As the world was shutting down in the first few months of 2021, a young woman in McMinnville and some friends from her church youth group held a painting party on Zoom, painting together as they watched the same video tutorial online.
Her father, Aaron Akers, drifted by and noticed the instructor.
“They were watching and painting along with it,” he said, “and I looked and I thought, I’ve seen that guy before!”
That guy was former U.S. Air Force MSgt. Robert Norman Ross, who from 1983 to 1994 hosted The Joy of Painting for a public TV station out of Muncie, Ind. Better known, of course, as Bob Ross, he birthed the phrase “happy little trees” into the language of popular culture — and, of course, images of the trees themselves, along with lakes, rivers, meadows, mountains, clouds, birds, and sunsets into literally thousands of paintings.
Growing up in La Grande, Akers recalled lazy interludes on his grandmother’s couch watching Ross paint as he described the “wet-on-wet” process in the memorably soothing tones that are his signature. “I watched him when I was in grade school and then every now and then in middle school and high school,” he said. “He relaxed me, he calmed me down. If you listen long enough, you’ll doze right off.”
Akers, now in his late 40s, took a few art classes in school, but he didn’t pursue it. For five years he worked for Boise Cascade in Elgin, then took an aptitude test. He considered becoming a commercial airline pilot, but “plumber” came up first in his rankings, so he applied for an apprenticeship. Licensed since 2004, he’s a plumber with Gormley Plumbing in McMinnville. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s been in my house, having been summoned after hours one night when we had a plumbing emergency.
With COVID-19 sending everyone into quarantine, Akers put the time to good use. For a couple of months, he watched tutorials on YouTube. That winter, he did his first painting, using cheap supplies from Walmart, with his wife and a couple of friends.
Akers showed me that painting of a seascape, and then a second one of the same scene painted more recently with what he called good Winsor & Newton paint from The Merri Artist, a terrific art supply store in downtown McMinnville. As nice as the first one is for a first-time painter, the second one is remarkable.
He got good at this, and fast.
“There are so many negative things that came out of COVID, like the way people treat each other,” he said. “But many good things came out of it, because there’s a lot of hidden talent that people didn’t know they had that was just waiting to come out. Like me.” He smiled. I didn’t know, and here we are, sitting here talking about painting.”
He’ll teach eight, one-day classes in wet-on-wet oil painting. Other classes will introduce students to gourds, bookmaking, watercolors, acrylics, glass fusing, basket weaving, drawing, and sketching. Some classes go just a couple hours in one afternoon (a class with Akers runs five hours and includes a lunch break), while others are spread out over a few days, ranging in cost from $50-$180. Private, one-on-one courses in painting and color-mixing with long-time Currents veteran Kathleen Buck, cost $25.
Akers, according to artist and coordinator Claudia Herber, is “the Bob Ross of Oregon.”
“He is phenomenal, if you ever wanted to dip your toe into the water and find out what it would be like to be an oil painter,” said Herber, who teaches classes in gourd. “You go to his class and he supplies everything: the brushes, the substrate, and the paint. It’s just lovely what he does, and there’s always a picture online of exactly what you’re going to paint. There are no surprises going in, you know exactly what you’re going to paint.”
The only thing that may surprise students is that at the end of a class with Akers, they’ve painted something they might have looked at beforehand and thought, “I could never paint that.”
Herber told me that many students who sign up for Back Door Studio classes are older and retired, but I dropped into a Saturday class with Akers that was an exception to that rule: three relatively young, working-class students.
Haley, a 26-year-old automation engineer who was looking for an opportunity to add “more creativity and play” to her life, grinned showing off her finished oil of a mountain lake scene in which the peak is reflected in waters along a forested shore. “Working on the piece was a lot of fun,” she said. “I enjoyed learning different techniques, while also being encouraged to make it my own.” The other students included Steve, a sales representative for a trucking company, and Joanna, who works in a nursery.
“That’s what I like about these smaller classes,” Akers said. “It’s easier for me to be attentive to each student.”
Akers is new enough to painting that he remembers distinctly what it must be like for many of his students. Haley, for example, hadn’t picked up a brush since an art class in high school. “It was very intimidating,” Akers said. “You’ve got a white canvas, completely devoid of color, you’ve got a palette sitting there with paint on it, and you’ve got a line of brushes sitting there. ‘What do I do first?’ If you don’t have someone to guide your way through it, it’s very stressful.”
About a year or so after he picked up a brush, Akers found himself watching YouTube videos during his lunch break, looking for ideas of new things to paint, and he stumbled upon work by Kentucky-based art instructor Brandon Thomas, who offers a program tailored to teach artists to teach others. Told that he first needed at least two years of experience, Akers sent Thomas a few of his paintings. Thomas was sufficiently impressed that he took Akers aboard, and today he is a Brandon Thomas-certified instructor, the significance of which is in a sort of pedagogical lineage: Thomas trained at a school founded by Bill Alexander, the German painter who taught Ross to paint — and, if you dive into the lore, may have been the originator of “happy little trees.”
Akers readily acknowledges that, other than diagrams for plumbing projects, he can’t really draw. “I’ve tried drawing people, and I can’t draw people.” But landscape painting has literally reshaped the way he sees the world of nature, which he’d already spent much of his life in as a hunter, fisherman, and camper.
“Here’s the goofy thing,” he said. “I’ve spent years in the outdoors, but until I started painting, I never appreciated it. I never noticed it. Now, I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll look up at a cloud, and I’m like, ‘How could I paint that? What colors would I need to get that sky?’ It drives my wife nuts. We’ll be driving to the coast and I’ll say, ‘See that mist? Look at the different layers!’ She thought it was funny the first few times, and now she’s like, ‘Don’t even.’”
So by day, he’s your neighborhood plumber; by night and on weekends, he paints. This, he says, will one day be his retirement, both to keep some money coming in but also for the sheer joy of it. “I’m just frustrated that it took me so long to do this,” he told me. “Had I known, I’d probably be a starving artist by now.”