Bob Ross may not have had a BMW, but he had millions of fans who delighted in watching him transform a blank canvas into a sylvan glade or an alpine valley. Ross died in 1995, but the cult of Bob lives on, the shows still streaming on YouTube, the how-to guides and paint kits still selling. The latest addition to the Ross-o-sphere: a children’s book called “Bob Ross and Peapod the Squirrel,” by Robb Pearlman, with illustrations by Jason Kayser.
“Everything you see on TV was really, really him, including his obsession with squirrels,” said Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc. “We’d be walking along, and if there was a squirrel nearby, he would just sort of drop to his knees. And he had a way where they wouldn’t scurry off. It was sort of his favorite, favorite thing.”
Kowalski’s parents, Annette and Walt, discovered Ross. While on vacation in Florida in the early 1980s, Annette took a group painting class from the Air Force veteran.
Said Kowalski: “She thought he was so remarkable that she went home at night to the hotel room and told my father: ‘This guy is amazing.’ ”
Walt Kowalski was looking for something to do after retiring from the CIA. The couple convinced Ross that his lessons — clear, concise, delivered with gentle encouragement — would work on TV.
Ross’s first shows were taped at a public television station in Northern Virginia, convenient to the Kowalskis’ Herndon home. Soon, production switched to WIPB, a PBS station in Muncie, Ind. Every three months, Ross would drive his motor home from Florida to Indiana to film multiple episodes. It was in Muncie that Ross met a wildlife rehabilitator named Diana Shaffer.
“They adored each other,” said Kowalski. “He called her ‘the Bird Lady.’ Whenever he would go to film, she would bring him little animals she was rehabilitating.”
Ross fostered animals, too. He built an enormous cage just outside his Orlando home in which he nursed orphaned squirrels back to health. A walnut tree in the yard was popular with neighborhood critters.
“We have little power struggles over who’s going to get the walnuts, me or the squirrel,” Ross said in one episode. “Guess who wins? The squirrel has got a nest full of nuts and I have none.”
Why the affinity for squirrels?
In describing his Florida childhood, Ross once said: “I spent a great deal of time in the woods, and there weren’t any other kids around and I had to learn to play with the creatures that were in the woods. That’s why I like animals and little squirrels and raccoons and all those things so much, because they’re very special, very special. And when I got old, I guess I didn’t lose that.”
The irony is, Ross never painted squirrels on his program.
“No,” Kowalski said. “In fact, he jokes about how his art teacher told him, ‘Don’t paint any faces. Don’t paint any animals. Stick to what you know, Bob,’ which was mountains and trees.”
Pearlman, the author of “Bob Ross and Peapod the Squirrel,” specializes in pop-culture titles. Among his previous books are ones on “Star Trek” and the “Rick and Morty” show.
“On a personal level, to be able to be a part of Bob Ross’s legacy, it sounds hacky, but it’s a huge honor,” he said.
As for the Zen of Bob, Pearlman said: “I think the world needs that right now. People just need to sit quietly and calm down and think about their own creative spirit.”
Or as Ross put it in Season 18, Episode 3 of “The Joy of Painting,” as he made his happy little trees and happy little mountains: “This is a happy place. Little squirrels live here and play.”
More Squirrel Week: To meet some people who love squirrels so much they got squirrel tattoos, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.