Bob Ross, with his big brown Afro and soothing on-screen persona, was known as the ultimate encouraging instructor to thousands who watched his PBS series “The Joy of Painting.” Until he died in 1995 at age 52, he was always firm in his belief that there are no mistakes and that any viewer following his simple oil-painting approach could, with a little patience, create pretty landscapes. His hit show spawned a sprawling empire of instructional tapes and franchise art studios, and now “the Bob Ross phenomenon” is the subject of a new book from the University of Mississippi called “Happy Clouds, Happy Trees,” by Kristin Congdon, Doug Blandy and Danny Coeyman.
Why is there no Bob Ross artwork in this celebration of Bob Ross? The authors gingerly hint at the “uneasy relationship” that exists between Bob Ross enthusiasts and the folks at Bob Ross Inc., the multimillion-dollar corporation that zealously guards the painter’s legacy (and once slapped a cease-and-desist order on a newborn Bob Ross fan club in the United Kingdom).
Hence, artist Coeyman, working on general Bob Ross principles, does his best to imitate the style of the roughly 30,000 paintings Ross left behind — although sometimes he’s unsure whether he’s making “a Bob or just a blob.”
The authors fill in the gaps with an open enthusiasm so vulnerable to parody that the reader can only admire its bravery. They look at Bob Ross as guru, as shaman, as life coach — even, improbably, as sexual provocateur: “Close-ups of Bob’s hand showed him mixing, spurting, spilling, whacking, and stroking paint all over the studio,” they write as we cringe. “Bob made paint porn.”
They look at his oil techniques, simple as they are, and dutifully construct whole worlds of significance for them. Those of us who remember “The Joy of Painting” mainly as a treasured oasis, a deep, cleansing breath in the middle of a busy day, might have to stifle the odd giggle when reading these overly earnest passages. Does everything, we might ask, need to be significant? When the authors defiantly assert Ross’s importance to “Art History, pedagogy and cultural anthropology,” they seem to be working way too hard.
There are touching moments in “Happy Clouds, Happy Trees”: The authors effectively capture the sense of quiet optimism Ross conveyed to his viewers, many of whom probably never got any closer to a blank canvas than the ones they watched him decorate on “The Joy of Painting.” There also are defensive moments, most of them in a hilariously catty chapter explaining the differences between Ross and Thomas Kinkade, the feel-good treacle-artist for whom he’s often mistaken. (“Kinkade did not paint nature,” we’re told, “he painted real estate.”) And as for any deep personal conflicts that drove Ross to perform, well, you’ll have to take that up with Bob Ross Inc.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.