Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed

When I was growing up, John Gnagy’s “Learn to Draw” series on television encouraged everyone, especially kids, how easy it was to draw. I remember that at the end of the show viewers were encouraged to submit artwork for evaluation. My older brother—he might have been about 9—did an absolutely terrific drawing, for which he received a grade of “C.” He could take expensive correspondence classes to improve, which even I, as a young child, figured out was a scam (not that my family could afford art lessons).

In the probing Netflix documentary, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, produced by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone and directed by Joshua Rofé, we get a portrait of one of the later and most popular television art teachers, Bob Ross, who, in the PBS series “The Joy of Painting” preached that everyone had the ability to paint if they tried. Working out of a studio in Muncie Indiana, Ross completed an entire landscape painting in the course of the 30-minute PBS show, while offering cheerful and inspirational advice. With his deeply personal tone and sexy voice pitched to a largely female audience, Ross came across as a kindly art therapist. He soon became a “brand.”

Bob Ross had his flaws as a person, but there’s a much a darker side to the story, following his death from cancer at age 52 in 1995. It involves his promoters, Annette and (ex-CIA agent) Walt Kowalski, who took control of Ross’s estate Through legal maneuvering. They have been marketing and licensing his name under Bob Ross, Inc. ever since, while successfully cutting out Bob’s son, Steve, also a painter and art instructor.

The company promotes art classes, painting supplies, and everything from Bob Ross watches to Chia Pets. It’s a sad story, to be sure, especially because the “villains” appear to have won the legal battle. Hopefully the new documentary, which is stirring up controversy, might have some impact, at least judging from the moral outrage being expressed on the company’s FB page. Who wants to buy anything “Bob Ross” when we all know now who’s really getting rich off the artist’s name?