“Did it ever occur to you that shading is merely the absence of light? You bet that’s what it is!”—Jon Gnagy announces cheerfully while demonstrating how to transform some cubes, cylinders, and cones into a picture of a church. Gnagy was the first TV art teacher, with a hit NBC show from the late 40s into the 60s, and how-to books and painting kits on sale to this day. He was Bob Ross before Bob Ross. 

Stan Klein, who runs Firecat Projects, got to know Gnagy as a child growing up in Cleveland. He was Stan’s friend on TV, who showed him how to draw. Over the years Stan kept wondering about Gnagy. He was curious enough to track down Gnagy’s daughter down in Florida. After years of back and forth she agreed to let him put together a show of her father’s art at Firecat. 

Looking around the gallery on a warm Saturday afternoon I’m struck by how unformulaic Gnagy’s work is for a guy who made his name teaching TV viewers how to form simple shapes into worlds. It definitely looks like work of its time. Think Rockwell Kent and George Bellows and you’ll get the idea. But this is nothing you can guide an amateur to do step-by-step in half an hour. As I look at a lithograph of a cactus, Stan tells me it was made out West when Gnagy was undergoing shock therapy. He’d been diagnosed as bipolar. It’s a world away from the cheerful TV host guiding his viewer/students through their first steps of expressing themselves. 

Flipping through Gnagy’s sketchbooks, Stan points out another interesting thing: the artist rarely portrayed people. His wife, Mary Jo, also a working artist and illustrator, co-authored his how-to books devoted to the human form. Raised Mennonite and self-taught as an artist, Gnagy never quite got the hang of rendering his own species. He had no trouble with other animals though—a beautiful set of silverpoint illustrations of fish done for a book on the subject is a highlight of the show. 

When I got home afterwards I watched a few clips of Gnagy and wondered about his fate. He lived until 1981 but there’s no work in the exhibition past the 60s. What were his last twenty years like? When Stan went to visit his daughter in Florida most of the work was in storage. Stan had to frame most of the pieces to display them. If this is the legacy of an artist who was once famous on TV, what are the chances for those who never had such widespread exposure? The Firecat show will go some way to make a few more people remember Gnagy, while introducing him to many others. Stan says there are plans for the show to travel after it comes down in August. There will be a catalog too. 

I never drew along with Gnagy but was a faithful student of one of his descendants in the TV art instruction racket. I wrote about it in my book. I don’t recall the experience with the joy that Stan talks about his childhood acquaintance with Gnagy, but Stan and I are very different people. The most famous of the TV artists, Bob Ross, is a punchline for most “serious” artists. Stan differentiates Gnagy’s work from Ross’s by pointing out that, though there were certainly worked-out steps to Gnagy’s instruction, there was still room for self-expression. No “magic white” or “happy trees” to be found. A set of rudiments rather than a formula.

One of the few good pieces of news I’ve heard in the past couple months is that my good friend, Frank, got tenure at his job teaching art. I joked that under the current conditions he’ll have to Bob Ross it. Teaching drawing is a hands-on thing, so doing it through a screen is impossible (unless you’re a genius like Lynda Barry.) And yet that’s exactly what Jon Gnagy pioneered over 70 years ago, long before the world became completely reliant on screens for human contact. Lets hope that the current crop of TV art instructors beaming into cellphones, laptops, tablets, and devices I don’t know about the world over take Gnagy as a model over Ross. Nobody should paint like Bob Ross but if you learn to paint like Jon Gnagy you’ll have nothing to be ashamed of.