The Art Angle Podcast: The Bitter Battle Over Bob Ross’s Empire of Joy

Joshua Rofé, the director of a new documentary on Ross, joins art critic Ben Davis to discuss the fight over Ross's happy little legacy.

"Bob Ross:Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed" courtesy of Netflix.

Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join us every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more with input from our own writers and editors as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.

Love him or laugh at him (or both), Bob Ross is absolutely one of America’s best known painters. Heck, we even argued that 2020 was the Year of Bob Ross: A quarter century after he died, a Bob Ross Experience debuted in Indiana last October as a site of pilgrimage for fans.

Meanwhile, Bob Ross Inc. continues to mint money authorizing new products, even licensing a cannabis company to make Bob Ross eyeshadows in his signature colors. People around the world continue to train to become official Bob Ross Certified painting instructors.

Most of all, the internet has let more people than ever discover old episodes of Bob Ross’s PBS show, The Joy of Painting, which ran from 1983 to 1994. In an age of memes, social media, and anxiety, Bob Ross’s big hair, easy on-camera demeanor, and welcoming patience have made him an icon with real and even growing power.

But there’s another side to the story, one told in the just-released Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed, produced by the actress Melissa McCarthy. It describes Ross’s ascent and connection with fans, but also tells the story of the battle behind the scenes for control of the Bob Ross Empire.

On one side are Annette and Walt Kowalski, Ross’s long-time business partners. They met him in 1982, lived with Ross and his wife, and helped manage his rise from popular painting instructor to unlikely PBS sensation. Today, they retain control of Bob Ross Inc. and all things therein—and remain a shadowy presence in the documentary, refusing to participate in the film.

On the other side is Steve Ross, Bob’s son, a painter himself, and a sometimes guest on The Joy of Painting, where his father spoke of Steve as his heir apparent. Today, Steve remains shut out of his father’s business legacy, and he accuses the Kowalskis of having maneuvered to seize control of his father’s empire of painterly positivity, even as Ross suffered from the lymphoma that ultimately killed him in 1995.

On this week’s episode, Joshua Rofé, the film’s director, joins critic Ben Davis to discuss Ross’s work, the riddle that was his life, and the bitter fight to control his legacy.

 

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