Bob Ross-ing It

Jess: What is this sorcery?
Me: We didn’t need Harry Potter; we had Bob Ross.

It’s late afternoon in the office, and, looking for something else, I happen upon The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross on Hulu. I decided that there wouldn’t be a better way to end the day than with 30 minutes of happy little trees.

Jess, a co-worker, had never seen an episode of The Joy of Painting or had even heard of Bob Ross. We spent the next 30 minutes mesmerized by an episode of the show, where in that time he produced a complete painting replete with the usual mix of clouds, trees, mountains, water, and such. I whooped like I watching a hockey game. “Wait for it! He’s getting out his knife! OOOOOOOH! THE FAN BRUSH! HAPPY! LITTLE! TREES!”

If you’ve never seen an episode of the show, then click on the link above and watch one, for free, on his YouTube channel. If you’ve never met me, then you probably don’t know that Bob Ross and I could not be more opposite in our demeanor. Jess giggled when Ross would say, “now, let’s get crazy,” his tone never changed from the soothing, even tone while I was cheering, YES! CRAZY!

Watching the show, now, after not having seen an episode in years, put into sharp focus how much my approach to teaching and learning has changed, how much it has stayed the same, and how, inadvertently, it was shaped by Bob Ross and his show about painting. And how much it still can.

“It’s so important to do something every day that will make you happy.”

My first introduction to Bob Ross was sitting in my grandmother’s living room with her, watching it on PBS. Nanny was an amateur painter herself. She had painted when she was younger, but gave it up, picking it up again after kicking her 40+ year smoking habit. In the 20 or so years between when she picked up her brushes again and then passed away, she probably painted almost 1000 paintings, large and small.

To me, what Bob Ross and my grandmother did and really what any artist does was like magic. Ross, in particular, made it look effortless. And it certainly was filled with joy. My grandmother, for whom my other strongest memory was of her listlessly lying on her couch and smoking the day away, was changed after she started painting again. Joyful was never a word anyone would use to describe Nanny, but she was certainly happier and livelier once she started painting again. I would visit and she would show me the various paintings she was working on, the folded over pages in magazines and sticky notes in calendars she would use for inspiration for her next 10 paintings, at least. I loved listening to her go on and on about her painting.

For me, though, there was no joy in painting, or in any art, really. All thumbs and with hopeless sense of depth and shadow, painting held no joy. And I didn’t understand effortlessness in any realm. I saw there were people who possessed it, like Bob Ross, in all different areas. Even swimming, the things that brought me joy (if I could sell a book or tv show called The Joy of Swimming, I would), was far from effortless for me. Red-faced, tear-streaked, and bruised (yes, bruised), in either practices or races, I would cringe at how my times stayed stubbornly the same.

Bob Ross was soothing, insofar as he would reassure me that anything was possible, if I just worked long and hard enough at it, but at the same time I knew that, really, I could, but it would bring me no joy. I would watch, with my grandmother, bewildered by this man who was so self-possessed, so self-assured, so much the opposite of what I felt all the time. I took joy in their joy, but struggled to find it for myself.

“Gotta give him a friend. Like I always say, ‘Everyone needs a friend.’”

My last two years in Sherbrooke, where I did my undergraduate and Master’s degrees, three of us lived in a spacious apartment downtown, further away from campus, but within walking distance from things to do, places to eat and drink and dance. Weekends often found our apartment filled with people who came out with us and then crashed at our place, too drunk to drive, too broke to take a cab. We would spend the day recovering, eating ramen or mac and cheese, watching TV (we had cable). And, a few times a year, often around mid-terms and finals, PBS would be doing their pledge drive, and there would be a Bob Ross marathon on.

Sherbrooke is a French university, and so unsurprisingly, most of my friends were Francophone. PBS wasn’t something they typically watched, let alone this guy with an Afro painting landscapes. They had never heard of Bob Ross, and I converted every single of them into being a fan of the show. We spent hours, sitting all together on the couch, a couch that had been in student apartments in Sherbrooke for over ten years, passed from brother to brother to sister. It was huge, and we would all fit on it, together, for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, with visions of happy little trees and lazy rivers dancing in front of us, and Bob Ross reassuring us that, really, everything was going to be ok.

