Robert Sundholm was a man on a mission. In the kitchen of his co-op overlooking Braddock Park in North Bergen, he leaned over the blank paper on his naked canvas, smoothly etching it with slightly curved ink lines to create a skydrop.
He added sharply curved lines in the lower lefthand corner for a human being.
“All right, now let that dry off,” he said. “In a few minutes, I’ll get the colors ready.”
With no wasted motion, he reached into his drawer right under the table -- then realized his instrument of choice wasn’t there.
“We need white,” he said. He whipped around and checked under another drawer, pulling out a white bottle of acrylic paint and squeezing a dab onto his plastic paper palette. After taking out an incorrect color (“We don’t need yellow”), he rapidly located the right colors in a purple bin by the window, and brought each to the palette.
Soon, his creation, “Man on the Beach,” was done. It took three minutes and forty seconds.
Such an exercise is the norm for Sundholm, retired from his 13-year janitorial stint at North Bergen Town Hall, and perhaps on the cusp of artistic superstardom.
Sundholm creates at least five of these paintings each day. Ever since his premiere last month at New York City’s world-renowned Outsider Art Fair, every media outlet wants a piece of the 75-year-old painter.
People Magazine recently did an extensive profile on Sundholm. Renowned New York Times art critic Roberta Smith named him as one of her Top 10 Standouts from the Outsider Fair, writing, “Mr. Sundholm has finally made good on his desire to paint, depicting city scenes in a brushy fly-away style descended from Oskar Kokoschka and European Expressionism.”
Last week, he spoke with the BBC and CBS.
Asked how all this sudden fame feels, Sundholm said he was happy to have surprised everyone who told him he would amount to nothing. He added that he’s still “humble” about it all.
Humble beginnings marked the self-taught creator’s life. In 1948, his drunken father abandoned him and his twin brother at the Kellman Home for Children in Brooklyn, New York. He said his emotionally distant mother cared little to help them out. Sundholm knew even then that he would have to depend on himself to survive.
As a teenager, he did what was necessary to make ends meet, even prostituting himself on New York City’s streets, he said. He held stints as a dishwasher and a deliveryman.
During his hustling days, he met “Malcolm,” an older man he considered a “second father,” and lived with him as his lover for 27 years.
“He was an artist, and he never encouraged me to be an artist,” Sundholm said. “He never encouraged me to paint. He was an intellectual; he couldn’t open a jar of pickles, but he could’ve told you when the world was coming to an end. We were father and son; we were two very different people. I was the low person, he was the high person. We loved each other very much.”
While working at the now-defunct Schrafft’s Restaurant in the city, Sundholm became close with a schoolteacher named Marian O’ Conner. He refers to her as his “second mother.” She exposed him to art and theatre culture, even teaching the once illiterate youth the alphabet at 32 years old.
When she passed away in 1991, she left behind an inheritance for Sundholm, which he used to purchase his current condo at a very cheap price.
Soon after, he got his position as a local janitor. However, in his off hours, he spent years crafting ink paintings. Some, he gave away, including to the township’s tax collector’s office, where they hang today.
At first, few people took notice. Then, lawyer, and fellow artist Daniel Belardinelli took a chance trip to Town Hall to assist a friend with a motor vehicle violation in 2009, and fell under the spell of Sundholm’s art.
“Thousands of people were in and out of that courtroom, in that building,” Belardinelli said. “No one did anything. I went there one day, and randomly, I saw it. I liked it.”
Belardinelli refused to leave the hall without meeting the creator himself, who happened to be present at the time. He soon visited Sundholm’s home – overflowing with his works – and gathered at least 30 different canvases.
In June of 2009, Belardinelli curated Sundholm’s first art exhibition in Jersey City. The pair lost contact for a while. But Sundholm had a second exhibition at the Say What? Gallery in upstate New York last year. And in those years, a friendship blossomed.
“Now here we are,” said Belardinelli. He cited Sundholm’s talent, untouched by any special training or art school classes, as a wave of “outsider art.”
“It’s automatic,” he said. “It’s an automatic process. This is not, ‘You know what? I’m going to make a painting of [anything.]’ This is coming. It’s coming at you like a boxer. He’s not thinking about how he’s going to knock you out; he’s going to knock you out. That’s how he does it. That’s what I like about his work.”
“There is a famous artist by the name of Jean Dubuffet,” Belardinelli added. “He came up with the term, ‘art brute.’ Dubuffet was a very trained artist. But he liked, he loved the art of people, of children, of marginalized people. People that didn’t go to school. People who were in prison. People who were in chains. There’s no rules telling them colors and shapes and forms. It just comes out naturally. He’s that. He’s the epitome of that.”
“I basically take paper, pen and ink sketch, very simple, and then I pick the colors that I want to put on, and then do it, it’s done.” – Robert Sundholm
Belardinelli recounted a time a few years ago where some people gave Sundholm a little money for 350 of his paintings, saying they were art dealers who would put the images online and make him famous. Instead, they put them in a YouTube video.
“They did nothing for him, Belardinelli said. “They sold one painting and gave him 35 dollars.”
Belardinelli threatened to sue them. “Within two days, they drove 350 paintings back to New Jersey, and apologized profusely. They had to take the video off YouTube. They’re out of his life now.”
Anyone who wishes to purchase Sundholm’s paintings must contact the Marianne B Gallery through www.mariannebgallery.com.
Sundholm said his painting process is rather plain. “I basically take paper, pen and ink sketch, very simple, and then I pick the colors that I want to put on, and then do it, it’s done,” he said. “And the subject is usually very simple. I do it from a photograph or imagination.”
He happily showed off a few paintings and pictures around his apartment. One painting, titled, “Three Young Boys Can’t Wait To Grow Up,” depicts three youths walking on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue, a homage to Sundholm’s days hustling around 42nd Street.
Across the wall from that is “Small Chat in Central Park,” a picture of two young men in Central Park, apparently up to committing carnal deeds.
“They’re cruising each other,” Sundholm said.
Another painting, located at the end of the apartment’s hallway, depicts Muhammad Ali in his 1975 fight against Joe Frazier.
That one, according to Belardinelli, will be going to charity. “Part of the way I’m showing his work is, we’re putting work in charity benefit foundations,” Belardinelli said. “On April 22, we were contacted by the Vincera Foundation. They are a sports rehab hospital center. They asked if Robert would donate a painting to their foundation. Because it’s in Philadelphia, and it’s a sports-related thing, a lot of Philadelphia athletes will be there. So we decided we would donate a boxing-themed painting. The starting bid will probably be around $2,500.”
Sundholm will have his hands full in the near future. He’s looking to do shows at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. He also hopes to go international.
More immediately, though, North Bergen township will honor him with the key to the town on Feb. 22. Mayor Nicholas Sacco has four of his paintings on his office walls.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org