Movies & TV

Netflix's Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed Reveals a Side of the Artist Most Don't Know

The painter's military career inspired much more of his personal brand than you may have realized.
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In his heyday, Bob Ross held the attention of America with the stroke of a paintbrush. Through the 1980s and early '90s, he established himself as the premier instructional artist, leading watchers through a quick landscape via The Joy of Painting, which aired for 31 seasons on PBS affiliates across the nation. And though the last episode to air was in 1994, Ross's legacy hasn't only endured—it's experiencing a renaissance. Younger generations are finding Ross decades later. Is it his unfamiliar calming aesthetic? The lack of pomp and circumstance in a society that thrives off pomp and circumstance? Or maybe the killer hairdo?

No matter the reason, Bob Ross remains, though a new Netflix documentary titled Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed introduces audiences to Ross's larger story. Long before he appeared on television, Ross had a fascination with art, carving out a place in the niche art world in Florida. The documentary aims to follow that personal journey from his Air Force background to an art tour of the Eastern seaboard. Oh, and of course, the complicated relationship he had with a family who changed the trajectory of his legacy for years to come.

The Early Years

Before Ross became a staple of the art world, he grew up in Florida with his mother and father. He dropped out of school in ninth grade and worked in carpentry for a while before losing part of his index finger. Later he made a career shift and enlisted in the Air Force in 1961. As an eventual master sergeant, he worked in Alaska, which happened to inspire a good number of the landscapes he would go on to paint later on episodes of The Joy of Painting. Ross's career in the military required him to yell and keep those who reported to him in line, thus, he said that when he left the military, he decided not to raise his voice again.

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During his tenure in the military, Ross developed a love of painting, though he struggled to connect with instructors he had along the way. Eventually, he found Bill Alexander's The Joy of Oil Painting. Alexander's demeanor was starkly different from the one that Ross became known for—bombastic and loud, the German painter's technique proved to be in line with Ross's style, even if the teaching manner was not.

Beginnings of Painting

Upon leaving the military, Ross started a career as a painter. Back in Florida, he studied under Alexander, mastering the wet-on-wet technique that he was known for. Between selling art and teaching courses through Alexander's company, Ross made a steady living. But all of that began to change when Ross met a student named Annette Kowalski, who attended one of Ross's classes after become enamored with Alexander. As it turned out, Kowalski shared more of a kinship with Ross, eventually encouraging him to branch out on his own, abandon Alexander's business, and begin a company of his own with support from the Kowalski family.

Kowalski saw Ross as a star, and his persona connected with the masses. Known for his signature afro (which he reportedly did not like, but continued to perm because it became part of his brand) and calming voice, he was the antithesis of Alexander's cadence, but quite similar in artistic style.

Superstardom and Health Decline

After leaving Alexander behind, Ross and the Kowalskis developed a massive company under the name of Bob Ross Inc. Not only did the company boast the series The Joy of Painting, which slowly but surely swept the nation, but it introduced a series of art products. Alexander would suggest that these products were very closely based off his own line, though Ross's company continued to produce them with the help of Weber Arts.

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In later years, Ross's second wife, who was an equal owner of the company, died of cancer. That left Ross as a minority owner in the company that bore his name. This became increasingly difficult later when Ross was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In his final hours, he attempted to change ownership of his namesake and intellectual property over to his half-brother Jimmie and his son, Steve. While the paperwork was finalized, ownership of the company (and many of Ross's assets) fell to the Kowalski family. Ross died on July 4, 1995. To this day, Bob Ross Inc. is owned and managed by the Kowalski family.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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About The Author
Justin Kirkland
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture. Prior to Esquire, his work appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood Reporter, and USA Today. He is from East Tennessee and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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