"People Magazine changed my life" is a sentence I never thought I'd write...
Growing up, reading People mag was a Friday night Sabbath tradition. Probably not what God had in mind, but at least it was family time that wasn't dependent on technology. Relaxing after our traditional Friday night meal and curled up under blankets with a stack of magazines, is a continued enjoyable pastime. After a long week, it feels good to zone out with our version of "the news". While I treasure the cuddle time with the fam, I've truthfully lost a lot of interest in anything celebrity/tabloid related. I used to gobble it up, and regularly watched E! News on a nightly basis. Yikes. My focus shifted a couple years ago, and I find myself paying less and less attention to those topics. That's a positive change for me; my mind feels much less clogged. However, one Friday night several months ago, I did pick up that week's issue of People, and it changed my life in a profound way.
Quickly thumbing through the fluffier stuff, I landed upon an article that caught my eye and gripped my heart. It was about a 75 year old man named Robert Sundholm, who had very recently been discovered accidentally in the art world. This alone would have been heartwarming. Robert had a truly horrific childhood, the worst I've ever heard of, frankly. It's not my place to share those details, but trust me when I tell you he is a living miracle. He was illiterate until 32 years old. While working as a counterman at Schrafft's, he met a woman who was a regular customer. This woman, Marian, was a former schoolteacher. She didn't have her own children, and every day, while eating her blueberry pie, would teach Robert how to read and write. She'd bring him children's books and bought him a children's dictionary. They developed a deep bond that was a mix of friendship and familial. Having been abandoned by his parents at a very young age, Robert found a warm, loving mother figure in Marian.
After Marian eventually died, Robert became an alcoholic. We have all known grief, but I think we need a new word in the English language for what that must have felt like for Robert at the time. This woman was his only family. She was his only source of love, stability, and safety. Most diner customers eat their pie and leave, never giving a second thought to the person carrying their plate. Marian is a lesson to all of us in so many ways, chief among them; kindness and genuine interest in those "less obvious" to us. She wasn't just a polite customer, which usually suffices. She saw a crater sized hole in Robert and filled it. After Marian died, Robert was understandably indescribably distraught. "Lost" is an understatement. I have often thought about the desperate fear he must have felt at being left by her... Robert sought some solace in photography, but soon discovered his real love was painting. Painting became a lifeline for him, keeping him afloat during this crushing period of loneliness and grief.
This is the beauty of art; it heals, it sustains. Art can literally save lives with its magical qualities of helping us tap into the depth around us. A person's artistic expression can be their best friend. Art understands us unconditionally. We need not explain ourselves or apologize for anything at all, art will love us regardless. It is a Labrador for the soul, but unlike a dog it never grows old. It never dies. People do, but their artistic expression will always live on. Robert's paintbrushes, canvases, and ideas became his oxygen. He painted for himself. It was never about public accolades, money, or recognition. It was about emotional, mental, and spiritual survival. By all logic, Robert Sundholm really should not be alive (if you knew his full backstory you'd understand). With each brush stroke, he breathed new life into himself. It's nothing short of miraculous.
Robert moved to northern New Jersey, buying an apartment with some money Marian had left. He found employment as a janitor at a local town hall. Being openly gay, Robert endured terrible insults flung in his direction. He was severely mistreated, but steadily and happily showed up to work.
And still he painted. He would tape his paintings on the wall at work, only to have them often be defaced or torn down (I mean, who ARE these people???). The thought of anyone being disrespected like that, let alone an elderly person, is so revolting. I cannot believe that in a sophisticated part of the country, in this decade, that shit still goes down. While reading this, I was shaken to my core. I was flooded with admiration, sympathy, inspiration, and strong maternal instincts for this man old enough to be my grandfather. AND HE LIVED RIGHT NEAR ME. One thought became crystal clear to me: I had to meet him. Had Robert lived anywhere else, I'd have been just as moved but would have left it at that, but knowing that this remarkable beacon of inspiration and perseverance lived so close to me was setting off rockets of excitement in my soul.
Here's the kicker, the crux of the story that had me so riveted… A well-known artist by the name of Daniel Belardinelli was in court one day, where Robert worked as a janitor. He noticed some of Robert's work hanging on the wall, and inquired with employees as to who painted them. He was met with a nasty, disparaging response towards Robert, but insisted on meeting the janitor. Daniel was horrified at the treatment of Robert, and impressed with the art itself. What happened next is almost fairy tale like; they met, developed a close friendship, and Daniel gave Robert his spot in an upcoming annual art exhibition. Daniel, who grew up in the art world and who hung with Warhol, Haring, and Basquiat, has a hugely honed eye for talent, and a heart that's even bigger. He instantly felt paternal toward Robert and was intent on displaying his artistic talent to the world.
