My seven-year-old daughter is watching Bob Ross paint mountains on television. She is entranced with the fan brush—the way its strokes bend the light so that it slips down the mountain’s sides. An avalanche of texture appears out of the sky. Titanium White, he says, his voice sliding into our home. He tells you what is going to appear next so that his voice seems to glide down his arms and stick to the canvas like color. My daughter concentrates on the brightness he paints from the right, a little snow, he says, a happy little cloud. He strokes a valley into existence. Imagine all the things that can live there, he says.
And I do. I imagine the animals roaming in that valley. I imagine my daughter there, the sun highlighting her hair, the mountains rising into the sky around her. The moment makes me remember the scene in Mary Poppins when Bert, Mary, Jane, and Michael jump into one of Bert’s sidewalk chalk paintings. How all of a sudden the world is whatever we want it to be – art’s power to create and transform.
Anything is possible on a wet canvas, Ross is saying. Color can be stretched, added; all of a sudden the sky is blue and clear. It just happens. He pulls paint across the screen until the space is the perfect shade of sunset – bet you didn’t realize you had so much power, he says. My daughter straightens her shoulders as he pushes the mountain down into the mist and washes the brush, let it float, he instructs, no pressure, it’s up to you. The only pressure applied to the brush is when he “beats the devil out of it” on the side of the easel, back and forth, until the brush is clean and dry enough for the next color paint. My daughter says she wants to meet him.
I Google “Bob Ross,” and see this isn’t possible – he passed away from Hodgkin Lymphoma on July 4, 1995 when he was just 52 years old. I look up and see him scrape another peak into the side, slicing the pink sky with darkness. Then, he brings the green half-way up the mountain’s slope. It gets too high, he explains, the trees can’t live where it is so cold.
Bob Ross is teaching my daughter how to paint, but his voice hints at other things: science, philosophy, life, and even death. My daughter concentrates on the tree line. She is still at the bottom of that mountain, in the warm, sunshine laden valley; I am half-way up, climbing middle-age, finding my way through the Sap Green trees. The light streams into the living room, and I take a moment to appreciate her sitting there, content, watching Bob Ross make things exist.
He mixes the black and the blue into a bruise on the palette, shadowing the left sides where the light doesn’t hit. He says, snow is so easy to paint, and I feel its chilly cold creep into my chest as he moves to finish a tree branch, scatters a few Dark Sienna colored sticks into the ground to show where life has been.
Alexandra Umlas lives in Huntington Beach, CA and is currently an MFA student in the Poetry program at California State University, Long Beach.