CROSSLAKE, Minn. — Each day when Larry Walton backed his car out of the pole barn, he’d see the oil painting that reminded him of his bush pilot days in Alaska.
He bought it on a whim in 1980 from a peculiar artist at a fair in Anchorage, struck by the dazzling northern lights depicted with sweeping brush strokes in the winter night sky. Beneath the aurora, a creek runs through a valley at the base of a mountain range, and a rustic cabin with icicles hanging from the roof’s edge is nestled among snow-dusted pines.
Eighteen years later, as he and his wife moved into their remodeled home on Pelican Lake, the painting didn’t make the cut for indoor decor.
“It was like a new house when we moved in here,” said Denise Walton, Larry’s wife of 31 years, from the couple’s kitchen table earlier this month. “Of course with all the white and beige things, I had a black painting that he wanted to put up, and there was no way. It went to the garage and it hung there … for 21 years.”
Left undisturbed in a building with no natural light, the oil painting remained museum quality — which is a good thing, considering it’s believed to be an original work by famed PBS painting star Bob Ross that made the couple $10,000 in the midst of downsizing their estate. Larry had no idea the artist he spoke with that day — with whom he connected over shared military experience and a love for Alaskan wilderness — was indeed the Happy Painter himself. He paid Ross $60 for the framed canvas.
“He was an interesting guy to talk to, he’d been a lot of places, and I’d been to a lot of places,” Larry said. “Alaska is kind of a melting pot of people. Interesting to talk to him, but a little different. But everybody is a little different.”
On a hunch
It was the keen eye of the Waltons’ son-in-law Chris Kovacs that led to a closer look at the work of art. The family worked together over recent weeks to prepare Larry, 81, and Denise, 85, to leave their beloved lake home for a retirement community near the Twin Cities. Facing a relapse of Denise’s breast cancer, the couple said it was time for the move.
“I had a couple of relapses with my cancer, and my daughter said, ‘How many more kicks in the head do you need before you move back to support?’” Denise said. “I said, this one will do it. … It’s going to be hard because we’ve been used to all of this room up here and we’re not going to have that down there, but we’ll have family support, and that means a lot.”
Before taking that step, the Waltons had the fate of decades of possessions to determine: what would accompany them to their new, smaller home, and what wouldn’t. While working in the pole barn, something about the painting caught Chris’ attention.
“It was funny because I have watched YouTube, and sometimes you get recommendations for various things. I recently got a recommendation for a painting regarding Bob Ross and northern lights,” Chris said. “I didn’t watch the video. … Something triggered that when I saw it on the wall, and it didn’t really register immediately. On the way home, I called my brother-in-law and I said, ‘Hey, listen, you need to check out the painting on the wall and see if it’s a Ross painting, and if it is, see if it’s an original painting.’ So that’s how we discovered it was truly a Bob Ross painting.”
What Chris saw on YouTube may have been the 13th episode of the eighth season of “The Joy of Painting,” Ross’ half-hour instructional painting show during which he transformed a blank canvas into a finished landscape in real time. In that episode, Ross paints a similar northern lights scene with a bit more polish than the one Larry took home six years earlier. While adding happy little snow-covered bushes, Ross talks of his time in Alaska, where he was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base during his 20 years of military service, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. That time also saw the emergence of Bob Ross the artist. He took his first art class at the Anchorage USO club and later sold his paintings on both canvas and gold pans.
“In Alaska, they have ice fog,” Ross says, the brush bristles audible as they mark the canvas. “It covers everything, everything with frost. It is so beautiful. Trees look like they’re in full foliage. It is so beautiful. Light plays through it, and all these little ice-covered frosty things, they act like prisms, and they break up the light and you see all colors in the trees in the dead of winter. You can see — you have to go see it, I can’t explain it all to you.”
Larry remembers the beauty of which Ross spoke. Working as a flight instructor, he surveyed the Alaskan wilderness from the sky, often in a floatplane or bush airplane. He captured many of those memories himself, although he did so through a lens rather than with a paintbrush.
“If I saw a pretty valley, I would fly down a valley and take a picture,” Larry said. “I was a picture nut at the time. I’ve got 2,000 slides of Alaska from just about every place you’d want to see.”
