by Hannah Gentry
A man with a big afro and a big heart has been taking the pop-culture community by storm. Bob Ross, the host of PBS’ The Joy of Painting, is a well-known figure of public television. Starting from the first episode in 1983, Bob Ross became a likeable teacher for people of all ages to enjoy. His charming personality mixed with his calm approach to guiding viewers through step-by-step art tutorials is what makes watching Bob Ross relaxing and almost therapeutic. Then, on May 17th, 1994, the final episode of The Joy of Painting aired, and a year later, Ross sadly passed away due to lymphoma. America had lost its iconic painter, but to the individual viewer, it was more than that. The audience lost a man who was like a friend that reached out to them from beyond the screen.
However, Bob Ross never truly died to his audience, and through modern media his spirit has been revived. Instead of fading into obscurity or becoming a part of television history, Ross is still commonly known, watched, and talked about. While The Joy of Painting continued to air reruns on multiple channels long after Ross’ death (thanks to his loyal fans) a sudden boom in interest has taken over. Interestingly, many of the new fans who have become fascinated with him were either very young or not born yet at the time when the last episode premiered. It is these young fans who have helped cultivate Ross into a pop-culture icon. All sorts of Bob Ross merchandise came out of seemingly nowhere. At first, it was nothing out of the ordinary. There were t-shirts, Halloween costumes, and posters, but now it has become more of an obsession. There are Bob Ross energy drinks, magnets, cookie cutters, waffle makers, board games, pillows, and so on. Anything an executive can possibly think of to put Ross’s name and likeness on has been done. Nostalgia sells; and there is an unexpected market for merchandise related to the iconic artist. People continue to buy these items and the hype for Ross is still going strong, possibly even stronger than it was during his lifetime. Yet, why is it that young people have become drawn to Bob Ross specifically?
What sparked the resurgence of Bob Ross is an unlikely platform: Twitch. Twitch is the most popular streaming site world-wide. At its core, the website is centered around video games and livestreams of online influencers. 76% of Twitch users are between the ages of 18-34, with the average age being 21 years old. In October of 2015, Twitch decided to host a 9-day marathon of every episode of The Joy of Painting as a tribute to him for his birthday. This endeavor was wildly successful and at one point amassed nearly 6 million viewers. Online users in the chatroom were spamming to keep Bob Ross going. Twitch has a relatively young audience, but they were thrilled to see the iconic painter on their screen. They could not get enough of Ross, and Twitch decided to meet their demands. Now, every Monday, they air an episode of The Joy of Painting, and viewers continue to tune in to the stream.
Bob Ross got the internet’s attention, and the momentum just kept going. Bob Ross merchandise started to spread and be carried in stores, much to the surprise of the older generation. Memes started sprouting everywhere quoting his “beat the devil out of it” line when he whacked his paint brush against the easel. He has also become a figure of positivity with memorable phrases like “happy little accidents” or “everyone needs a friend.” In 2018, The Washington Post reported that libraries in Oregon, New York, and Utah started to host Bob Ross paint-alongs. Many people wanted to be a part of the nostalgic experience, and the massive popularity of the event led to some people waiting for as long as six months just to get a spot. This incident shows the dedication that Ross’ fans have. His devoted fans were the ones who kept him on the air for so long and the newer fans continue to support him. There is something universally enjoyable about Ross that led to him becoming so loved and made mainstream again. Ross had an easily recognizable and marketable appearance with his unique afro-hairdo, but it isn’t just the afro that made him stand out. His television show creates an experience that is hard to forget once you’ve watched it.
Nostalgia is triggered by something that brings back memories of a happier time. It is this glimpse of happiness that makes people long for something associated with the days gone by. The Joy Of Painting is like an interactive time capsule to the past. Even for those who were too little or not born yet during its runtime, the retro feeling from watching the show is still present. Ross acted as more than a painter or an art teacher: he was a host. In each episode he strived to create a connection with whoever was tuning in. He painted while simultaneously being an entertainer and communicating with the viewer. Because of that, even years later the show feels personal and sincere, as though there is no distance between the past and the present.
Now that it is 2019, nearly 24 years after his death, Bob Ross is still a household name. Just the mention of him rings a bell and brings back a happy feeling of nostalgia. We have a desire for the past, even a past that we might not have genuine ties to. Maybe we just like thinking back to simpler times and experiencing a feel-good relic from the old days. Whether it be through merchandise, watching his show, or painting, his spirit has been renewed through the pop-culture scene and kept alive through the memory of those he touched. He showed his audience there is freedom through painting, and now, years later, he continues to free us from our stress and negativity. Art is timeless, but for Bob Ross, the artist himself has also become timeless.