The Bob Ross Wars

The Internet is going to war for the beloved artist after film alleges business rip-off

Hordes of artists and kitsch-lovers are taking to Instagram and Twitter to boycott Bob Ross products after explosive allegations in the new Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Greed and Betrayal. It accuses his former business partners, Annette and Walt Kowalksi, of using manipulation, threats and Scientological litigiousness to oust industry competition and shoulder out Ross’s son to acquire sole rights to Ross’s image and likeness, which continue to generate millions of dollars a year under Bob Ross Inc. Now #boycottbobrossinc is trending and BRI’s socials are awash with demands to pay Ross’s son and protege, Steven.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

The documentary, produced by Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone, was to be a sunny romp down memory lane with associates of the soft-spoken painter – but the project became thornier when many of his old friends refused to be interviewed, fearing lawsuits. Following the story led down darker paths: Annette Kowalski insinuating herself into Ross’s career, their alleged affair, and the Kowalskis’ gradual aggregation of his intellectual property; allegations of misleading contracts, audit blackmail, book plagiarism, counterfeit paintings, and intimidation; and suing Ross’s family for his art and memorabilia after his death.

According to the film, the ailing artist in the grip of lymphoma was no match for the Kowalskis’ deep pockets and CIA connections, and later legal challenges were smothered. As Ross himself says wistfully during a Joy of Painting episode, “This is the only place in the world I have any power.” But the same legacy that continues to make the Kowalski’s rich may prove to be their downfall: new generations of loyal Bob Ross fans are gunning for them with the power of the Internet.

 

The doc is also a tender look at the artist’s relationship with his son, his love of fast cars and animals, and his driving passion to paint. Ross arted morning noon and night, running art classes across the country until PBS put him on TV, where he churned out remarkable pieces in 26 minutes using a dramatic wet-on-wet fast application technique. He considered each painting session an intense one-on-one interaction with the viewer, making his appeal universal but complicated: kids loved him, men wanted his balance of Corvette-driving virility and artistic sensitivity, and women melted at his flirty playfulness.

Pop culture tends to curate authentic kindness like the rare artifact it is, and the narratives we build around “nice guys” are sacred canon: Mr. Rogers, LeVar Burton, Saint Dolly Parton, Keanu Reeves, Ted Lasso. The charismatic but gentle Ross connected with millions around the globe with the simple idea that anyone can learn to paint, and the Kowalski’s aroused their collective wrath with the suggestion that they monetized it unethically. Bob Ross Inc. released a statement calling the doc “inaccurate and heavily slanted,” and says the filmmakers never brought up the allegations in requests for comment. Then they took a bat to a hornet’s nest:

The online community couldn’t hit the keys fast enough: they’re setting up a GoFundMe for lawyers, boycotting Ross products and storming BRI’s Twitter feed, promoting Steven Ross’s art business, and leaving Bob Ross products 1-star reviews on Amazon. And while BRI may be exploring legal options in response to the doc, it’s obvious they can’t stop the Internet from doing its thing.

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Rachel Llewellyn

Rachel Llewellyn is a saucy media mercenary who's worked at Curve Magazine and Girlfriends Magazine in San Francisco, and ghost-edited two noir novels. She's also translated academic material, written corporate website content, taught adult school, and produced morning television news. Rachel lives in Bakersfield, California, where she hikes with her dog and pushes paper in the government sector.

One thought on “The Bob Ross Wars

  • September 9, 2021 at 10:01 am
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    Shameful behaviour by the “owners” of Bob Ross Inc., whose legal extortion and litigious strong-arm tactics left the son of Mr. Bob Ross and true heir of his legacy, financially empty-handed. But there’s a reason why the whole world knows and loves Mr. Bob Ross, and now also Steve Ross, after watching this documentary. It’s the same reason why the world now know and despises the Kowakski’s. Mr. Ross was a true artist, who has provided happiness and hope to millions of people. The Kowalski’s are talentless goons, who deal in fear and threats.

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