Readers will know Bob Ross (1942–1995) as the gentle, afro’d painter of happy trees on PBS. But Ross was a man of many contradictions. He’s famous, but few know him by name. Show someone a picture of this man with the trademark Afro and house-painting brush, and then they are likely to smile with nostalgia. On TV he emoted a rural naiveté and spoke about happy clouds and happy trees, which he simultaneously marketed to his fans from the helm of a multimillion-dollar company. He was, according to many, a mediocre painter, and yet as an artist he seems endlessly fascinating.
And although his physical body has left this world, Bob Ross’s presence around the world has only increased. This is evident when a search for Bob Ross Parody on YouTube returns 37,500 results. And even a scene from Family Guy (described below) take aim at Ross' gentle on-air persona.
Even after Bob’s death, parodies continued to be aired. For example, in an April 25, 2000, episode of the animated series Family Guy, titled “Fifteen Minutes of Shame,” the main character, Peter Griffin, is shown learning to paint from an animated Joy of Painting–like episode featuring a painter looking like Bob Ross. Painting a landscape, he uses a fan brush and hunter green paint to place a “happy little bush” in the right-hand corner of the painting, telling viewers that it is “our little secret.” Suddenly he experiences a personality change, warning his audience, “If you tell anyone that bush is there, I will come to your house and cut you!” At a certain point Griffin ignores the directions from Bob Ross and instead paints the Keaton family from the television series Family Ties.
His landscape paintings, as many critics have noted, may be cliché (trees on one side, mountains on the other, with a glimmering lake in the middle), but they clearly engage millions of art lovers from all walks of life. Bob’s compelling personality has motivated untold numbers of painters, but his reach extends beyond the canvas and brush. In Happy Clouds, Happy Trees, the authors thoughtfully explore how the Bob Ross phenomenon grew into a juggernaut.
This book uses contemporary art theory to explore the sophistication of Bob Ross’s vision as an artist. It traces the ways in which his many fans have worshiped, emulated, and parodied him and his work. His technique allowed him to paint over 35,000 paintings in his lifetime, mostly of mountains and trees in landscapes heavily influenced by his time in the Air Force and stationed in Alaska.
The authors address issues of amateur art, sentimentality, imitation, boredom, seduction, and democratic practices in the art world. They fully examine Ross as a painter, teacher, healer, media star, performer, magician, and networker. In-depth comparisons are made to Andy Warhol and Thomas Kinkade, and mention is made of his life in relation to Joseph Beuys, Elvis Presley, St. Francis of Assisi, Carl Rogers, and many other creative personalities.
In the end, Happy Clouds, Happy Trees presents Ross as a gift giver, someone who freely teaches the act of painting to anyone who believes in Ross’s vision that “this is your world.”