With “The Bob Ross Experience,” Muncie, Indiana lays claim to its most famous artist—and its status as an art town.
By Ashley Stimpson
Bob Ross arrived in Muncie, Indiana, in 1983, and didn’t intend to stay. He had already filmed the first season of a new and little-known show, The Joy of Painting, at a PBS affiliate in Virginia. But that summer, his business partner, Annette Kowalski, booked him a nationwide tour of painting workshops, including a stop in Muncie. The week before Ross’s workshop in Muncie, Ross and Kowalski bought two ads on WIPB, the Muncie PBS affiliate. By the time Ross’s camper van rolled into town, the workshop had sold out. Impressed with what was clearly a community of art enthusiasts, Ross and Kowalski quickly negotiated a new contract for the Joy of Painting to be filmed at WIPB. They stayed for ten years and thirty seasons.
WIPB was located in an old yellow brick house north of downtown Muncie. The house, which used to belong to Lucius L. Ball, the canning jar magnate, sits on the campus of Minnetrista, the city’s multifaceted museum and cultural center. Ross’s studio was on the first floor. In each half-hour episode, he would walk viewers step-by-step through the creation of a landscape oil painting, pausing only to offer affirmations or anecdotes about his pet squirrel, Peapod. A blue, painter’s-tape X on the hardwood floor marked his place next to his easel.
In 1988, WIPB—and Ross—moved to Ball State University, and the Ball house became an administrative space for Minnetrista staff. For some reason, nobody ever peeled Ross’s X off the floor. Every so often, George Buss, Minnetrista’s Vice President of Visitor Experience, would point it out to a guest. Their reactions always surprised him. “People would cry,” he told me. “Lots of people would ask if they could stand on it.” Betty Brewer, President and CEO of Minnetrista, experienced something similar when she mentioned the house in passing to some visitors from the Indiana Arts Commission on an abbreviated, after-hours tour. “Everyone freaked out,” she recalled. “They couldn’t believe it.”
Ross died of Lymphoma in 1995, but The Joy of Painting remains in syndication on PBS and continues to connect with people all over the country. Eventually, Buss said, these emotional encounters with visitors convinced Minnetrista staff it was finally time to “create a space for fans of Bob Ross to go to celebrate his legacy.” In October, that space will become a reality when Minnetrista unveils The Bob Ross Experience, where visitors will at last be able to gaze at those misty landscapes in person, admire some show paraphernalia (Ross’s easel and palette, that giant brush from the series’ opening), and, of course, take their turn standing on the blue, painter’s-tape X.
Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1942. His mother, Ollie, was an animal lover who instilled in Ross a deep reverence for the natural world, which would inform his paintings. His father, Jack, was a carpenter. Ross dropped out of school after the ninth grade to begin apprenticing with his father. After accidentally cutting off part of his left index finger, Ross joined the Air Force instead.
Ross took his first painting lesson at a USO club on the Alaskan Air Force base where he was stationed. Soon, he was selling his landscape paintings on souvenir gold pans for $25 a pop. Ross stayed in the service for two decades, retiring as a master sergeant, before moving back to Florida. There, he began taking lessons from Bill Alexander, a Prussian immigrant who taught the wet-on-wet technique that allowed artists to complete a painting in as much time as it took to, say, film a TV show. Curiously, Alexander resembled much of what Ross was to become: he had his own program on PBS (The Magic of Oil Painting) and embodied the same passionate, can-do spirit. But where Alexander was fiery, intoning in a halting German accent, Ross was tranquil, as placid as a shady Alpine lake.
The Joy of Painting always seemed to be less about painting and more about joy. When Ross said, “anything that happens on this canvas, we can work with it, we can fix it,” the audience understood he wasn’t talking about paint thinner. Minnetrista’s Buss says Ross was a part of a trifecta of PBS personalities—along with LaVar Burton and Fred Rogers—who seemed to share a common message: “You are special. What you do matters. I care about you.” Ross himself spoke of the intimacy he shared with his audience. “I talk to only one person when I’m filming. And I’m really crazy about that person,” he said. “It’s a one-on-one situation.”
According to Annette Kowalski, Ross purposely cultivated an everyman persona. The jeans, the rolled-up sleeves, the slightest hint of a waistline paunch. The Joy of Painting was a show about art for people who weren’t artists, a crash course in confidence for everyday folks who were sure creative diversions weren’t for them—housewives, factory workers, retired Air Force master sergeants. And while few viewers knew that Ross was standing in a Muncie, Indiana farmhouse-turned-studio, there was perhaps no better place from which to broadcast his message of blooming smack-dab where you’re planted.
Bob Ross didn’t plan to end up in Muncie. Neither did I. Neither did Jonathan Becker. But when another assignment brought me to town in 2018, I stayed at Becker’s Airbnb, which also just happens to be an 8,700-square-foot mansion full of rich hardwoods, stained glass, and hand-painted wallpaper. For the past five years, Becker has sculpted and shipped theatre masks to clients all over the world, including Julliard, the New School, and hundreds of other theatres and universities.
Two years later I asked to interview Becker for this story. A teaching artist and trained dancer and actor, he had lived all over the world when he accepted a job in Ball State University’s BFA program in 2005. It was an unexpected stop for Becker, who is tri-lingual and a self-described “stupid, crazy foodie.” But then a pop-up art show called Monkey Thunder introduced him to the artistic community just outside his front door.
