Sarah Strohl’s boss asked her whether a Funko Pop! figure of Bob Ross would be cool. It has now become one of the most popular items bearing his name. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Not far from the nation’s capital, near Dulles International Airport, there is a place where there are no debates about politics or gun violence or what divides us.

A place where if there are discussions about walls, they belong to cabins painted against scenic backdrops.

A place where there are not even mistakes. Here, those are called “happy little accidents.”

Welcome to Bob Ross Inc.

If you grew up watching the permed-hair painter on public television or are part of the modern wave of people who have been drawn to his work through Twitch, then I don’t have to explain why his popularity continues to grow more than 20 years after his death.

I also don’t have to explain why after a particularly exhausting month for our nation, one that saw a Supreme Court justice sworn in amid sexual assault allegations, I called the corporation that distributes all things Bob Ross and asked to visit their new Herndon, Va., headquarters. And why when they said it wasn’t the best time because they hadn’t yet unpacked, I begged on our behalf and explained we needed Bob Ross now.

We had been through a lot lately, I explained, and needed to get lost in his world of “happy little clouds” and “happy little trees.” They understood, of course, and opened their doors — happily.

Those who did not grow up listening to Ross’s soothing voice, telling them they could create the world of their choosing, will not understand the hype. That’s okay. They can find their own refuge — because that’s what the artist was to children who grew up in the 1980s, like me, and what he has become again in the age of streaming. Ross died in 1995 from lymphoma.


Sarah Strohl holds some of Bob Ross’s paintings, which will eventually hang on the walls in the company’s new space in Herndon, Va. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“He is an escape for a lot of people,” said Sarah Strohl, an executive assistant at Bob Ross Inc. “People will say they’re sick of everything else going on, and so they’re going to watch Bob Ross.”

She monitors the company’s social media accounts and, through there, has heard of families coming together for “Bob Ross nights” and people who credit him with helping them through illnesses and hard times.

One fan recently posted a picture of flower petals positioned to resemble his face and wrote: “To the man who has inspired me to always try to make something beautiful out of my mistakes, a portrait in your honor.”

Joan Kowalski, the corporation’s president, said every once in a while, someone on social media will try to theorize what side of the political spectrum Ross would fall on today and others inevitably cut that conversation off quickly.

“Don’t ruin him,” Kowalski said they say. “He was nothing. He was everything.”

Kowalski and Strohl share an office and have an interesting dynamic that ensures the company stays true to Ross’s original fans and fresh for his new ones. Kowalski, whose parents founded the company with Ross and his wife 35 years ago, describes Strohl as “the resident young person” and “my barometer of cool.”


Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc., calls executive assistant Sarah Strohl her “barometer of cool.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When Funko Pop! called and said they wanted to make a Bob Ross figure, Kowalski, who is 57, turned to Strohl, who is 27, to ask if she thought that was a good idea.

She said it was, and she was right. People love the figure.

Likewise, Kowalski once turned to Strohl after reading an email and asked, “What is this Deadpool thing? Is it hip or not?”

The ultimate result of their conversation was the corporation allowing Ross’s name to be used in a teaser for “Deadpool 2.” In it, Deadpool, wearing the artist’s trademark jeans and button-down shirt, conjures his inner Bob Ross, with obvious differences. His language is cruder and among the colors on his palette are “Clockwork Orange,” “Box Office Gold” and “Betty White.”

“It’s probably one of the only times we were worried,” Kowalski said of fans’ reactions.

“We were scared,” Strohl said.

“But for the most part, people got it,” Kowalski said. They understood, “even Deadpool loves Bob Ross.”

Kowalski credits the new wave of enthusiasm to Twitch’s decision a few years ago to begin running all of Ross’s episodes. There, fans can watch together and comment live, and they have developed their own language. When he paints a large tree over an almost finished scene, someone inevitably writes, “ruined.” They also make predictions about whether he’ll add a cabin to the painting, with people posting comments such as, “cabin chance 10 percent.”

Kowalski said the company grew from a class her mother took in Florida with Ross before he was well known. Afterward, in an agreement with the artist, her parents threw their efforts into promoting him, arranging for him to give demos in malls and eventually taking him to the public television station in Northern Virginia where he got his break.

Now, the company serves as a national distribution center and has grown its role and reach so much it needed to move into a new, larger space this year. The plain brick office building is not a place for the public to visit (so don’t go there). But what occurs inside determines what is seen of Bob Ross on the outside. There is a call center where orders are taken for his DVDs and books. The company also organizes training for “Certified Ross Instructors” who lead classes in his style across the world.

Then there is Kowalski and Strohl’s office, where a bookshelf is filled with items that the corporation has given permission to bear Ross’s name and likeness.

There are sweaters and socks and salt and pepper shakers. There is a snow globe and “happy little tree mints.” For carb lovers, there is a toaster and a waffle maker.


Items bearing Bob Ross’s name and image fill a shelf in Joan Kowalski’s office. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“He would have been thrilled with the waffle maker, just FYI,” Kowalski said. “He wanted to be a household name.”

He also wanted to make everything easy for people, she said. She believes that is what has really kept people coming back to him — the simplicity and predictability of his work and his words.

At a time when this country is divided on so much, our craving for that is apparently one thing that unites us.

That, and the Bob Ross socks. People love the socks.