Happy Accidents: How Franklin Park Scored the Art Show of the Season

“You have happy accidents. And those happy accidents turn out to be some of the most fantastic things that can happen.”

Bob Ross

It’s a happy accident of sorts that the first major exhibition of original paintings from cultural superstar Bob Ross opened this week in Purcellville. 

The show “Happy Accidents” opened to the public this week and runs through Oct. 15 at Franklin Park Arts Center, which is officially moving from local gem to new hotspot on the international arts scene.

At the heart of the remarkable project is a collaboration between two dynamic Loudoun women. Arts center manager Elizabeth Bracey and Bob Ross Inc. President Joan Kowalski met while serving on the county’s arts advisory committee. The women initially came up with a plan to quietly hang a few paintings at a local arts venue, and things took off from there. The Purcellville show is attracting international attention and breaking new ground for both organizations.

Surprisingly, the show is a first for Bob Ross Inc., the business launched by Ross and Kowalski’s parents in the early 1980s, which has always focused on Ross’ style of instruction rather than his work itself.

“If you watch the program, you know that Bob is more a teacher than an artist,” Kowalski said. “He actually had very little fascination with his finished paintings. … He was more about showing people how to do their own magic.”

Bob Ross’s longtime business partner, Joan Kowalski, answers questions Thursday, Sept. 5 at the first-ever exhibit of Ross’s original works on the east coast at Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

But interest in a show of Ross’ work has been building since Kowalski’s company donated a number of Ross’ paintings to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History earlier this year. When press reports confirmed that the museum had no immediate plans for an exhibit, plans for the Franklin Park show were hatched.

For Bracey, it’s a natural progression for the center, which is moving into its 12th season and its seventh under her leadership.

“It’s been an amazing experience and one we’re really proud of,” Bracey said. “People have asked me, ‘Why here? Why Franklin Park Arts Center?’ and the first thing I say is, ‘Why not?’ We have a beautiful gallery. Joan and I talked about it, and it’s just the kind of place that Bob Ross would have loved. It’s out of the way and a little place that’s about to become famous around the world.”

The center, which is best known to many Loudouners as a performing arts venue, has been coming into its own as a visual art space in recent years, with high profile shows like the 2017 Farm to Fashion show that had press coverage and visitors from around the region.

“We are ready for this,” Bracey said. “What we do here at the arts center is more than just an exhibit. We’re building relationships and we are forming partnerships and really bringing to the forefront the performing and visual arts in the community.”

The 24 landscapes featured in the Purcellville exhibit are all paintings completed in 26-minute episodes of Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” series, which aired on public television during the 1993 season near the end of his career. The show ran on public television from 1983 to 1994. Ross died of lymphoma in 1995.

Kowalski selected the pieces, including a favorite seascape entitled “Tranquil Seas,” and Bracey curated the show and hung the work. Each painting is accompanied by a charming quote from the episode during which it was painted, a distillation of the affirming words of wisdom Ross is so well known for.

And while Ross lived and worked in Florida, his connection to Northern Virginia is a fascinating one. Joan Kowalski’s parents, Annette and Walt Kowalski, were Ross’ business partners and helped him get started in television and market his classes, art supplies and instructional books. The Kowalskis continued to run Bob Ross Inc. after Ross’ death. Joan Kowalski grew up in Fairfax County, where the business is based, and now lives in Sterling. 

Kowalski’s parents spent time in Florida and her mother took classes with Ross in the early 1980s.

“She thought he was fabulous,” Kowalski said. “One night after class, my parents took Bob to dinner and said ‘You’ve got something here. You should do more with it… One thing led to another and now he’s literally a global icon.”

Bob Ross’s longtime business partner, Joan Kowalski, answers questions Thursday, Sept. 5 at the first-ever exhibit of Ross’s original works on the east coast at Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

Ross has also become a 21st century worldwide cultural phenomenon, with episodes rebroadcast via outlets like Twitch.TV and YouTube, and a new generation has fallen in love with his comforting style.

With Bracey’s help, Kowalski and her team have now built a show that can be taken around the world. The company is already getting requests for shows from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia, Kowalski said. But Franklin Park and Loudoun’s rural west are the perfect place for the show that starts it all.

“If you drive out here, you can just see it’s so Bob Ross-esque,” Kowalski said. “It’s so perfect for this and I cannot wait.” 

And while the clamor is sometimes surprising even to Kowalski herself, it’s becoming clear in recent years that the world simply needs Bob Ross.

 “We are hearing so much of that,” Kowalski said. “It’s funny, Bob sort of knew. It’s part of why you see him wearing the same clothes and there’s the backdrop which is all black. Nothing changes. He barely ages … Bob knew that he wanted his image and his purpose to be timeless. … It’s sort of a macaroni and cheese comfort food thing that he’s creating, and it works.”

“Happy Accidents: An Exhibit of Bob Ross Paintings” runs Tuesday, Sept. 10 through Tuesday, Oct. 15 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Franklin Park Arts Center. Admission is free, but timed admission tickets are required. An opening reception will be held Sunday, Sept. 15 from 1 to 3 p.m. The event is open to the public and no tickets are required. For tickets and information, go to franklinparkartscenter.org. For more information about Bob Ross and Bob Ross Inc., go to bobross.com.

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