Larry Erickson

WDSE chief engineer Larry Erickson holds the original Bob Ross painting that hung in his office for years at the TV studios in Duluth. The painting now hangs in the main lobby of the television station. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

DULUTH — The star piece of Monday, Jan. 13's exhibition opening was scheduled to arrive at 5 p.m. and leave at 7 p.m. Until then, there was an empty easel among the featured drawings, paintings and sculptures featured in the Transformative Power of Public Television Art Show at the Zeitgeist Arts building.

Ultimately, it arrived a little early. The small painting (year, date, circumstances unknown) was propped in a place of prominence with, fittingly, artist Mary Plaster’s larger-than-life Mr. Rogers puppet looming behind it.

There was much buzz about this rare sighting.

“What I heard is a lot of people talking, ‘Did you get a chance to see the Bob Ross?’” Larry Erickson, WDSE-WRPT’s director of engineering and operations reported the next day.

The on-brand moody landscape painting has been at the local PBS station for who knows how long. But somehow it was forgotten. It is among the rotation of pieces that land on office walls based on the occupants’ personal aesthetic, or ditched to storage for the same reason.

“That particular picture ended up coming off the wall and was in the collection,” Erickson said.

Until it came up during a meeting about nine months ago.

“I mentioned, ‘We do have a Bob Ross’ and it was like ‘WE HAVE A BOB ROSS?’” he said.

The staff pulled it out, replaced the scuffed frame and propped it on a easel for public television friends and fans.

Happy trees, majestic mountains

Bob Ross was the soothing voice and brave 2-inch brush strokes behind “The Joy of Painting,” a PBS instructional show that first aired in the early 1980s. Reruns continue today. The artist, who died in 1995, is recognizable for his puff of permed hair and his calm optimism in the face of a blank page.

He never botched a canvas — he had happy accidents.

Likewise, there were happy clouds and happy trees, a majestic mountain or a stone named Harold.

The spare, 26-minute tutorials featured Ross in front of an increasingly colorful canvas and his tools. The idea was that you would grab your tube of yellow ochre and paint along at home.

Most people did not.

Annette Kowalski, a fellow painter who discovered Ross and is the keeper of Bob Ross Inc., told statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight in 2014:

“The majority of people who watch Bob Ross have no interest in painting. Mostly it’s his calming voice,” she said.

FiveThirtyEight analyzed the artist’s work and determined that in 11 years on-air, he painted 381 scenes. Times three. He did one before the show, during the show and for the collection, after the show.

There were northern lights against a mountain scape, winter sunrises behind a cabin, still lakes reflecting trees.

Asked the value of a Bob Ross, Anne Dugan, who teaches art history at local colleges and owns a pair of Bob Ross socks, needed clarification:

“Ohhhh,” she said. “Are you talking financial or emotional and spiritual value?”

For her, it’s about the performance of creating more that just the finished product.

Dugan is a self-described superfan who once donned the wig and hosted a paint-along at the Duluth Art Institute. She had heard a rumor that WDSE-WRPT had a Ross.

“I think that knowing that there is an original Bob Ross in our community is the warm, fuzzy feeling we all need this January,” she said.

Ross revival

Ross has increased in popularity in recent years. In 2018, on what would have been his 76 birthday, Twitch ran hundreds of episodes of "The Joy of Painting" back to back to back. Within the world of ASMR chasers — people who actively seek the relaxing scalp and spine tingle that certain sounds trigger — Ross, with his smooth voice, is a favorite.

It’s easy to find a gift for a Bob Ross fan: T-shirts, pajama pants, key chains, a chia pet, or air fresheners shaped like happy little trees. A souvenir painting, though, isn’t as easy.

In July, the New York Times produced a 10-minute documentary about how tricky it is to find a Bob Ross painting in the wild. They are mostly at Bob Ross Inc.; the headquarters are in Indiana, packed into numbered boxes.

When Erickson dropped the news that the local PBS affiliate owned a Ross of its own:

“We’re a bunch of PBS geeks,” general manager Patty Mester said. “It’s super exciting.”

WDSE-WRPT attached the painting to the station’s 55th anniversary party — which included works by local artists inspired by PBS. This ranged from Sesame Street characters frolicking near the Aerial Lift Bridge to a frame shaped like a vintage television and a drawing of Lucille Ball.

Ross’s painting, which is about about 11-by-14 inches, was a solid draw — though it’s unclear how it ended up in the local collection. It might have been from a former director, who worked with Bob Ross before coming to Duluth. Ross, on tour, might have given it to the station, according to staff members.

Regardless, now that it has been rediscovered, its keepers said, it will hang in the station’s lobby.

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