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Meet the Woman Who Discovered Bob Ross

Annette Kowalski is probably 70-something years old, but I don’t know for sure because she wouldn’t disclose the exact number.

“Don’t get old, Caitlin,” she told me. “It isn’t good for you.”

Kowalski’s official answer on how old she is is “very,” but she added that former business partner Bob Ross was around the same age and that I could deduce hers from that information. Ross died on July 4th, 1995 after a years-long battle with lymphoma. He would have been 73 in October.

Kowalski, the owner and co-founder of the Bob Ross Company, met its namesake in 1982 after losing her 24-year-old son in a traffic accident. Kowalski was devastated by the event and her grief gave way to a deep depression. She coped as best as could by lying on the couch and watching her favorite television painter and personality, Bill Alexander.

If you’re not familiar with Alexander, he’s best (or most succinctly) described as the original Bob Ross—except he’s German, and bald. Alexander hosted The Magic of Oil Painting and The Art of Bill Alexander on PBS. Though he's largely unknown today, videos from his shows still live on YouTube and his profound influence on Ross is apparent before you even press play.

At a loss as to how to help his wife, Kowalski’s husband Walt got on the phone and called Alexander’s company in Oregon to inquire about making a cross-country trip from their home in Washington D.C. so Annette could take a class. He was told that Bill Alexander was no longer teaching, but a young, unknown artist named Bob Ross was slated to take over. Ross had an upcoming class in Clearwater, Florida—so while he wasn’t the man she’d been hoping for, Kowalski and her husband got in the car and drove the 14 hours to Clearwater.

Kowalski signed up for a five-day seminar, but it only took one for her to know that Ross was something special.

“I could not believe what I saw,” she said. “People were mesmerized by Bob. I was so enthralled with him that I wasn’t even doing my painting. I was following him around the room and watching him interact with people.”

Ross was a former military man who had served in the Air Force and was stationed for a time in Alaska, where he became well-acquainted with the kinds of landscapes he’d go on to paint on television. Ross eventually studied under Alexander after seeing him on TV and decided to try to carve a path as an artist and painting instructor before being tapped to continue the Alexander legacy. On the last day of that five-day class in Clearwater, Kowalski invited Ross to dine with her and Walt at a nearby hamburger joint.

“I said to Bob, ‘It’s a shame I had to drive 1500 miles to take this class. Would you come to Washington D.C.?’” Kowalski recalled. 

Ross agreed, quoting Kowalski an “enormous” amount of money. She promptly booked a classroom at a local Holiday Inn and took out an advertisement in the newspaper. Only a couple of people showed up. They moved on to Baltimore and then other cities. Still no one came. Soon, the financial strain started to wear on Kowalski and her husband, who got fed up enough to propose the idea that would change everything. Walt suggested they recruit Bill Alexander to film a commercial in which he literally handed a paintbrush over to Bob, telling the world that Ross was now the bearer of the torch. 

“Am I making any sense at all?”

Kowalski asked me this several times during our conversation, and she always was. Her only slip-up occurred when trying to recollect what happened next. She first told me they took the commercial right to PBS, but of course, PBS doesn’t air commercials. In fact they wanted the spot to run during The Phil Donahue Show, but it needed some work to get camera ready, so they took it to the local PBS station for help cutting the tape. When the manager at WNVC in Virginia saw it, he promptly recruited the young painter for a new television series. Ross dedicated the first episode of The Joy of Painting in 1983 to Alexander, and from there, he was up and running.

See Also: 20 Bob Ross Quotes to Make Life Better

More than 30 years later, Bob Ross has become a global phenomenon. Certified Ross Instructors (or CRIs) are stationed all over the world and The Bob Ross Art Workshop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida has around 100 of his paintings on display. His other works (there are more than 500) have been stored away, one of which—never before seen by the public—will be revealed and taught at the CRI reunion this October. I asked Kowalski if she could reveal any tantalizing details about the piece. 

“Oh, it’s just another landscape,” she said.

For those interested, it takes three weeks to become a Certified Ross Instructor, which means you still have plenty of time before the reunion to become a member of the family.

See Also: What Happened to Bob Ross's Paintings?

The Bob Ross Company is headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia where Kowalski still works to keep Bob Ross’ happy clouds and trees out in the world, through television and in classrooms. She said she’s been surprised at how his fame has exploded in the Internet age, but added that it wasn’t just coincidence, crediting a lot of hardworking people behind the scenes. What hasn’t surprised her is that people continue to enjoy tuning in.

 “Most people don’t paint, they just watch,” she said. “They like to hear his voice. They just like Bob.”

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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iStock
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Art
The Simple Optical Illusion That Makes an Image Look Like It's Drawing Itself
iStock
iStock

Artist James Nolan Gandy invents robot arms that sketch intricate mathematical shapes with pen and paper. When viewed in real time, the effect is impressive. But it becomes even more so when the videos are sped up in a timelapse. If you look closely in the video below, the illustration appears to materialize faster than the robot can put the design to paper. Gizmodo recently explained how the illusion works to make it look like parts of the sketch are forming before the machine has time to draw them.

The optical illusion isn’t an example of tricky image editing: It’s the result of something called the wagon wheel effect. You can observe this in a car wheel accelerating down the highway or in propeller blades lifting up a helicopter. If an object makes enough rotations per second, it can appear to slow down, move backwards, or even stand still.

This is especially apparent on film. Every “moving image” we see on a screen is an illusion caused by the brain filling in the gaps between a sequence of still images. In the case of the timelapse video below, the camera captured the right amount of images, in the right order, to depict the pen as moving more slowly than it did in real life. But unlike the pen, the drawing formed throughout the video isn't subject to the wagon-wheel effect, so it still appears to move at full speed. This difference makes it look like the sketch is drawing itself, no pen required.

Gandy frequently shares behind-the-scenes videos of his mechanical art on his Instagram page. You can check out some of his non-timelapse clips like the one below to better understand how his machines work, then visit his website to browse and purchase the art made by his 'bots.

And if you think his stuff is impressive, make sure to explore some of the incredible art robots have made in the past.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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