By Cassandra Day
Art therapy is not intended to train artists, but to instead make them happy, says Suzanne Hudson, an art history scholar at University of Southern California.
Hudson discussed the advent of art therapy and the role of television’s Bob Ross at UC Santa Barbara’s History of Art and Architecture winter lecture series. She is currently completing the research for her next book, Better For the Making: Art Therapy Process.
Hudson said a key originator of art therapy was the People’s Art Center, which was originally part of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “These courses under the People’s Art Center were absolutely intended to make for a happier and more productive life. It was not to educate artists,” Hudson said.
“Why are these programs in existence?” Hudson asked. “Who did they think they were going to help?”
A prime example of the popularization of art therapy was TV personality and artist Bob Ross, who hosted the 1990’s television program The Joy of Painting, Hudson said. She described The Joy of Painting, which first aired in 1983, as “a low tech and low budget public television program” that eventually achieved international syndication.
“Ross is best known for instructing audiences of amateurs in how to complete an oil painting in the span of his half hour long program,” Hudson explained. “He demystified the process of creation.”
Hudson stressed that a majority of Ross’s viewers never actually began painting, and they watched the show simply for its entertainment value.
“I argue that the lesson was not the communication of the skills to execute the painting itself, but the virtue of staging and witnessing the making of art as a cultural good,” she said. “I also address a longer history of non-artists making art in America, a history that suggests, as Ross I think understood, that arts utility may be predicated on its therapeutic basis.”
This insight into American culture led Hudson to a question that would influence her research: “When, and under what circumstances, did people in America come to believe that making art is good for them?”
She found the answer in Ross and his own journey through trauma and art. “Ross was candid about his own tales of trauma in military service … the redemption offered through not viewing art, but making it,” she explained. Ross found “retreat and solace,” and a sense of control that eluded him elsewhere in his life, an experience that many ordinary, non-artistic individuals could relate to.
“Ross’s language of self help was cloaked in the mechanics of art making. Ross had cadence and charisma,” which is what made his television show therapeutic to the viewer, Hudson said.
“We don’t makes mistakes, we just have happy little accidents” would later become one of his trademark expressions.
These optimistic phrases reflected Ross’s goal within his show. “I aspire to create tranquility, a peaceful atmosphere to take people away from their everyday problems and frustrations,” he said. “I try to instill the confidence necessary to pick up the brush and achieve successful results because painting is fun and it makes people happy.”
It didn’t bother Ross that the majority of his viewers would never paint. “He himself admitted that the majority of the audience does not paint, has no desire to paint, and will never paint. They will watch the show strictly for entertainment value or for relaxation,” Hudson said. “Far from this being a problem for Ross, it became a point of pride. The therapeutic could be achieved not only by doing, but by knowing it could be done by someone else.”
Ross created about 30,000 pictures within his lifetime, many painted in a television studio in a half hour with the cameras rolling. He passed away in 1955 but Hudson said his persona lives on.
“His advice reaches to such an extent that many do not realize he is no longer alive,” she said. “The point was not to execute masterpieces or even…to train amateurs in the ways of oil painting, but instead to create joy.”
Cassandra Day is a third year UC Santa Barbara student, majoring in English.