When I was about 10, I remember flipping the channels on TV, lazily looking for something to watch. When none of my favorite stations had offered anything remotely interesting, I decided to give it one more cycle through all the channels before I broke out the Atari or my GI Joe figures. I came across a show on PBS of all places that not only made me stop and stare but also changed my life. The Show was called “The Joy Of Painting”.
It was a simple set; black background and a man casually standing next to his easel in the foreground. The man had on a light blue shirt with several buttons open, a ridiculous auburn afro and a penchant for talking about “happy little trees”. The man was Bob Ross and my first reaction was to smirk and look on hoping that what I was about to see would be so bad that it would be good, but the more I watched, the more I was drawn in. It wasn’t bad at all, it was mesmerizing.
Slowly, Ross would conjure up a beautiful scene out of a plain white or black canvas. With colors like Prussian Blue, Van Dyke Brown and Indian Yellow he cheerfully tapped brooks, bushes, mountains and beautiful, happy trees out of his brush. He was effortless, zen-like and spoke in mellow, even, soothing tones. He was the original most-satisfying video.
Through the magic of YouTube, I introduced him to my children. Within minutes my 9-year-old daughter was replicating his painting alongside him with her crayons. My 2-year-old -not known for his calmness- fell into a near hypnotic trance from the very first soothing tones of Ross’ melodious voice.
Ross had a calming, fatherly persona that exuded warmth, humanity and even charisma. As a boy, his consistency, methodical approach, and patience gave me routine and structure that unknowingly craved.
Even if you never picked up a brush in your life, he just made you feel like you had it in you to paint a picture and if you believed you could paint then you started to think that you could do anything. Sitting and staring at a screen for 25 minutes, not moving a muscle never felt so empowering. Ross made you feel like no matter who you are, change was within your grasp.
The most fascinating and counterintuitive thing I found out about Ross was that he spent about 20 years serving in the United States Air Force, reaching the rank of Master Sargent. It’s hard for me to picture this relaxed artist as ever being a clean-shaven, enlisted man with a crew cut and dark scowl across his face but in an interview he described himself back then as “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”
His next words are so crucial and so beautiful:
”The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”
When he got out of the service, that’ what he did. Bob Ross became someone new, almost unrecognizable both inside and out. He didn’t change overnight, that’s not how real change works. He made a choice to decide both what he did and did not want to be. Slowly the person we all met and loved emerged.
People can change. People who have the earnest belief that they themselves can change often have the added gift of making others feel that way too.
Bob, you certainly made me feel that way. Thank you.
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