Annette and Walt Kowalski were business partners with Bob Ross when he formed his company, Bob Ross Inc., in 1985. They became full owners after his death from lymphoma, leading to legal disputes. BRI is now owned by Joan Kowalski.
Bob Ross entered the business deal with the Kowalskis and his wife, Jane Ross, making each of them one-fourth owners of BRI. Jane Ross died in 1992, leaving Ross with only one-third of his company. Shortly before his death, he amended his will, saying his name, likeness and intellectual property should go to his son, Steve Ross, and half brother, Jimmie, according to the Daily Beast. However, after Steve Ross filed a lawsuit in 2017, a judge determined that Bob Ross could not give the company to new owners when he owned a minority share in the company, the Daily Beast reported.
A new Netflix film is digging into the legal drama over the company rights in Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed. The documentary was released on Netflix Wednesday, August 25, 2021, and made the streaming platform’s Top 10 most watched list. Bob Ross Inc. released a statement in response to the film, saying “Bob Ross Inc. takes strong issue with the inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company.” You can read the full statement here.
Here’s what you need to know:
Annette & Walt Kowalski Retired in 2012 & Passed Bob Ross Inc. Onto Their Daughter, Joan Kowalski
Joan Kowalski became the head of Bob Ross Inc. when Annette Kowalski and Walt Kowalski retired in 2012, according to the Daily Beast. She is the daughter of the Kowalskis. The Sun reported that Annette and Walt Kowalski are still alive in 2021 and living in Sterling, Virginia, where the company has its headquarters.
Joan Kowalski told the Daily Beast she was young at the time of Bob Ross’ death and illness, but said she remembers “no tension whatsoever” between her parents and Ross.
The company grew under Joan Kowalski, and she expanded licensing of Bob Ross products far beyond the paint supplies the company was originally founded to sell, the article said. She was hesitant at first, but the process started when licensing company Janson Media approached her with an offer as social media company Twitch asked to launch their new channel with a marathon of The Joy of Painting.
Kowalski told the Daily Beast the move extended Bob Ross’ legacy, and that he would have approved.
“I know that I’m doing exactly—exactly—what was intended by Jane, Bob, Walt, and Annette,” she said, according to the Daily Beast.
Annette Kowalski Said Painting Pulled Her Out of a Deep Depression Following the Death of Her Son
Annette Kowalski became connected with Bob Ross following a tragedy, she told FiveThirtyEight in 2014. Her oldest son died at age 25, and she fell into a deep depression, she said.
“In 1982, I lost a son in a traffic accident. I was devastated, and I was laying on the couch, unable to move, after the death of this child,” she told the publication. “At that time, there was an old German man who painted on television on PBS, and his name was Bill Alexander. And I decided I wanted to take a class with Bill Alexander.”
Bob Ross was a protégé of Alexander, she explained to the publication, and Walt Kowalski called the company asking if his wife could take a class. They learned he was no longer teaching, but that she could take a class in Clearwater, Florida from “this unknown guy named Bob Ross,” she told FiveThirtyEight.
“Well, my dear, it took me only one day in that classroom to see the effect that Bob was having on students,” she told FiveThirtyEight. “It was amazing. I was so mesmerized by Bob that I didn’t paint, I just followed him around the room watching him interact with the other students.”
After class, she asked if he could teach a class near her home in Washington, D.C. He agreed.
“Well, that was the beginning of the Bob Ross Company,” she said.
The Kowalski Family Responded to Specific Allegations in the Film Calling Them ‘Baseless’ & ‘Unsubstantiated’
BRI released a lengthy statement in response to the Netflix film, saying the portrayal of the company was inaccurate and denied specific assertions made in the film. The statement said their goal has always been to carry on the legacy of Ross in the way that he intended.
It said, in part:
Since the founding of Bob Ross Inc. in 1984, all of its equal partners – Bob and Jane Ross, and Walt and Annette Kowalski – shared the same goal: to promote and support the value of painting around the world. This was the company’s mission from its inception, through the latter days of Bob Ross’ life, and remains the company’s driving purpose after Bob’s untimely death over 25 years ago.
If not for the efforts of the remaining founders and their dedication to this mission, Bob’s artistic and cultural relevance – and his expressed desire to become the world’s most beloved painting teacher and friend – would have been lost decades ago with his passing.
Bob’s presence, inspiring positive outlook on everyday things, and his celebrated ability to provide serenity to audiences of all ages together, as accurately captured in the film, create the phenomenon we see today and are part of a business platform designed to nurture and amplify his gifts and turn them into the world’s treasure.
All of the products and merchandise seen today are just another way to share Bob’s message of positivity with people around the world. Bob Ross Inc.’s hope is that items bearing Bob’s likeness and messages prompt smiles as they remind people of the love of painting Bob shared with all. Bob was especially eager to explore ways to impart his sweet persona and the joy he found in making art with even non-painters, too – especially children – through collectibles, toys and knickknacks, and he was the driving creative force within the company until his passing.
The statement went on to say filmmakers asked them to be interviewed for the film, but said they did not present them with specific accusations. The requests from filmmakers “arrived replete with a confounding lack of transparency,” the statement said. The filmmakers also did not tell BRI the film would appear on Netflix, the statement said.
Had the filmmakers communicated with openness in their correspondence, Bob Ross Inc. could have provided valuable information and context in an attempt to achieve a more balanced and informed film. However, as the director and producers carried on with the production without the perspective of Bob Ross Inc., the final narrative lacks considerable nuance and accuracy and carries a clear bias in favor of those who were interviewed. After seeing media reports about the film’s summer release, Bob Ross Inc. attempted to reach out to the filmmakers in May 2021 to offer comment. They did not return calls or emails and finally responded through their attorney. We provided a comprehensive statement, and the filmmakers chose not to use it.
The statement continued, saying that there was no attempt made to prevent Steve Ross from talking about his experiences.
“Bob Ross Inc. never pursued or threatened legal action against Steve Ross, and, in fact, no one at Bob Ross Inc. heard from Steve Ross for almost twenty years, until 2017 when Steve filed suit against the company without any prior communication,” the statement said.
The statement said Bob Ross may not have shared details of the company with others while he was alive, and said some assertions made in the film were “rejected by a court of law in 2019.”
The statement concluded:
Bob Ross Inc. supports a vibrant, worldwide art community by putting a brush into the hands of more first time painters than any other movement in history. We embrace fans that never intend to paint at all, but still crave Bob’s delightful personality and loving, positive spirit. We enthusiastically support the public television system, a true American treasure; art-related education and charitable projects, including with the Smithsonian and the U.S. Air Force First Sergeant Academy; and the new Bob Ross Experience museum in Muncie, Indiana. The efforts of Bob Ross Inc. and our dozen employees have allowed Bob’s incredible accomplishments and his love of painting to thrive – and we remain committed to enhancing his wonderful legacy well into the future.