That was the couch where later I would spend almost a year, listlessly watching tv, and those were some of the friends who got me through it, made sure I ate, made sure I wasn’t always alone despite my best efforts, sat with me in silence watching with me, because there wasn’t anything else to be done with me or for me. When we watched Bob Ross, all together, exhausted, stressed out, hung over, I felt safe and it got me through. I, in turn, shared what food I had, my facility with English (most were classmates in English Studies), and a place where they knew they would always be welcome and never be judged.

Those moments, those are the moments I take with me from my time as a student at Sherbrooke. They were moments of magic, really, in times of varying degrees of chaos for most of us. I stayed and did my Master’s because I found joy in literature and I had amazing professors, but it was with my classmates and my friends that I found moments of effortlessness. They were mundane and fleeting and almost impossible to predict and recreate, but they were there.

“Water’s like me. It’s lazy. Boy, it always looks for the easiest way to do things.”

Of course, nothing is ever effortless, although there are always things can seem to come more easily, more readily, more beautifully to some than to others. For me, there were always two things: writing and teaching. Or rather, writing and speaking passionately about stuff that I am interested in in front of large groups of people. But the two are often conflated.

I write blog posts, in particular, the way Bob Ross paints on his show: with a general idea of what we want to accomplish, but open to “happy accidents” along the way. It appears (and even sometimes feels) effortless. Or, less kindly, like I didn’t put any effort into it. But there is the always effort, always the practice and thinking, technique and time.

I wonder if there is a b-reel of unaired episodes of The Joy of Painting where the painting just didn’t work that day, or the happy clouds turned into a mess or the happy trees just didn’t stand. I hope there is, because of all the abandoned, unpublished, private, scrawled, and unlovable words I have written over the years. Or perhaps episodes that did air where Ross felt like it wasn’t his best work or his best effort, but there it was anyway, like so much of my writing, too, that goes out and just…fades away.

What there is also is the memory, in my students and in myself, of failed lectures (so many failed lectures), exercises, activities, and even entire courses. The Joy of Teaching, live, with an audience of critical, disinterested (long-live the gen-ed I’ve always taught), overwhelmed, and underfunded students. The lasting record of those courses are etched in evals, for better or for worse. They stick with me. They remind me of all the things I am not in attempting to create or recreate a moment of magic, of learning, of connection.

“Be so very light. Be a gentle whisper.”

I haven’t been writing nearly so much lately. The blog post, as flexible and versatile as it is, just wasn’t working for me anymore. There was nothing but effort, heaviness, pounding on keyboards, abandoning words, abandoning ideas before they even became words because they didn’t feel like blog posts, but something else. I didn’t know what. Something more like this, I suppose, something more like me.

I push too much and I try too hard and I plan and stress and worry and there is a weight that I carry with me, especially when I teach. Generally, I would not be described as being light or a gentle whisper, and I tend to hold tightly, too tightly. Bob Ross is the epitome of chill. I have, as they say, no chill. None whatsoever.

In my imagination, there is a point where, despite its flexibility, Bob Ross tires of painting landscapes in a half an hour. Did he dream of murals and large-scale landscapes, or maybe miniatures or (gasp) watercolors? Or was he just so chill, so in touch with who he was and what he was good at that he was happy, content to paint in 30 minute intervals?

I get restless. I throw out what was working, maybe for something better. Again and again. Bob Ross provides a stabilizing voice, a predictability, a flag-bearer for owning who you are and what you do best. He just wanted to get us to all love and enjoy painting as much as he did. And he just trusted that he could get you there.

“If you do too much, it’s going to lose its effectiveness.”

From a recent piece in the New York Times, examining the lasting popularity of Bob Ross, the closing paragraph:

[Kowalski] has a theory about why Ross has endured. “If you listen closely to Bob’s programs, he never says ‘I’m going to teach you this,’” Ms. Kowalski said. “He never assumes that he knows more than you do. He says: ‘We’ll learn this together.’ And I think — even though people don’t realize it — I think that’s what his big turn-on is.”