“It felt like a gallery in Soho in the 1980s,” he remembers. “Edgy. Spectacularly beautiful. Everything you would expect from a high-end artistic audience.” The experience woke Becker up to what “was possible here despite the political and religious environment,” which he admits can sometimes feel in “direct opposition” to his own values.
After leaving Ball State, Becker took a leap and bought the mansion, intending to use the third-floor ballroom as his mask-making workshop and opening the rest of it up to the community. “If you buy a house like this, you don’t hide it,” he told me.
Becker founded the North American Laboratory for the Performing Arts, an organization, headquartered at the Muncie mansion, that supports theatre professionals across genres and hosts them for workshops, retreats, and residencies. He also began holding large community receptions for Munsonians, where, Becker said, he “wouldn’t know two-thirds of the people in my house.” He’s especially proud that the Muncie Makers Market—a popular weekly craft market—was invented on his front porch.
When I asked Becker if he ever thinks of leaving Muncie, he laughed and said, “Always.” He told me many of the local artists he knows are in “constant negotiation about whether or not this is the place.” For Becker, though, that tension is productive. “The conflict fuels the work, makes it more meaningful.” (Becker may end up leaving Muncie after all. Like many performing arts professionals, the pandemic has ravaged his business; the mansion is currently for sale.)
Then Becker said something so perfect I made him say it twice: “Art is most successful when people need it. Not when they’re looking for something to match the couch.” I have to admit I was a little disheartened when I heard this; why write a two-thousand-word article about Bob Ross, about art in improbable places, when Becker had just done it in two sentences?
I decided to forge ahead with the article anyway and walked the two blocks to Gordy Fine Art & Framing Co., to meet with owners Carl and Barbara Schafer, whom Becker calls “the secret fire of the arts in Muncie.” Like Becker, the Schafers had lived all over when they decided to move back to their home state in 2006, to be closer to family. When the frame shop went up for sale in 2015, the former museum professionals decided to buy it.
The Schafers say that Muncie is an ideal town for artists because there’s “not a lot of formality to it, not a big structure you have to work through. If you want to do something, you can do it.” And so they do, whether it’s an experimental film festival, artisan chocolate on an LGBTQIA+ mission, an artist-in-residency program that pairs visiting creatives with community action groups, a custom cartography shop (where you can buy a t-shirt that says, “Muncie: Weirder than Austin, Cheaper than Indy”), or the kinds of art pop-ups—like Monkey Thunder—that impress even the most worldly artists.
The Schafers are flattered by Becker’s description of them and say they do enjoy working behind the scenes in Muncie, serving on boards, giving advice, and connecting like-minded people. But for The Bob Ross Experience, the Schafers are taking a more visible role: framing the Ross originals that will be on rotating display at Minnetrista. Because Ross seldom showed his paintings, this required them to do some digging, seeking out rare framed pieces, like the ones Ross hung in his own home, or those he had gifted to others around Muncie. Naturally, the frames Ross preferred weren’t all that expensive. “He didn’t think of himself as a gallery artist,” Carl Schafer said.
Schafer offered to show me what they were working on: an ornate-looking gold frame known as a French sweep with a linen inlay popular in the 1980’s. We headed to the back of the shop, and Carl showed me the frame-in-progress, half-gilded and still empty. Then he carefully opened the box next to it, moved aside some tissue paper, and presented the painting that would occupy the space. In it, snow falls from a yellow sky onto dark, leafless trees in the foreground. Ross’s name is signed in red in the bottom left corner, the o faded in parts where the paintbrush went dry. It’s surreal, maybe like seeing a celebrity in real life: somehow extraordinary and extra-ordinary at the same time.
Filming The Joy of Painting in the old farmhouse was a challenge. Floors creaked and plumbing clanked. The room where Ross stood was flooded by light on all sides; it had to be shrouded in heavy black curtains. But, in 1988, when WIPB and Ross’s show relocated to a more modern space on the campus of BSU, co-workers say Ross talked often about missing the old place.
George Buss says staff at Minnetrista are working hard to restore the first floor of the house to how it looked when Ross painted there. On the day I visited, painters were hard at work doing just that, brightening up the trim along the south-facing French doors. Looking around at the buttery walls, it was hard to believe this was the deep-space set I’ve seen on my screen all these years.
The Bob Ross Experience will open October 31—tickets go on sale September 7—and the kickoff weekend will include a paint-in on the front lawn. In phase one of the exhibition, visitors will be able to explore the former studio as well as a gallery space dressed up to look like the kind of 1980’s living room where Ross’s good vibes would have beamed. Phase two will include a painting workshop on the top floor of the home, likely opening sometime in 2021. Fundraising for phase two is ongoing.
So far, Minnetrista has received financial backing from the Indiana Department of Tourism, Bob Ross Inc., and Twitch, the streaming service that attracted 5.6 million viewers when it interrupted its typical e-sports programming for an all-episode marathon of The Joy of Painting in 2015. The Bob Ross Experience also has its own IndieGoGo page, where donors can choose from perks like buttons, t-shirts, and painting sets.
A place to celebrate his legacy will be meaningful for Bob Ross fans everywhere, but especially significant for the residents of Muncie, where Ross had a house, volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, donated paintings for local fundraisers, and fed the fish in a pond near his home. Now the world will know that it was their small, unassuming city where Ross preached the gospel of creativity and joy for everyone, no matter who or where they are. ■
Ashley Stimpson is freelance journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Read more of her work at www.ashleystimpson.com.
Cover image of Bob Ross in his WIPB studio, courtesy Minnetrista.
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