That's one of the fascinating things about Robert; throughout the various stages of his difficult life, he's cosmically met certain key people who have felt an overwhelming need to protect and help him, folks both younger and older than him. It's one of the reasons Robert's story is so inspiring; the chapters in his life defy age. He proves time and again that a number of years never limits an individual or his experiences. Daniel and Robert had this fateful meeting when Robert was in his late 60's. His fervent belief in himself and dedication to his passion was finally about to pay off, with no expectation of that. This was a man content to sweep floors, empty the trash, and paint as a beloved hobby. Now his life was about to dramatically change, and his art and remarkable story would be shared with the world.
I was exploding with excitement and inspiration. This was the most inspirational tale of purity of heart, unwavering spirit, self-preservation, and belief in oneself I ever came across. As I said before, reading this was not enough; I felt an overwhelming desire to meet this wonderful man. I was fiercely determined to stand in his orbit, even for a little while, and I so believed it would happen, since we are in neighboring towns. Tzvia, my manager, is equally determined and assertive. I had full faith she could make this happen. I think I basically instructed,
"Find this man."
And lo and behold, she did! Tzvia did some digging, and contacted Daniel. Apparently, there have been numerous requests to meet with Robert, since he was fast becoming a real name in the art scene. They have turned down a lot of these requests, sniffing out those who have a selfish agenda of capitalizing on Robert's newfound fame. The purity of my desire to sit down with them must have been energetically translated, since Daniel agreed to allow me into Robert's home to spend time with him. I was so humbled and honored to be trusted with this gentle soul, but truthfully not entirely surprised, since I really felt a magnetic force pulling me towards this person. It was this feverish thirst I had, that needed to be quenched in person only. I was so excited to share this news with my family, and discussed with my children all the beautiful lessons to be learned from this story; never give up on yourself EVER.
Never stop being a good person, no matter how much the world kicks your ass in. Never stop allowing art into your heart, and use it to explore yourself. Never be defined by others' expectations. Never allow the world to label you, that's YOUR job only. Always know you are special. Always know there are new chapters. Always believe in humankind, because one day there will be a human who will indeed be kind to you. Always know that when the strongest waves of the darkest part of the ocean are holding you under, stealing your breath, you will drift towards a place where you will float and come up for air. Nothing is stronger than what the beat of your heart means. As long as you have breath, you have a chance. Always be extra nice to the busboy. Treat all people with the utmost of respect at all times; we know not of anyone's struggle. Always lift others up, help your fellow man rise. It's why we are here. Every single thing we do is all about connection.
I really prepared for my meeting with Robert and Daniel, from an emotional standpoint. I wanted to approach the situation as a mother, since Robert didn't have much of that, and I genuinely wanted him to feel safe in my presence. What disarms people more than homemade baked goods?? I happily baked ginger snaps and coffee cake, feeling I was on a mission of the heart. I bought a cookie jar and cake plate, which I had my incredibly artistic daughter decorate, explaining to her what a joy it would be to share her art with this special man. I put together a gift basket from the craft shop, including a gift card so he could purchase art supplies. I was brimming with pure excitement! I wrote Robert a letter about what his story means to me; if he never gave up on himself, how could I ??
In person, Robert was an absolute sweetheart of a man, enthusiastically showing me his art. He even painted for me on the spot in his "studio", which is his tiny kitchen counter. He clapped his hands and belted out a show tune; he loves to spontaneously burst into song in gay bars. I mean, the guy is just bursting with all forms of joyful artistic expression. His love of life is infectious. Which I knew. Which is why I needed to be in his presence.
We had a lovely lunch together. Robert ate spaghetti and meatballs and sipped a Coke like a child. Every so often he'd bust out a tale from his colorful life, some sad some happy, but all delivered in the same grateful, humorous way. This is a man who appreciates life. He is not existing, he is living. This was honestly the most fascinating day of my life. I've had good days and great days, but never really days I'd describe as "fascinating." Being with Robert, and the tzadik who discovered him, Daniel, made for year’s worth of inspiration. When I first read the article, I was slammed with the desire to write a monthly humanitarian post. To give, to receive, to share, to learn, to teach. I wanted to absorb the magic of Robert, and help spread his story. It's an honor. Especially when Robert has been interviewed by the BBC, major news networks, and various publications. Frankly, it's mind boggling that I was included in that group, again proving what pure intention and determination can achieve.
Next week I have the honor of attending a private art exhibit, showcasing Robert's work. I will again get a chance to marvel at all he has accomplished. I will be reminded of the magic that occurs when one man lends a hand, and a paintbrush, to another. And when I'm eventually Robert's age, I will tell my grandchildren about this man I once met, who inspired me deeply for decades to come. And I'll have a painting on my wall to prove it.
I hope you are deeply impacted and inspired by Robert Sundholm. I encourage you to find out more about him. Below are links to which you can do so. Learn about him, feel him. Receive what he's finally been able to share with you. And then recycle that magic and share it with someone else. Lastly, give someone a really generous tip today. It can literally change the course of their life. All my love, LB❤