Before Bob Ross was known as the amiable television artist with the soothing voice and identifiable mane from “The Joy of Painting,” the prolific painter was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base.
In 1978, Ross visited Spokane Falls Community College and met artist John Thamm, who helped develop the skills of the then-fledgling artist.
“Bob showed up with two friends, who had no interest in painting, but he had an amazing ability to create art and gather people around him,” Thamm said.
Thamm’s first assignment for Ross was to paint whatever he desired. “Bob decided to paint from his experience in Alaska,” Thamm said. “But people should know that when I met Bob, he was already an accomplished painter. He came around initially just so he could get off of the base. He was a wonderful man.”
Ross, who was born in Florida, was a high school dropout and lost a finger while working as a carpenter with his father.
He enlisted in the Air Force at 18 and was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska where he fell in love with mountains and landscapes. He launched his art career and company after retiring from the Air Force in 1981.
His experience in the Air Force as a master sergeant led him to promise himself that he would not yell at people after his service.
Thamm, 83, and the intensely private Ross became lifelong friends. Unfortunately, Ross died at the age of 52 in 1995 due to lymphoma.
His artistic career and unfortunate business decisions, which plague his son Steve Ross, also an artist, are featured in the new Netflix documentary, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.”
The controversial project includes Thamm, who was interviewed. The documentary covers the prolific Ross’ uncanny ability to paint landscapes at a staggering speed, which earned him his “The Joy of Painting” gig.
However, the dark underbelly of his success is examined. Ross received a boost from a couple, Annette and Walt Kowalski, who championed his work. The husband and wife gained control of Bob Ross Inc. after his death.
Director Joshua Rofe and producers Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone focus on how the Kowalskis possess the Ross legacy and how they have squeezed out Ross’s son Steve.
“I’m going to tell you something I shouldn’t tell you,” Thamm said before repeating what Steve Ross told him. “The Kowalskis said that Bob is worth more to this company dead than alive. Can you imagine someone saying that to the son of Bob Ross?”
Commerce and art have been odd bedfellows for a long time. It’s difficult to watch the Ross documentary since the struggle between the Kowalski family and Ross’ son is bitter.
The cruel reality of a business deal gone bad sucked the life from the kind-hearted Ross.
“Bob Ross was as nice as you think he was,” Thamm said.
Thamm paints Ross as a Mister Rogers-esque figure. “That’s a good comparison,” Thamm said. “Bob was a kind man, who deserved his success.”
Thamm wasn’t surprised that Ross became a television sensation and, in fact, he helped his charge score a gig behind the camera.
“There was a woman in Coeur d’Alene, Opal Brute, who invited (television artist) William Alexander up for a workshop every year,” Thamm recalled. “When I heard about this, I told Bob we had to hop in the car and meet him. That’s what we did. William took a liking to Bob and the doors to television opened up. If I didn’t do that, maybe Bob wouldn’t have been on TV, but maybe he would have.”
Thamm, an accomplished portrait artist with galleries in Spokane and Bisbee, Arizona, painted a portrait of Steven Ross when he was 12 years old. However, the painting was destroyed in a fire at the Kowalski house.
“That painting should have never ended up in the hands of the Kowalskis,” Thamm said. “It’s just another example of Steven being cut out. So much of what happened with Bob and the Kowalskis was very sad, Annette Kowalski betrayed Bob and his family.”
Ross would often call Thamm at 3 a.m.
“He would reach out and it was always good to talk with him,” Thamm said. “The last phone call I received from him was shortly before he discovered he had lymphoma. He said he had it with Bob Ross Inc. and was leaving the corporation. Bob wanted to buy a building in Branson, Missouri. He planned to charge a gate fee so people could watch him do his thing just like he did on TV. But he wanted to do this on a huge scale on a mat that would be 4 by 8 feet. He asked if I wanted to join him. I told him that it would be a great opportunity.”
The Branson project never happened. Ross died and there’s been endless acrimony between his family and the Kowalskis.
“With karma hopefully this will someday be turned around and something good will happen,” Thamm said.
Bob Ross Inc., criticized the Netflix documentary last week. In a public statement, the company said it “takes strong issue with the inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company.”
A generation has almost passed since Ross demonstrated his wet-on-wet stroke, which produced oil paintings in 26 minutes. However, Thamm still paints daily in his Peaceful Valley studio.
“I love painting,” Thamm said. “I’ve been painting in Spokane for the majority of my lifetime. I can’t imagine what else I would do if I couldn’t paint.”
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