NEW YORK (FOX 5 NY) - It's never too late to follow your passion. Bayonne, New Jersey, native Michael "Big Mike" Saviello has been a manager at the iconic Astor Place Hairstylists since 1987. A few years ago, he decided to answer a creative calling.
The 58-year-old father of two had wanted to paint his entire life, but between work and starting a family, his dream was put on the back burner. But it was always there. Simmering.
Meanwhile, Saviello's friend had written a book outside of his day job in finance. Ralfie, as Big Mike calls him, is a father of two and wrote from midnight to six in the morning. He didn't make any excuses—he carved out the time to hone his craft.
After hearing Ralfie's success as a first-time author, Big Mike knew what he had to do. And then something serendipitous happened.
"I walk outside that night and I found a big canvas leaning against the wall barrier—huge!" Saviello said. "And it said 'free.' There was a unicorn spray-painted on it. I said, 'This is a sign.'"
Saviello commutes two-hours each way, every day from the Poconos into the city, so finding the time would be the final piece to cracking Da Vinci's code.
"For me, writing, it would be like torture for me. Painting is fun. I could do it, you know?" Saviello said. "When was my time? I get home at midnight. My wife's a teacher. We wake up at five o'clock in the morning. There's never another time besides lunchtime, so I said, 'That's it, I'm going to do it.'"
The next day, Saviello, armed with the canvas and his favorite picture of his wife, set up in a makeshift studio in a storage room in the back of the barbershop. Big Mike would enjoy his lunch, a little red wine and a sandwich. But that was now his hour to paint. It would become his daily routine and the room is now home to over fifty pieces.
The first portrait of his wife took over two months—and a lot of trial and error—to finish. But word of Michael's new talent spread quickly. After a long-time barbershop client did a documentary called Big Mike Takes Lunch, Saviello's work was high in demand and had the caught the eye of some pretty famous admirers, including Robert De Niro and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
But his art would serve an even greater purpose: helping Saviello get through his wife Harriet's battle with breast cancer. Harriet had always encouraged her husband to paint, and in a bitterly ironic twist, she was diagnosed with the disease two weeks after Michael finished his first portrait of her.
"I want to cheer her up in my next painting," Saviello said. "So, I did a big canvas and I did The Kiss and I did me protecting her, and she had smock on her hair with the blue smock that she used to wear. I made cancer on one side and I put the phoenix on the other side. I put the lion sleeping with the lamb. And I actually brought that one home, and we had it in the house."
"She was a teacher, and that was the end of April. She taught for a couple more weeks, and then she was done in June, so she was home by herself," he continued. "I was working. And that painting helped her a lot. Just looking at it and everything. That was a big part of everything, too."
The painting was therapeutic for Michael as well.
"I'm not a touchy-feely person, I don't show my emotions too much and everything. Nothing really bothers me, but inside you do feel it," he said. "I would come back here and I would paint, and I was just trying to get it done for her, and just show her."
His muse has been cancer-free since December.
And now the piece is going for $25,000.
Big Mike draws inspiration from Vincent Van Gogh and describes his style as real-impressionism, a mix of realism and impressionism with a heavy dose of pop culture. According to Saviello, the "kids" always want him to paint 2 Pac or Biggie, so he started listening to them on his long commute and their message spoke to him.
"I was thinking about me painting. I have something to say—I've got something to show. They came out of nowhere. I said, "I could do that, too, you know,'" he said. "You don't have to have the big PR team behind you and everything. If you do something with passion and conviction, it's going to show no matter what. And people see that."
And they see Michael's message.
"My message is, if you have it in you, it's always going to be in you, no matter how old you are. You've just got to make time," Saviello said. "There are 24 hours in a day, my time was lunchtime."