NORTH BERGEN, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — A lonely life filled with hardship couldn’t dampen the spirit of a retired janitor.
Now, at the age of 75, he’s been embraced by a new life that celebrates his newly discovered talents.
“I used to wash these floors every day,” Robert Sundholm told CBS2’s Cindy Hsu.
Sundholm is a retired janitor.
“I feel good cause I’m coming as somebody. When I worked here, I was nobody,” he said.
His days cleaning North Bergen’s town hall are behind him.
At the Outsider Art Fair in New York last January, Sundholm was a sensation.
“I worked at art since I was 60 years old and now it’s 15 years — I’m 75. It’s unbelievable, and it’s all happening at once,” he said.
He’s produced hundreds of paintings a his kitchen counter.
“I feel powerful, wonderful,” he said.
His paintings line the walls and are stacked shoulder high. They’re hung throughout town hall too.
“Everything I do in life I enjoy — except my childhood,” he said.
Robert’s childhood was one of neglect and abandonment. He was left at an orphanage with his brother when he was 7.
“We were always being given away,” he said.
In his teens he was fortunate enough to find a benefactor, Marian O’Connor.
“She taught me the alphabet, and she taught me how to read, and she taught me how to think,” he said.
They were lessons that served him well as he mopped floors.
“One day I heard on the microphone, ‘Robert, report to the rent control office.’ I thought to pick up garbage,” he said. “There he was.”
Daniel Belardinelli an attorney and artist had spotted Robert’s work.
“I noticed three drawings — primitive, like a child — Scotch-taped to the wall,” Belardinelli said.
He knew the janitor had a talent the world needed to see.
“He is a person that has had a very difficult life, and he’s not a negative person, and his work reflects that,” he said. “His work is beautiful.”
Robert said he started painting because he was lonely. He said in particular he likes to paint people — for a specific reason.
“They become your friends. I’m very lonely, so when I paint people, I feel like I create a person to be my friend,” he said.
Friends beyond the canvas are here for Robert now. The art world has embraced a new star.
“I was always taught by my father and other people that I’m nothing, but now I’m something,” he said.
Robert started out selling his work for just $5 or $10. Now, his paintings on canvas go for $800.