Through the wilderness
Veterans, families heal and connect by learning to paint in the style of beloved PBS painter

Through the wilderness

David Olivera works on a piece during the VFW's "Paint Like Steve Ross" class. The younger son of famed painter Bob Ross, Steve helped carry on the family legacy. Eighteen people, mostly veterans and their families, took part in the class, which was funded by the City's Lodgers' Tax./ Courtesy photo

Missy Votel - 05/23/2024

For more than a decade, oil painter Bob Ross taught millions of Americans how to paint with his soothing tone, calm demeanor and talk of “happy little trees.” His instructional PBS show “The Joy of Painting,” which aired from 1983-1994, catapulted the gentle, bearded, frizzy-headed (rumored to be a perm), animal-loving artist to instant pop icon status.

Sadly, Ross, an avid smoker off-screen, passed away in 1995 at only 52. However, Ross is still reaching aspiring artists from the great painting easel in the sky, including a group of local veterans and their families, thanks to local artist and instructor Deborah Kelroy.

But first, back to Bob Ross. Soon after his passing, his estate, use of his name and even the term “happy little trees” became embroiled in ugly legalities from forces outside the Ross family known as Bob Ross International. Fortunately, Ross, who was married more than a few times, had two sons. One son, Steve, regularly appeared on Bob’s show and studied under his father as heir apparent to the family business. It was Steve who helped carry on the family legacy after Bob’s passing.

“Steve’s an even better painter than his father,” Kelroy said.

And she should know. Kelroy, who has a degree in studio arts from FLC, attended a weeklong “Paint Like Steve Ross” workshop in Texas in 2022. In another chapter in the Ross family tragedy, Steve had a heart attack soon after that class and is no longer teaching. So, Kelroy was among the last to learn from an actual Ross the “wet-on-wet” technique made famous by Bob, who learned it from a German painter he studied under. The process uses a product called “liquid white” or linseed oil to wet the canvas, making the painting process go much quicker than conventional methods.

Kelroy said she took the course because she learned from teaching oil painting classes that often the learning curve was too steep. “Traditional oil painting takes people a year or two to paint well, and nobody wants that. We want instant gratification these days,” she said. “I learned to complete a finished painting in one session – no drawing, no patterns, no tracing.”

After the course, Kelroy got the idea to share what she had learned with local would-be painters, particularly those with disabilities, or veterans and others suffering from PTSD.

Not only is her son an Army veteran, Kelroy herself is a victim of assault that resulted in PTSD for years. “It really sucked; it really cramped my style. I was a single mom, three kids, and I went out and got myself a service dog and had years of counseling,” she said. Living in Arizona at the time, she moved to Durango, where she first attended Pueblo Community College and later FLC to study art. There, she said her forte became oil painting, which she credits with helping her heal. “From there, things just fell into place,” she said of life after discovering painting.

Still, Kelroy wasn’t sure how to get the brush moving, so to speak, and then she learned about the City of Durango’s Lodgers’ Tax funding for arts. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect time to start this program with the VFW,’” she said.

After being approved for funding, she approached VFW Board Member Demetrius “D” Lewis about teaching a weekly class at the VFW. He agreed, and she held the first six-class session this spring. Although the cost for the class and materials was $600, the Lodgers’ Tax grants allowed her to give full-ride scholarships to veterans and people with disabilities and 50% off to relatives. 

Kelroy said her past life experience allowed her to bond especially well with her students. “That’s why I like working with the veterans and people with PTSD,” she said. “Anyone is welcome, but I work really well with people with disabilities because art is so therapeutic. We have a blast; we just have so much fun.”

Durango husband and wife Josie and David Latham, the latter an Army veteran, were among Kelroy’s 18 students. “We both love art and thought it would be really fun to spend some quality time together,” Josie said.

Both she and David found the classes to be enriching not only on an artistic level, but an emotional level as well. “We were able to be present in the moment,” she said. “It was a calm, peaceful place to be.”

Nicole Williams, also of Durango, took the class with her uncle, Travis Williams, who served in the Army during Desert Storm. Nicole said she was drawn to the class because she is a big lover of hiking, backpacking and the mountains, and she wanted to spend more time with her uncle.

“It was a fun experience,” she said. “I got to try oil painting for the first time, and I got to know more about my uncle.”

She said she noticed a camaraderie develop among the veterans in the class. “They would talk about their experiences together,” she said. “And a lot of them were there with family, so it was cool to see that support.”

Artists in the class will have a chance to show off their works to the public during the VFW’s Memorial Day open house, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., Mon., May 27. There will also be a public reception open at 6 p.m., Thurs., June 6, at the Durango Library.

Kelroy said it will be up to the artists whether or not they’d like to put their works up for sale. (As an aside, one of the few Bob Ross paintings not under lockdown at Bob Ross International, “A Walk in the Woods,” from his first TV episode, is currently on the block for $9.85 million.) However, Williams said she will probably keep her paintings or give them as gifts.

Which, according to Kelroy, was the way Bob Ross would have wanted it. He never accepted a penny for any of his shows (although, according to son Steve, he hated having to “slap together” a painting in 27 minutes.) In fact, after receiving a letter from a viewer who was colorblind, Bob dedicated an entire show to painting using only black and white paint.

“Bob was for the little guy, too,” Kelroy said.

Through the wilderness

Travis, left, and Nicole Williams show off some of their works done in the "Paint Like Steve Ross" class. Travis' painting in the middle is of Black Mesa, near their family home in Kayenta, Ariz. It was painted using only three colors./ Courtesy photo