New Bob Ross Doc Exposes the Battle to Profit Off the Painter of Happy Clouds
Bob Ross was known for his permed hair and his sanguine PBS TV series, The Joy of Painting, where he taught art to viewers nationwide for more than a decade in the 1980s and early Nineties. But as a titillating trailer suggested last week, his career wasn’t all happy trees and clouds.
The new documentary, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed, now streaming on Netflix, covers the span of Ross’ career with a focus on his relationship with business partners and Bob Ross, Inc. co-creators Walt and Annette Kowalski, who family and friends say used Ross to turn a profit and used legal strong-arming to claim the rights to continue to license his name after his death.
Ross’ son Steve Ross is the main source. He’s a painting instructor himself and came up against some legal red tape when he tried in 2016 to develop art supplies using the Ross name — his own name — because someone else owns it.
Lacking participation from the Kowalskis, the documentary leans heavily on Steve’s telling of the story, presenting Ross as a tree-hugging romantic who would have painted nature’s landscapes for free forever, had evil capitalists not swooped in to exploit his talents. Other reporting on Ross’ career suggests he was a shrewd businessman himself, and Annette Kowalski once described him as a “tyrant” with regards to his career decisions.
Interviews in the documentary with several friends and fellow artists support Steve’s assertions about the Kowalskis’ controlling nature, however, and the public record documents several legal battles over Bob Ross paintings, art supplies, and his name following his death. More than a dozen additional interviewees declined to participate, the documentary reveals, citing concerns over the Kowalskis’ litigious nature.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Ross was “discovered” at a painting class by a grieving mother.
Annette Kowalski met Bob Ross in 1982 when she attended his in-person painting class in the aftermath of her son’s death. “She was looking for something, and she found it in Bob Ross,” Ross’ son Steve says in the film. “And it wasn’t just the painting. It was something bigger than that. She felt renewed, inspired by Bob.”
“I called Bob and I said I don’t know what you’ve got, but I think we ought to bottle it and sell it,” Kowalski explains in archival footage. She and her husband Walt went into business with Ross, forming Bob Ross, Inc., and launching a career that included in-person art classes, and later his TV show that ran for 31 seasons (from 1983 to 1994), and a line of art products branded with his name.
Ross’ friend and fellow artist John Tham believes Ross didn’t realize what he was getting into with the partnership. “He was just not into it for the money,” Tham claims. “But the Kowalskis certainly were.”
2. Family-friendly painting show notwithstanding, Ross was quite the flirt.
It wasn’t a coincidence that The Joy of Painting followed the publication of the 1972 book The Joy of Sex. “He was trying to be a little sexy,” Steve said in the documentary, referring to Ross’ affect on TV. “He pretends like he’s talking to one woman, in bed,” Kowalski said in archival interview footage. Ross himself said he imagined speaking to just one person when he filmed the show, and it was someone he was “crazy about.” In his bedroom voice that would later become an icon of ASMR, he often told viewers to “caress the canvas,” and in one clip even, “make love to it.”
To some adult fans, he reached sex symbol status. His friend Dana Jester and son Steve Ross recalled one in-person art demonstration where Ross asked for help navigating a crowd of adoring fans. “After he finished his painting, he goes ‘Steve, Dana come here. You guys need to protect me. All these ladies are wanting my autograph and they’re following me and I’m trying to go to the restroom,’ ” Jester reveals in the documentary. “They were ripping his shirt off his chest,” Steve recalls.
3. Ross reportedly slept with his later-embattled business partner.
Steve reveals that his father had an affair with Annette Kowalski, and claims he overheard the truth come out while Ross and his second wife Jane argued one Christmas about whether he was “having relations with that woman.” The Jenkinses, a married couple and colleagues of Ross’ in the art TV world where they taught viewers to paint flowers, said that when they’d attended trade shows with Ross in the Eighties, they’d picked up him and Kowalski for dinner from the same hotel room. “We knew there was funny things going on there,” Kathwren Jenkins said in the documentary. Friends of Ross’ also described Kowalski acting jealous of any close relationship Ross had with a woman, including when he was friendly or flirtatious with fans. Bob Ross, Inc. and the Kowalskis denied to the filmmakers that an affair occurred.
4. Ross continued working and appearing on TV even while battling cancer at the end of his life, allegedly against the wishes of his business partners.
In 1994, Ross was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He wore a wig, Steve said in the documentary, to continue appearing on a TV show for kids after he began to distance himself from the Kowalskis and stopped working on Joy of Painting. “The Kowalskis got angry that Bob looked sick,” Steve said. “But he insisted… that he would be able to do the television show. Walt and Annette were totally against it. They both thought of Bob as something they had packaged and that they had made from the beginning. They didn’t want people to know he was sick.” The Kowalskis denied to the filmmakers that there was ever a rift in their relationship with Ross.
Ross’ wet-on-wet technique relied on paint thinner to clean the brush between paint colors. Ross had a habit on Joy of Painting of flicking the brush back and forth against the leg of a table or against a trash can to shake off the excess liquid, which sprayed into his jeans and into the air. “Almost every episode he’d be smacking that brush around,” Tham said. “All the effervescence of the paint thinner would float up right into his nostrils…. I always wondered if that didn’t have something to do with the lymphoma. I’m not a doctor, but it’s speculation.”
5. The Kowalskis and the Rosses have battled over the Ross name, before and after Ross’ death.
As Ross grew sicker, Annette Kowalski pressured him to sign paperwork for what Steve said she described to him as a memorial she wanted to build for Ross. When Steve looked at the language, however, it also turned over Ross’ “name and likeness” to Bob Ross, Inc. as registered assets. Ross refused, but that didn’t stop the Kowalskis from intensifying their efforts. “They knew he was getting closer to death, and as he did, they got more desperate,” Steve said, describing daily phone calls where his father shouted into the receiver. “You could hear him screaming, ‘I’m not giving you my name; you’re not getting my name!’”
Jester, who the documentary reveals is also a business partner of Steve’s, said the last time he spoke with Ross, Ross told him about the ongoing battle. “He said he wanted nothing to do with [Bob Ross, Inc.] or The Joy of Painting,” Jester said. “He said, ‘They’re trying to steal my name on my deathbed.’”
The most recent legal fight ended in 2019, when Steve learned he did not own his father’s intellectual property. Steve, who supports himself as an artist and attempted to license his own line of art supplies still does not benefit from the Ross name while BRI continues to make millions a year licensing lunchboxes, halloween costumes, jigsaw puzzles and more.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that there is no current legal filing between members of Bob Ross Inc. and Bob Ross’ estate or family.