Painting and pancakes at the principal's house

The Bob Ross Painting Club creates 'happy little trees' and other works of art to handle stress. 

Sarah Pruitt '95
February 27, 2020
The Bob Ross Painting Club gets down to business at their monthly gathering.

The Bob Ross Painting Club gets down to business at their monthly gathering.

It’s a chilly, overcast Sunday morning in February, and 20 students ring around two oval tables at Saltonstall House brunching on scrambled eggs, pancakes and bacon. The Shins song “New Slang” issues from a small stereo on the windowsill, filtering through the warm space and giving the dining room a relaxing, coffeehouse vibe.

Once everyone’s had a chance to make a dent in their plates, Principal Bill Rawson ‘71 P’08 offers a brief welcome. “You look like you’re ready to start painting,” he says.

The breakfast plates are quickly cleared, and students help a staff member strip the tables of their maroon tablecloths and spread grey plastic sheets over the smooth wood. To protect the Oriental rugs, they roll out brown paper under the chairs.

Then come the materials: small plastic bottles of water-based paint, black zippered cases equipped with different-sized brushes and a yellow sponge to dab with. Each student gets a plastic cup half-filled with water and a pristine (for now) canvas, the size of a piece of letter paper.

Anne Chen ‘22 distributes four laptops, and each group discusses which YouTube video they want to cue up. Within minutes, the same smiling face appears on all of their screens, surrounded by a fluffy corona of infamously permed brown hair. It is Bob Ross, the smooth-voiced landscape painter who hosted the PBS series The Joy of Painting for 11 years (1983-94) and more than 400 episodes.

“Who wants to be the designated pauser?” Anne says to her group. They’ve chosen a moody scene called “Days Gone By,” featuring a misty blue-background, pine trees and a weathered barn. Two other groups choose seascapes, in pastel and tropical shades. 

Though Ross died in 1995, he’s recently enjoyed a new wave of popularity, thanks to reruns on PBS, as well as heavy exposure on YouTube and Twitch, the Amazon-owned video game streaming site. When Twitch aired a 200-hour Bob Ross marathon back in 2015, more than 5 million people watched. His “happy little trees” outlook on life resonates across generations.

For her last birthday, Anne got the idea to throw a Bob Ross-themed birthday party. “But I didn’t want to pay for it,” Anne says. “So, I asked the school if I could borrow the Art Department’s paint and paint brushes. They said no, but they could buy me new ones if I opened it to the entire school.” About 25 people attended Anne’s birthday party, and some of them suggested she should form a club.

The idea was a hit. When club sign-up night rolled around in September, more than 270 students — about a quarter of the school’s student body — joined up.

“We realized we couldn’t provide pancakes and canvases for everyone sadly, so now we open it to the first 35 people who sign up every month,” Anne says. “It usually fills up within half an hour.”

Regular meetings are held at Grill. When Anne posted sign-ups for this special meeting at the principal’s house, she refreshed the page and it was immediately full.

“I think people like it because it’s just so unlike the other clubs we do at Exeter,” Anne says. “It’s great for stress relief.”

The virtual Bob Ross instructs the students at Saltonstall House prepare their canvases by wetting them completely with their brushes. Just as they’ve chosen different videos, they take different approaches: Some prepare their paper-plate palettes carefully ahead of time, while others just start painting and go one color at a time. They pause the videos frequently, working on each section of their painting before moving on to the next.

“Look at your painting, decide where things should live and drop them in,” Ross says on the video. Of those famed “happy little trees,” he tells his pupils “they live right here in your brush. All you have to do is just sort of shake them out.”

All but one of the groups has the sound muted. Instead of listening to Ross’ dulcet instructions, they read the closed captions and chat, some bobbing their heads or singing along with a playlist — Bob Marley, Rusted Root, Jason Mraz, Queen.

As the morning continues, some of the students shed their hoodies in the warm room. Two boys compare their creations, holding the canvases up next to each other.

Dorothy Baker ‘22 is doing her own thing. After painting a Ross-like blue sky, she’s carefully outlining black and white graffiti lettering below. Still, she says, she finds it “very therapeutic.”

Antar Dey ‘22, who has been to the club several times before, agrees that stress relief is part of the club’s appeal. “It’s really relaxing with the music, and just being here on a Sunday morning with your friends and just following a nice little Bob Ross painting,” he says. “Of course, the chocolate chip pancakes are always a great incentive.”