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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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
6 Works of Art That Were Hiding in Plain Sight
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, an 1820 facsimile of the Declaration of Independence turned up in Texas. Despite once being owned by James Madison, it had been shuffled among the papers of a family who eventually forgot about its provenance and came to consider it "worthless," at least until its recent authentication. As one of only 200 facsimiles created by printer William Stone, it was a rare document, but what made headlines was a curious footnote in the document’s journey: It had been hidden behind wallpaper during the Civil War as protection.

There’s something tantalizing about a precious object concealed by wallpaper or painted over; it suggests treasures might be hiding anywhere—maybe in our own homes. Here are a few stories of art that's been lost, and found, on the same wall, hidden beneath wallpaper, paint, and plaster.

1. ANGEL MOSAIC // PALESTINE

Conservators who began restoring the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2013 after centuries of neglect were prepared to clean its mosaics from years of soot and grime. They weren’t expecting to find new ones.

Using a thermographic camera, one restoration worker noticed a shape in the plaster walls. When the team started chipping off the material, they found the brilliant glow of mother-of-pearl tiles. Soon an 8-foot-tall angel was revealed, dressed in a flowing white robe, its golden wings and halo as luminescent as when they were installed in the Crusades era. It’s believed that the angel was covered up following an 1830s earthquake, perhaps to hide damage. Now the lost seraph (above) has rejoined the procession of radiant mosaic angels who are walking to the nativity along the church’s historic walls.

2. MEDIEVAL MURALS // WALES

Mediaeval wall paintings, Llancarfan church, Wales
Chris Samuel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During the Reformation, the murals in Catholic churches of the British Isles were often covered with plaster, turning them into more austere Protestant spaces. In covering them so entirely, this art was sometimes inadvertently protected from centuries of decay. In 2010, conservators announced an incredible find in the 800-year-old Church of St Cadoc at Llancarfan in Wales.

Church staff had long been intrigued by a thin red line of paint on the wall. After conservators began the painstaking work of removing 21 layers of limewash, a dramatic painting of St. George slaying a dragon appeared. The discoveries continued with scenes of other popular medieval motifs, such as the Seven Deadly Sins, a royal family, and "Death and the Gallant," in which a rotting corpse with a worm creeping in its rib cage leads an elegantly dressed man to his mortal end. The murals are now on view for all to enjoy.

3. BRETON GIRL SPINNING // FRANCE

Paul Gauguin, "Breton Girl Spinning"
Paul Gauguin, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, French artist Paul Gauguin's 1889 Breton Girl Spinning is an enigmatic fresco of a young girl dancing at a small tree. In one hand, she is spinning wool; in the distance, above the water and shapes of ships, a huge angel with a sword is flying. In part because of this angelic figure, the painting is sometimes called Joan of Arc.

The work was painted right on the plaster dining room wall of La Buvette de la Plage, an inn in Brittany, France. After being forgotten under layers of wallpaper, it and two other murals (one by Gauguin and one by his student Meijer de Haan) were rediscovered in 1924 during some redecorating.

4. MAYA MURALS // GUATEMALA

While updating their kitchen around 2007, Lucas Asicona Ramirez and his family in the Guatemalan village of Chajul discovered some old interior design—Maya murals, hidden for centuries beneath the plaster.

The roughly 300-year-old artworks in the colonial-era home featured figures in both Maya and Spanish attire, representing a moment of European arrival. One may be holding a human heart, or possibly a mask used in a dance. Ramirez hopes to turn the room into a museum, but needs more funding. Other households in Chajul also have historic murals in their homes, and some are striving to conserve these memories of their ancestors even while local preservation resources are limited.

5. WILLIAM MORRIS RED HOUSE MURALS // ENGLAND

The 19th century British artist and writer William Morris is celebrated for his textiles, writing, wallpaper, and other work in the Arts and Crafts movement. The house in Bexleyheath, Kent, that architect Philip Webb designed for him and his wife Jane in 1859 was intended not just as a home, but an incubator for art. The "Red House" became a hub for like-minded artists, and Morris founded “The Firm”—which produced decorative objects such as stained glass and furniture—there in 1861 alongside several other artists. However, the Red House community was short-lived, and financial difficulties forced the family to move out in 1865, never to return.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 2003, they found that the group had left behind some of their artistic experiments. Behind a wardrobe, under layers of paint and wallpaper, the trust made a most extraordinary find: a full wall of almost life-size biblical figures. Researchers believe they were collaboratively painted by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown, all of whom were major artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

6. AMÉRICA TROPICAL // UNITED STATES

Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros had just been expelled from Mexico for his leftist activities when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. Local boosters commissioned him to create a mural on the theme of "Tropical America" on the touristy Olvera Street, which was an idealized vision of a Mexican market, but he had no interest in portraying some folkloric fantasy. “For me, 'America Tropical' was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments,” he said in a 1971 documentary.

His América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos, or Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism, was a moody landscape with gnarled trees clawing at a Maya temple. At the center, an indigenous man is crucified, with an American eagle ominously descending over his head. Innovative techniques such as airbrushing gave the tableau a visceral edge.

The 18-by-82-foot act of subversion was soon whitewashed. Still, many people did not forget it, especially as Siqueiros became recognized as one of the most influential of the early 1900s Mexican muralists. Eight decades after it was painted, the city of Los Angeles, along with the Getty Conservation Institute, began a restoration. The whitewash had protected its details from sun and rain and finally, in 2012, its defiant scene was again revealed to the public. It is now the oldest mural in L.A., and the only one by Siqueiros in its original location.

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