1) Alaska: Ross was only 16 when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1961, and he’d spend the next twenty years in the service, working as a medical records technician (and eventually master sergeant) stationed at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska. I’m sure the Air Force had plenty of influences on the rest of Ross’ life and work and could have been an “A” entry in this list instead, but it seems to me that the stunning Alaskan landscapes, which in my experience are truly unique across all of America, loomed even larger in the paintings and artistic worlds for which Ross would become so well-known. Yet as always with artistic works, Ross’ paintings were a representation of and perspective on that subject, rather than the subject itself—for example, I’d say that Alaskan landscapes can be quite intimidating, especially in their reminder of our human smallness in the face of a wider world that doesn’t have much concern for or about us (nor should it); yet for Ross they were indeed filled with happy trees and other reflections of a peaceful and positive world, a reflection of his unique perspective and voice that were so instrumental in making him the icon he became.
2) Alexander: I have to believe that perspective and voice were very much Ross’ own, but both his artistic style and his TV presence were greatly influenced by another painter, the German American artist Bill Alexander. Alexander’s TV show The Magic of Oil Painting (1974-82) was an early and influential use of television to teach painting and art, and both the show overall and in particular Alexander’s “wet-on-wet” technique, which allowed him to create full paintings in about half an hour, were direct inspirations for Ross’ artistic and TV careers alike. So much so, in fact, that when Ross retired from the Air Force in 1981 he moved to Florida, studied with Alexander, and became a traveling salesman and tutor for his Alexander Magic Art Supplies Company. The two men eventually had a falling out over such familiar issues as a student surpassing a teacher and whether due respect was paid to the latter, and I would argue that Alexander and his show should be as well-known as Ross’. But in any case, there’s no Bob Ross without Bill Alexander.
3) Art for All: That’s all part of how we should remember and tell the story of this iconic artist and PBS host. But to my mind, the simplest and most important part of that story is this: the transformation of art and painting from elite cultural products of talented individuals to work that anyone and everyone could create. I’m not suggesting for a moment that there aren’t particularly talented individual painters—I’ve had the chance to know some hugely talented professional painters and visual artists, including my aunt, and they had both skills and careers that reflect the medium as a serious artistic form. But I would say very much the same thing about painting that I’d say about writing: while levels of skill and talent can and will vary, everyone who wants to do it should do it, and should share what they do with all of us to add their voices and work to the conversation. That might seem like a truism, but I don’t know that it was before Bob Ross (and, yes, Bill Alexander among others I’m sure), and that’s a pretty darn important legacy to celebrate on his birthday.
Next PBS person tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?