It’s hard to make friends when a pandemic keeps you in. And yet, I’ve managed to make a new best friend.
He emerges on my TV screen with an obnoxious blast of hair that belies his demeanor, calm like a trickling stream.
“Hi there,” he often starts with that hushed voice, chuckling, as if bashful or surprised, as if he wasn’t expecting you, or is rather excited to see you. “Ready to do a painting with me?”
These days I am always ready to do a painting with Bob Ross. Never in my life have I been more ready to do a painting with Bob Ross.
Actually, I don’t paint. I’d venture to guess the majority of Ross’ PBS viewers didn’t actually paint along with him and still don’t today when they pull him up on Netflix.
Which would probably make Ross sad. After all, his stated purpose with “The Joy of Painting” was to get people to paint, to introduce them to the simple pleasure of something he considered very simple.
“We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents,” he famously assured viewers.
It should all be happy, he said. Happy like his “happy little trees,” those evergreens he’d bring to life with the flick of his brush. Happy like his “happy little clouds,” which he’d dabble and whisk across his multicolored skies.
Everything happy. “That’s why I paint,” Ross explained during one episode. “It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it.”
No pressure, Ross often told watchers as he went. “Absolutely no pressure,” he whispers now as I watch him, softly applying titanium white on snowy mountainsides.
Pft, pft, pft, goes his dancing instrument. “Let it float,” he whispers. “Juuust let it float …”
This is an unusual kind of episode. Usually Ross starts with a blank canvas. Now it’s black. He’s inviting me into a dark forest.
Then he swirls paint on his trusty palette, mixing green and yellow and brown. And the result is this moss that he starts brushing at the base of the forest, a lime carpet suddenly appearing in the shadows.
Pft, pft, pft. “Juuust beautiful,” Ross whispers. “Juuust beautiful …”
And then he mixes some white and blue. And then between the mossy walls he forms water. He strokes his brush downward with the cascade.
“Now we have water that’s just coming along and falling right over there,” he whispers. “Just having a fantastic day …”
Maybe you’re not having a fantastic day. Maybe you need Bob Ross.
Maybe it’s no wonder there’s been a Bob Ross resurgence decades after “The Joy of Painting” ended. If you’re not seeing that fuzzy, smiling face on Netflix, then you’ve seen it on T-shirts, mugs, coloring books and afro-growing Chia Pets.
We needed Bob Ross then — back when America was recovering from Vietnam and Watergate and crack was laying waste to the streets — just like we need Bob Ross now.
This is the age of anxiety, and we didn’t need a virus to remind us of that. These are days of political division, of technological takeover, of empathy’s greatest test. It’s no wonder Ross has returned, taking pop culture’s center stage with fellow quiet TV star Fred Rogers.
Yes, some quiet and kindness would do us good. As would some painting.
In the documentary “The Happy Painter,” actress and artist Jane Seymour reflected on Ross’ show. “You just got swept into this magical world,” she said, “where you’re taken into a fantasy reality. It’s his, but it becomes your own.”
And along with happy trees and happy clouds, there are happy animals in this world. If Ross loved anything more than painting, it was animals. It was Peapod the squirrel, who we saw being bottle fed by Ross as his thumb rubbed the little friend’s back.
We saw Peapod fall asleep in the man’s palm. “I like to just watch him sleep,” he whispered.
We also watched Ross bottle feed a baby raccoon, cradle a baby deer and comfort a pair of baby robins he named Richard and Cathy. There was also Hoot the owl, who Ross showed before releasing the bird.
“By the time you see this, he’ll probably have a little condo in Miami and house payments, a BMW in the driveway,” Ross said of Hoot. “He’ll be like the rest of us, all trapped with responsibilities.”
Before the show, Ross’ responsibilities were with the military. He spent 20 years in the Air Force, rising to the rank of master sergeant.
“I was 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 told The Orlando Sentinel in 1990. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. … I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”
He took on the opposite persona in “The Joy of Painting,” re-creating the peaceful landscapes that inspired him while stationed in Alaska. His late-life orders were not barked but instead whispered, suggested. And sometimes the suggestions had nothing to do with painting.
“Don’t forget to tell the special people in your life just how special they are to you,” he once said.
So here I am telling Bob Ross how special he is to me now. I can’t actually tell him that, because he died far too soon in 1995.
He was 52 when he succumbed to complications from lymphoma. Of course, he never told fans about the disease. He only wanted them to be happy.
And happy he makes me now, as I sit on the couch after another long day and watch him finish up this waterfall, the canvas no longer dark but bright.
“Just let go,” he whispers, “and fall like a waterfall …”
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