The natural beauty captured by Ross’ painting was what drew Larry in that Alaskan summer day. Woozy from one too many amusement park rides, Larry exited a tilt-a-whirl and strolled through the fair’s various artistic displays. And then he saw it — a rugged scene so familiar to the well-traveled pilot, interpreted through oil paints. The northern lights reminded him of times north of the Arctic Circle, where the spectacular display stretches to the ground and gives off audible crackling sounds.
“It was such a nice painting of just the landscape and what living there in Alaska was,” Larry said. “When I got there, it was mostly dirt roads and glacier dust roads.”
Three years later, “The Joy of Painting” debuted on PBS. To this day, Ross’ paintings enter the homes of millions through the screen. But a canvas he actually painted never entered the Waltons’ home, and in all that time, the couple had no idea the artist who sold Larry the painting had become a popular culture icon.
That lack of familiarity with Ross made it all the more shocking for the Waltons when they learned how much money Ryan Nelson of Modern Artifact art gallery in Minneapolis was willing to pay.
“I thought, you know, how much really is a Bob Ross painting worth?” son-in-law Chris said. “I wasn’t expecting that value. It was a nice surprise. You always hear about people finding treasures and not knowing they have treasures. It was a neat feeling that we found this treasure for my in-laws.”
Steve Peer, another son-in-law of the Waltons’, did much of the legwork when it came to selling the painting. He immersed himself in Ross research and found a feature story published by The New York Times this summer, which investigated the whereabouts of the paintings Ross completed during his television run. As it turned out, coming across a Ross original is more difficult than one would think, given the man is known to have painted at least 30,000 canvases before his death in 1995. Nearly all of Ross’ television-era paintings are stored in a warehouse owned by Bob Ross Inc., an organization led by Joan Kowalski, the daughter of Ross’ longtime business partner, Annette Kowalski.
A happy little ending
For Nelson, buying Ross paintings could be described as a mission of his. His Minneapolis art gallery, he said, is responsible for buying and selling more of Ross’ work than any other in the world, among the works of other “contemporary masters” including Andy Warhol.
“I started buying them because it was fun. I grew up watching Bob as a kid and he really was the person who introduced me to the art world,” Nelson said by phone. “One day, I started thinking about his artwork and started looking for his paintings. At the time, you could buy a painting for $1,000 or $2,000. Nobody had ever really exposed his art to a gallery before.”
Nelson said he can tell immediately whether a painting is an original Bob Ross — not just from the “Ross” painted in the corner, or even the signature often scrawled on the back of his canvases, but from the distinctive style of brush strokes. Even so, Nelson said he sends the works he finds to Bob Ross Inc. for authentication upon sale.
“I would never recommend anyone do their own authentication,” Nelson said. “Reach out to them directly and send the painting out.”
Nelson said there are many fakes on the market, particularly given the show’s very nature encouraged people to try their hand at Ross’ style. He’s taken it upon himself to purchase many of the fakes, he said, in an effort to prevent an unsuspecting art collector from being duped. Once a painting was proven fraudulent, Nelson said he would pursue refunds through eBay or other online marketplaces.
“A painting that looks enough like a Bob Ross to be worth the owner’s efforts to send it in to Bob Ross Inc. to be certified is not a guaranteed Bob Ross painting and we have had cases before where paintings made it into our offices and we regrettably had to inform the owners that they were not Bob Ross originals,” wrote Sarah Strohl, executive assistant for Bob Ross Inc., in an email.
Unlike most of the other art Nelson purchases, he said Ross’ paintings are typically acquired from the original owner — someone who, like Larry, likely bought the piece from Ross himself.
“They paid anywhere from $5 for a gold pan to $60 for a painting,” Nelson said. “The significant amount of money I’m able to pay them now for it is a great surprise for them. … I think Bob has slowly been dropping that luck out to a lot of these people who liked his art and bought it, and now they have a significant piece that they paid $30-$40 for.”
The painting that once hung in Larry and Denise’s pole barn is currently listed on Modern Artifact’s eBay page for $18,450. Pre-show paintings of Ross’ aren’t worth as much — a cerulean blue-dominated ocean scene, which Modern Artifact describes as an original episode painting from the 24th season of “The Joy of Painting,” is priced at $95,000.
They may not have hit that big of a jackpot, but the Waltons still walked away with five figures and the artwork’s original wooden frame. So what did Larry have to say to Denise after learning of the value of his treasured Alaskan painting relegated to the garage?
“I didn’t talk too much about it,” he said with a smile. “You know when to shut up.”