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Human Interest

The Amazing Story of Robert Sundholm, the 75-Year-Old Janitor Artist: ‘I Became Something from Nothing’

Updated

Orphan. Survivor. Janitor. Painter. Robert Sundholm’s path to New York City’s Outsider Art Fair, the world’s premiere showcase for self-taught artists with no formal training, is unusual in just about every way.

The 75-year-old who mopped floors for 13 years at the North Bergen Town Hall in New Jersey has never had an art lesson nor been to a museum. His selection to be shown by the marianne B Gallery in the esteemed show which opens next week at the Metropolitan Pavilion is, he says, “something I never expected.” 

“Sundholm is an exciting new discovery,” says the show’s director Becca Hoffman. “The raw innocence of his brushwork exemplifies the spirit of artists that break out at the Outsider Art Fair.”

“It feels great to say I’m an artist because I was always told I was nothing and didn’t have any talent,” says Sundholm, who began painting landscapes and figures at age 60. “I became something from nothing.”

Abandoned by his parents in 1948, when he was seven years old, Sundholm and his twin brother were dropped off at a Brooklyn orphanage two days before Christmas. “My father said ‘We’re going to a Christmas party at a children’s home’ and after the party was over, he disappeared,” says Sundholm. “We were there for seven years.”

Courtesy Robert Sundholm

By 15, he’d dropped out of high school and began working at a series of restaurants as a dishwasher, then delivery man. To make money on the side, he sold himself for sex on the streets of New York City, often using the money to buy food or clothes. 

While working at the counter of Schrafft’s Restaurant, he met a former schoolteacher Marian O’Conner, who grew fond of him. “She always asked me to save her a piece of blueberry pie,” he recalls. When she learned he was illiterate at 32 years old, she taught him how to read and write using a children’s dictionary.

“She gave me more love than anybody had ever given me,” he recalls. “We spoke every night on the phone. She told me someday I would be something so I kept going.”

When she died in 1991, she left him a small inheritance which he used to buy a modest apartment in North Bergen, New Jersey. Brokenhearted by her death, he became an alcoholic, only stopping when a swollen liver scared him enough to quit cold turkey.

Randy Harris

Throughout his life, Sundholm had always loved to draw. “I was always sketching people on the subway,” he says. “When I was working as a janitor, I used to sketch people in the building but I didn’t start painting with color until I was sixty.”

It was loneliness that often compelled him to paint. “When I paint, no one controlled me, I controlled the canvas,” he says. “When I paint, I felt free. It made me feel good, I could create something beautiful.” 

Indeed he has, painting hundreds of canvases over the last fifteen years, never dreaming he’d show them one day.

Then in 2009, artist and lawyer Daniel Belardinelli saw his paintings on the walls of the North Bergen town hall corridors where some office workers had taped the paintings he often gave away.

“It was like left hook when I saw his work,” says Belardinelli. “I saw these raw primitive paintings that just jumped out with emotion and color and had a beautiful line.”

He asked to meet the painter and was told, “It’s the janitor.” When they met, he was shocked to see a few hundred canvases piled at his home. 

Randy Harris

Within a few months, he curated Sundholm’s first show of 90 paintings in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Now, eight years later, Sundholm’s paintings will soon be seen by the New York art world, the latest chapter in his extraordinary journey.

 “I’ve had a lot of hard times but my art helped me keep going,” he says. “Good things happen to those who wait.”