No happy accident
By ANDREW MCGINN
For a generation of us without cable and with too much time on our hands in the summer, Bob Ross was always just that guy with the ’fro and a chipmunk up his sleeve who made painting nature look impossibly easy.
And that voice. That gentle, hypnotic voice that had you eating out of his palm — except that you couldn’t really because there was already a fawn or a sparrow there nibbling at his kindness.
Each tap-tap-tap of his brush on the canvas seemed to warm the soul itself, although it’s difficult to tell whether that was solely the work of Ross or else the entire can of SpaghettiOs you’d just eaten.
So you’d just lay there. Watching. Bored out of your skull.
But it still beat a good day at school, of course.
That was summer vacation in the years before the internet.
A 1991 profile of Ross in The New York Times opened with this sentence: “To those who have never been hospitalized or under prolonged house arrest, the name Bob Ross may be unfamiliar.”
“There wasn’t a lot on. You just watched it because it was on,” verified Annie Smith, 39, now the PK-12 principal at Paton-Churdan and a mom of four, including one major Bob Ross fan.
If any of us watching Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” on PBS in real-time between 1983 and 1994 were compelled by the experience to become artists, it would have been — in the man’s own words — a “happy accident.”
Most of us Gen X’ers were no more likely to pick up a palette knife after watching “The Joy of Painting” than we were to want a wok after watching “Yan Can Cook.”
So what to make of a 10-year-old kid in the 21st century, with all of Netflix at her disposal, who deliberately watches reruns of Bob Ross’ show and now wants to turn her bedroom closet into a painting studio?
Every generation, it seems, finds a way to confound their parents.
Smith’s daughter, Alivya, who just finished fourth grade at P-C, is about to embark on a long summer of her own — but only because she has to wait until September before her Bob Ross-themed 11th birthday party.
The Smiths already have the canvasses and the palettes purchased that Alivya and her guests will need to paint all sorts of happy little trees.
As unlikely as it seems, Alivya first discovered Bob Ross via Netflix when she was in second grade.
“I didn’t think I’d watch him like I do,” Alivya confessed, clad in a T-shirt on this day with Ross’ smiling face on it.
“He’s really quiet,” she said when asked what she likes most about watching Ross’ show.
The man himself has been deceased for nearly 25 years, having succumbed to cancer in 1995 at the age of 52.
Even so, he now has more than 1.4 million followers on Facebook.
A Bob Ross Chia Pet is a real thing.
The teaser trailer in 2017 for “Deadpool 2” featured Marvel Comics’ R-rated mutant mercenary donning a fake ’fro and parodying “The Joy of Painting.”
In death, Bob Ross is everywhere.
“He has a whole new generation of people who like him,” Smith said.
Wherever he is, I have to think that Ross was looking down and smiling on Churdan from atop his mighty mountain shortly before the end of the 2018-19 school year.
There in the P-C art room was Alivya, tap-tap-tapping a serene mountain landscape in the style of her frizzy-haired hero.
This was the first year K-8 art teacher Tami Minnehan broke away from the usual way of teaching art to kids, in a group with everyone working on the same thing.
Minnehan instead gave each student a choice, a move that not only made them more creative, she said, but more reflective.
“I rarely have kids off task,” she said.
Alivya, for one, liked this new way of doing art.
“This way,” Alivya said, “you can make it however you want, and you can’t compare it with other people.”
If students don’t care for any of the studios Minnehan has for them to choose from, they can propose an independent study on a form she created.
“It’s for kids who have a passion for something I’m not offering,” Minnehan said.
Still, it’s a safe bet that Minnehan — who loves to teach students about the likes of Frida Kahlo — probably wasn’t expecting to receive a proposal that answered her question of, “What are you wanting to do,” with, “doing a Bob Ross painting.”
That said, there was no denying the thoroughness of Alivya’s proposal, especially when it came to listing the colors she would need to successfully complete her project. Prussian Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Van Dyke Brown, Sap Green and Phthalo Blue were just a few of the colors she listed.
As you might expect, Minnehan isn’t real keen on Bob Ross.
She and her friends watched “The Joy of Painting” in college, she said, “in an ironic sort of way.”
It would seem that college art students don’t think all that highly of a guy who could complete an entire painting in 26 minutes, and he still had time to feed a baby squirrel by hand.
Or maybe it was the line of Bob Ross-branded paint and supplies that provoked their cynicism.
But as an art teacher, Minnehan now has to admit that Bob Ross’ show is a valuable teaching tool for young artists like Alivya.
As Minnehan explained, Ross explains concepts like color, line, shape, form, blending and texture in a way that’s easy to grasp.
And what other fourth grader would be learning about Prussian blue?
Alivya got down to work, watching “The Joy of Painting” in class — to be specific, Season 14, Episode 1, “Distant Mountains” — on an iPad and painting alongside Bob Ross, just like the man intended back in the late ’80s, when the episode first aired on PBS.
“It doesn’t matter how you paint it,” Alivya said, echoing her hero. “You can’t really mess up.”
She points out the river in her finished painting, which was supposed to have been a bridge.
That was one of those “happy accidents.”
Minnehan is instilling a love of art in kids, Annie Smith observed.
“She has opened up the world of art to our kids,” Smith explained.
In late May, P-C students in grades 3-5 visited the Des Moines Art Center, and they returned boasting of having been able to view “the most beautiful Georgia O’Keeffe,” Smith said.
“I don’t think I knew who Georgia O’Keeffe was until I was an adult,” she said, still stunned.
In Minnehan’s view, if Bob Ross is the one to get Alivya excited about art, why discourage it?
Alivya may have learned about Prussian blue from a cheesy old TV show, but she nevertheless learned about it — she’ll now be able to look at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or anything from Picasso’s blue period with a more informed eye.
After Alivya completed her version of Ross’ “Distant Mountains,” Minnehan urged her in the final days of school to paint a second landscape all her own.
The result was a scene from memory of a waterfall outside Buffalo, N.Y., as seen on a family trip.
“I’m not a fan of Bob Ross,” Minnehan declared. “I’m a fan of Alivya.”