While the American painter Bob Ross has been immortalized through his popular PBS show, "The Joy of Painting," his legacy also lives on in a CRI — that is, Certified Ross Instructor. The CRI is someone who has been trained and certified by the Ross estate to teach classes in Ross’ style.
Massachusetts has just one CRI, Stacey Sparrow, who owns and operates Art on the Rocks studios in Gardner and Leominster. Sparrow recently joined GBH's Edgar B. Herwick III to discuss her journey to becoming a CRI and how her education at MassArt has informed her teaching practice.
Becoming a CRI was, for Sparrow, something of a “happy accident,” as Ross was famous for calling them. Sparrow grew up on the artist’s programming, which inspired her to become an art instructor.
“I just enjoyed watching him, he just made it so easy and he was so calm to listen to," she said. "And it sounds so silly, but it really was the start of [thinking] ‘I know this is what I want to do.’”
After graduating from MassArt, Sparrow became an art instructor at her own studio and began hosting paint-along nights at her studio featuring some of Ross’ television specials. That was when the artist’s legal team informed Sparrow that she’d need to be certified before hosting more of them.
Getting certified required an intensive three-week commitment in Florida, which gave Sparrow pause.
“For me to leave my business was a crazy idea. I was kind of a one-woman show at the time,” she said. “I almost felt obligated to. Like, well, Bob’s not here anymore, so who is doing this? Who can make people feel like art isn’t only for certain folks and give everybody an opportunity to paint and experience the joy of painting, like [Ross] said.”
The certification process included one week of mastering the wet-on-wet painting technique that Ross popularized. After that first week, only certain artists are invited back for weeks two and three as a means of quality control; from there, for each of the 16-20 participants, Sparrow describes the program as “three [total] weeks solid of just painting, painting, painting.” Sparrow completed the program in 2019 and has been teaching Bob Ross courses since then.
While much of the certification course is focused on painting techniques, Sparrow said that “for me, already having a degree in art education was really helpful because, from a teaching perspective, I understand how to teach people as opposed to just how to master a technique.” Since completing the program and becoming a CRI, Sparrow says that “I channel my inner Bob. So we step-by-step instruct you through a class where you leave with a painting that day.”
In addition to her Ross-specific programs, Sparrow’s studios also offer acrylic-style classes, kids’ fine art classes and summer camp programs. In addition to the painting programming, Art on the Rocks also introduced pottery right before the onset of the pandemic.
The goal of her studios, Sparrow says, is to “try and just really create a space where all different ages, demographics, everyone can find something they enjoy — from toddlers to retirees.”