part by Alexander and The Magic of Painting. He ended each episode with a variation of “… so from all of us here I’d like to wish you happy painting, and God bless, my friend …”
In the early ’90s at the peak of his fame, Ross was everywhere in pop culture making guest appearances on popular talk shows, on children’s programming (with Bill Nye and Elmo), and at the Grand Ol’ Oprey on stage with some of the Country Western musicians he loved. Sadly, his time was cut short by lymphoma, of which he died in 1995. By his own estimate, he had created in excess of 30,000 paintings.
The rise of the Internet has provided Bob Ross with an adventurous afterlife. His quick style proved perfect for YouTube and video sites such as Twitch that focus on live art, leading to an enduring interest and fame that lasts to this day. Enough so for the Smithsonian to take on the work of archiving a selection of his pictures and items from his show.
Bob Ross dedicated the first episodes of the first and second seasons of The Joy of Painting to his mentor Bill Alexander, saying “I feel as though he gave me a precious gift, and I’d like to share that gift with you.” He continues to share that gift today, a man who helped make his country both a bit safer and a bit happier and more beautiful. Today on #waybackwednesday we salute Master Sergeant Bob Ross, painter and airman.