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INDIANAPOLIS — For a reporter on an assignment, there’s a time to be a bystander, observing from a distance to better keep an objective perspective on events.
And then there’s a time to paint.
I was all set to write a story on the opening of the “Bob Ross Experience,” a permanent exhibit and painting workshop series in Indiana, on a recent weekend, without ever picking up a brush. But the course of events had other plans.
I had been looking forward to the assignment ever since I pitched it to my editor in September — I would attend the opening of the exhibit, a celebration of the late artist and his beloved PBS show, “The Joy of Painting,” which inspired amateurs to create their own masterpieces. And there, in the city of Muncie, where Ross filmed nearly all of the show’s 403 episodes, I would take it all in while staying six feet from his dozens of fans — some sporting Afros and wearing “happy little clouds” masks — and their collection of easels, canvases and brushes.
The morning began amicably: I watched a dozen masked painters try to recreate “Gray Mountain,” a vibrant landscape from a 1992 episode of the show, in a three-hour workshop led by an instructor. I watched the peaks take shape from individual strokes, until the dozen canvases — at least from my vantage point at the back of the room — could pass for Ross originals.
Maybe anyone really can do this, I thought. I smiled, secure in the knowledge I’d never have to try myself.
But then, an hour later, at a five-minute mini-workshop in which an instructor taught fans to create their own “happy little trees,” the moment of truth came. The instructor, Ted Simpson, knew I was covering the event and walked up to me with a white 4 by 4 canvas square in hand. I knew what he wanted before he opened his mouth.
“You know what they say about the best reporters …” he began.
I braced myself. I considered: Was I really scared of a happy little tree?
I dropped my coat in the corner. And I picked up a brush.
I should clarify: It was not the act of painting itself that I objected to — I took drawing classes in high school by choice, and even won a couple of awards. But after spending the previous week bingeing episodes of “The Joy of Painting,” in which Ross repeatedly assured viewers that “it’s just that easy,” I wondered what it would say about me if it wasn’t.
At first, my fears were realized: I couldn’t even hold the brush properly. I was stabbing at the pools of paint and lifting the brush straight up as though staking a vampire, when I needed to drag it through the globs as if petting a dog.
“Let the brush do the work for you,” Mr. Simpson told me. (I had flashbacks to cooking with my mom growing up, trying to pierce the casing of the raw Italian sausage that I was slicing with one cut rather than working the knife back and forth. “Let the knife do the work,” she told me then.)
Then came the time to put the paint on the canvas. “Little tiny taps, almost like a zigzag,” Mr. Simpson said. But I was still wielding the brush like a pen, jabbing it into the canvas as if it were the chest of someone who had offended me on the playground.
“All right, there we go,” he said, dragging his own brush dipped in dark green paint across the bottom of my canvas. “You’ve got it.” (Despite the fact that very clearly, I had not gotten it, or his brush would not be on my canvas.)
A few minutes later — after carving my initials into the bottom left corner with a knife in letters that looked as if they came from a 4-year-old — I was staring at my own happy little tree, which looked respectable, until you saw the model. Side by side, it suddenly looked like something Charlie Brown would bring home for Christmas.
But back in my Indianapolis apartment later that week, I looked across the room at my tree and realized: That didn’t matter.
“To me, that’s what’s so fantastic about painting: Each and every person will paint differently,” Ross once said. “That’s what makes it special.”
It may seem like a small thing, but putting down my notebook and picking up a brush helped me better understand the event and Ross’s fans. After all, the exhibit was called an “experience.”
In reporting, no two stories are exactly alike, and approaching them that way can deprive readers of a richer reading experience. Kind of like what Bob himself preached about art.
“If we all painted the same way, hmm, what a boring time it would be.”
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