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A Q&A With the Steward of Bob Ross

On Monday, we published a statistical analysis of the paintings of the late Bob Ross, the man behind the easel on PBS’s “The Joy of Painting.” But Ross didn’t build his empire alone. We spoke to Annette Kowalski, Ross’s longtime business partner and painting collaborator. I spoke to Kowalski by phone last week, and the interview was too interesting to not publish. If you want to get inside Ross’s head, the woman who found the painter in a Clearwater, Fla., studio is a fine place to start. The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Q: Bob Ross has remained popular in the nearly two decades since his passing. To what do you credit that?

I think it’s Bob’s demeanor more than Bob’s ability to paint. I think it’s just his demeanor on television. There’s one main thing that Bob drove to do, and if you listen carefully, he never says, “I’m going to teach you.” I think a lot of people on television-learning shows make that mistake. Bob always says, “Let’s learn this together.” He didn’t put people down, and he made people think they could do it, and together they would learn to do it.

But mostly, it’s his calming voice. The majority of people who watch Bob Ross have no interest in painting. And Bob is quite popular all over the world.

A: Could you describe his popularity?

Oh, my Lord. I don’t know. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have watched the show. … He’s pretty much been seen on all PBS stations, and he’s on several television stations all over the world. He’s quite popular in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the U.K., Germany, Mexico — I don’t know where else. The number of people who have actually seen him, I wouldn’t begin to know how to tell you.

I can tell you that we make Bob Ross-certified instructors all over the world. We have have a team of American teachers who go out and they train people in these foreign countries and in this country to teach Bob Ross. Over the years, we’ve accumulated over 5,000 and 10,000 people who teach the Bob Ross technique of painting. If you want to learn, you want me to sign you up for a class?

What’s the history of the Bob Ross Co.?

I lived in Washington, D.C. — now this is long before you were born, back in 1982. Have you seen the Bob Ross documentary? Did Joan send you the DVD? … In 1982, I lost a son in a traffic accident. I was devastated, and I was laying on the couch, unable to move, after the death of this child. At that time, there was an old German man who painted on television on PBS, and his name was Bill Alexander. And I decided I wanted to take a class with Bill Alexander.

So my husband called the Alexander company in Oregon and said, could his wife take a class? My husband would have done anything to get me up off the couch. The company said, “Alexander is no longer teaching painting classes, but he’s got a protege who’s going to be teaching classes in Clearwater, Florida.” I was in D.C. Well, I was devastated, but we decided to go to Clearwater to take a class from this unknown guy called Bob Ross. Well, my dear, it took me only one day in that classroom to see the effect that Bob was having on students. It was amazing. I was so mesmerized by Bob that I didn’t paint, I just followed him around the room watching him interact with the other students. And after class one Monday night, I took him to a hot-dog joint. I said, “Bob, I had to drive 1,000 miles to take this class. We have nothing like this on the East Coast. … Would you agree to come and teach a class in Washington?”

Well, that was the beginning of the Bob Ross Company. We actually had trouble getting students into this class that we had set up in Washington, so we decided we would do a commercial. My husband took Bob into a television studio, and he painted in front of the cameras and we made this commercial. Then the station manager walked in and said, “Well, this guy is great, we’ve got to do a series with him.” This was 1982 in Northern Virginia, and the rest is history. So, I discovered Bob Ross. I take full credit, and any money you want to send. [Laughter.]

He had a consistent style and painted very similar themes over his long career. 

I should tell you, Bob lived in Alaska, and he was pretty much only interested in painting Alaskan scenery. He was stationed in Alaska, in the Air Force. He was born in Daytona, Florida, and joined the Air Force when he was quite young. He was stationed in Alaska maybe 20 years, and that’s reflected in what he paints. He was in Anchorage. Actually, Fairbanks.

So, he took inspiration from his time in Fairbanks?

How many times did Bob paint people? I will tell you Bob’s biggest secret. If you notice, his cabins never had chimneys. That’s because chimneys represented people, and he didn’t want any sign of a person in his paintings. Check the cabins: They have no chimneys. I just thought of it — that’s an exclusive. I’ve never repeated that to anybody. I can think of two times he painted people. There was a man by a campfire and two people walking through the woods.

No chimneys?

Never. Never a chimney. [Pause.] I’m sure you’re going to call me tomorrow and say you found a chimney.

How would you describe what Bob was trying to do with his work? Was this a retreat? A meditation?

That’s a very good question. I think Bob was just doing what he enjoyed doing and interacting with people. When I first met Bob and we started this company in D.C., it was my company, Bob was working for me; I was paying Bob. Bob said to me, “Just do what makes you happy, and the money will come.” And that was pretty much his philosophy. We never thought about money. There wasn’t anything we did that was for money. It was really just to make people happy.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.