And then one semester, I learned to let go, at least somewhat. And I keep working on letting go, and letting my students become a part of the learning experience, rather than me carrying on, telling them, I am going to teach you this. I wanted to make room for happy accidents, and so I had to stop planning my courses within an inch of their lives.

I remember my grandmother, excitedly sharing her painting, her inspiration, and most importantly, her paintings themselves, with me. Those paintings still grace my walls, and my children, who never met her, know the stories behind the paintings, and the woman who was so much more than my grandmother. Every student in my classroom is so much more than that, and they deserve to have moments of excitedly discovering and sharing their interests and even passions.

But the students often didn’t know how to react to this looser format in the class. Maybe (probably) because I don’t radiate the zen-like calm that Bob Ross does, or maybe it’s because the students aren’t used to a professor who says things like, hey, that’s interesting, let’s explore this further, and model the process, warts and all, with them.

Maybe I still haven’t figured out how to recreate the necessary environment to have such epiphanies, such moments of quiet intimacy. My intimacy is too loud and too overwhelming. How do I create a variety of spaces, loud and quiet, safe and unsure, crowded and vast, limited and endless?

Like what Bob Ross does, in 30 minutes, over and over again, on his canvas?

“You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

It’s not perfect. It’s never perfect. It’s messy and it’s unpredictable and it’s scary. If the students are challenging to convince, faculty can prove to be…almost impossible. Faculty often see the classroom as the canvas where they can do anything they want, instead of seeing the students as being empowered to paint their own pictures.

I want to paint for faculty a different picture of what their classrooms can be like, what their students can do, what they role in the process can be. The Joy of Teaching Differently. How long did it take Bob Ross to get to a point where he could feel comfortably and confident and ultimately capable of being the teacher he was? When do I get to that point?

One way for me has been to write and keep writing. To keep sharing words as openly and as honestly as possible. Maybe there is no zen-like calm, but there is, hopefully, an authenticity. Here is what I did, here is why I did it, here is why it worked or it didn’t. Here is how I’ll try to do better next time.

Bob Ross had 30 minutes. I have 15 weeks, others 10, some a whole series of courses. If poetry is never finished, only abandoned, what about our courses, or, more appropriately, our students? There are always, always things that have to be left unlearned. Particularly in my situation, the situation that most faculty now find themselves in higher education, we are together for a semester in a course, and then we abandon each other, unfinished.

I have 15 weeks to try and recreate the world, hopefully iterating and improving each time. The students have 15 weeks to hopefully start creating and exploring their own world, to be abandoned, torn down, forgotten, or maybe, if there are moments of magic for them, becoming a place to keep building, to keep trying, to keep learning.

“You need the dark in order to show the light.”

In every episode, there is at least one moment where Ross cleans his brush and then beats it to clear the water out. It is his one moment where he gladly admits he is letting out his frustration. This is part of the process as well. And even that, he manages to make joyful and magical.

I am not Bob Ross, nor will I ever be. I will, probably, always be too big and too loud and too much, despite my best attempts at balance. The cracks will always show. There will continue to be many, many happy accidents, big and small.

But there are still things that I can give to my students, give for my students. The imperfect can be beautiful and valuable and will not end the world. That effortlessness is to be admired but is often difficult to be recreated and that’s ok. There will the other moments. It’s ok to get excited, and it’s ok to be disappointed.

Can I create a privileged space for them to feel like they can achieve these goals, less tangible, and more open-ended? Because that is a privileged space, one that the students not only won’t be accustomed to, but might never had had access to? That is something I can do, cracks and messiness and loudness and all.

I’m going to start my classes now by showing them an episode of The Joy of Painting. I might be setting the bar too high, or creating unrealistic expectations in my students, but I figure, why not? At least for a moment, we can have a shared experience of magic.

All quotes from Bob Ross unless otherwise noted are taken from here:

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