April 15, 2018

The life and death of my Bob Ross Chia Pet

Prologue: I won a Bob Ross Chia Pet during the Christmas secret Santa gift exchange at our office Christmas party last year. Being a semi-stranger in an increasingly stranger land, I did not know who Bob Ross was. The roomful of co-workers chuckled when I opened the gift.  I immediately recognized that Bob Ross was a cultural touchstone.
I decided to learn about him as a way to get to know my co-workers. I dove into the life of Bob and was pleasantly surprised by his method of painting instruction and his endearing thoughts about life.

This post is thus a celebration of the life and legacy of Bob Ross as represented in the brief life and demise of my Bob Ross Chia Pet. It is a testament to the spongy side of my American cultural experience (so far).

He was born into an average working class family in Florida in 1942. Bob spent 20 years in the US Air Force, the bulk of his career stationed in Alaska. Following his retirement from the Air Force he became the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional television program on PBS that aired from 1983 to 1994.
He died at age 52 in 1995, but influences from Bob's life continue to bubble forth from the wellspring of American culture. Why is that?

To start, what are Chia pets? Chia pets became popular in the late 1970s, the only product of a company based in San Francisco. The idea is to cover a grooved, terracotta figurine of an animal with moist chia seeds that grow and sprout greet shoots that look like hair. Chia Pets help keep that loopy pet rock / hippy vibe from the Bay Area alive. Everyone knows about them, and I think they provoke some deeper connection to the era. I read somewhere that in the late 1990s, a chia pet was included in a time capsule assembled by The New York Times.
Why does Bob Ross continue to influence art and be relevant to present day society? I think it's because he straddles the ideological middle ground between adversarial political ideologies in a society polarized by politics. Think about it: a career military man who transformed into a soft-voiced, slow-paced host of a program which symbolized the belief that anyone could be a talented artist. The show's message was anyone who went with the flow of artistic creation could quickly produce wonderful paintings of trees, clouds, mountains and lakes; beauty is everywhere around you. This combination embraces Bob's personal Horatio Alger-like narrative of rising from a humble background to social prominence, together with societal impatience--wanting difficult things done quickly and conveniently.

When commentators asked Bob why he appeared so serene and happy all the time, he would respond: “That's why I paint. It's because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”

Ross completed more than 30,000 paintings in his lifetime. I had the Chia Pet in my office for only three weeks. As long as the Bob Ross Chia Pet was there it drummed up comments from visitors. It also produced smiles from me as I mulled whatever work I was doing. Some more mellow Bob quotes:
"We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.”
"Remember how free clouds are. They just lay around in the sky all day long.”
“It’s life. It’s interesting. It’s fun.”

Ross's legacy of finding delight in mystic places lives on.
Newborn Bob

Adolescent Bob
Adult Bob, at the peak of his powers, inspired by Jimi Hendrix  

Senior citizen Bob with a few health challenges

Forever in our hearts

1 comment:

Michael said...

When I was in high school in 1983, we were stranded in a hotel room in S. Florida with a bunch of board teenagers. There was nothing on TV except Bob Ross. My friend Andrew Chung was mesmerized. As Bob cooed, well today we are going to do a Western landscape with some buffaloes. Then he smeared paint blobs here and there. Andrew said "I'll shit if that turns into buffalo!" Lo and behold, by the end of the show there were buffaloes, wind blown pines, mountains in the distance, and even some nice clouds, to boot. Andrew did not actually shit. But I was hooked.

I wonder if GHW Bush followed him.