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Bob Ross: Teaching Joy, Even Amid the Shadows

September 3, 2021


Joy is a common word in the Bible and in Christian tradition, butlike many biblical and theological wordsjoy does not always mean what most people might assume. It’s not a synonym for happiness, nor is joy the same thing as optimism. In Matthew 28:8, we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Joy does not replace negative feelings, but rather accompanies them into the heart of God.

Joy is fleeting on our side of eternity. Jesus tells the disciples in John 16:22, “you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” St. James tells us, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” (James 1:2). St. Paul talks about joy several times, including (perhaps most importantly) as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The Catechism identifies joy as the experience of the reality of heaven (CCC 1029-1030). C.S. Lewis, a Romantic by sensibility, identified joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction,” a longing for and a foretaste of the world to come.

It is no surprise that real joy is often associated with particularly imaginative types like Lewis; and in the second half of the twentieth century, the word attached itself to the most famous television artist of his age, Bob Ross. The Joy of Painting debuted in 1983, and its thirty-one seasons live on in syndication and via streaming down to the present day. Since Ross’ death in 1995, he has become one of the best-known icons in American popular culture, burned into our memory thanks in large part to his famously frizzy hairdo. Few would dispute that Ross radiates “joy,” however you define it.

The new Netflix documentary from director Joshua Rofé, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed, offers many testimonies about the enduring positive effect Ross’ television show had on the culture. But it also shows us a shadow sidenot so much of Ross, who was largely what he appeared to be, but of the competing forces at work even now that seek to own and profit from his legacy. The film focuses most on Steve Ross, Bob’s kindly, hurting son who shared his father’s work and still believes in a vision of well-being through painting. But Steve has been left largely on the sideline of the multi-million-dollar Bob Ross Inc., run by Bob’s old partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski. We feel sorry for Steve, who appeared regularly on The Joy of Painting as a young man in the 1980’s and 90’s; but we also recognize in his misfortunes that his father’s work was never at heart about money or worldly success.

The documentary highlights how Ross’ positive attitude and soft-spoken voice continue to create a means of therapy for people in physical or psychological pain. One of the best parts of the film is a collection of testimonies from people who watched Bob Ross while they were in states of depression, anxiety, illness, and confusion and found hope to carry on. Bob was not perfect, but his painting show has saved lives. I admit, I don’t particularly like Bob Ross’ paintings, but I have turned to The Joy of Painting over the years many times when I have needed to sublimate my melancholy. When our home flooded earlier this year, my family and I camped out in the living room and switched on The Joy of Painting every night to calm us all down and take our minds off our difficulties before drifting off to sleep. My daughter still lights up talking about Peapod, Bob’s pocket squirrel.

And then there are the “happy accidents” of the film’s subtitle. It is one of Ross’ most recognizable catchphrases, and while its usual antecedent“we don’t make mistakes”does not line up with Christian morality, Ross’ encouragement to see beyond present appearances is what joy is all about. For many of us, “happy accidents” may even be a consoling, straightforward way to think about the problem of evil. When Bob Ross puts a giant brown streak down the center of what looks like a finished landscape, we cringe. He does it every single time, and it never makes sense, no matter how many episodes we have seen. But inevitably, the streak becomes a lovely tree just in time for Ross to sign the painting and wish us “Happy painting, and God bless” before the credits roll. Happy Accidents finally shows us how Bob’s son Steve, along with other old friends and colleagues, clearly know the power of joy despite their heartaches. Whatever mess his life may have become, Steve does not despair. His memories of his father are precious, and his future need not be bleak. Business is business, but in the grand scheme of things, what does it really matter who gets a raw deal? As the Psalmist says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Happy Accidents ends in a particularly meaningful place for me personally: Woodlawn Cemetery in Gotha, Florida. Bob Ross was quietly laid to rest there after succumbing to cancer in 1995. Two years later, my family buried my grandfather (also a Bob) in a plot just a few feet over from Bob Ross’. A few years after that, my grandmother, Mary, joined her late husband and the joyful painter in the same hallowed ground. Cemeteries can be morbid places for some people, but they never have been for me. And on the rare occasion when I get back to Woodlawn to visit the graves of my grandparents, I cry and smile at Bob Ross too. Sitting thousands of miles away from the cemetery as I write this, just conjuring the image of all three of them brings me, in a word, joy.

As Ross sometimes said on his show, “You need the dark in order to see the light.” In the shadows of Happy Accidents, the brightness of Bob Ross intensifies. Check out Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Greed, and Betrayal for a dose of joy that transcends worldly worries.