TJ Savino, from Bay Shore, fought depression and found a new purpose through dance and his art — sculpting utensils. Credit: Randee Daddona; Photo Credit: TJ Savino

TJ Savino reached for a fork in his garage workshop and began bending the tines back and forth. Some utensils break easily, he explained, while others are more flexible — allowing him to transform them into a gleaming tiger, a couple embracing or a fly fisherman casting a thin metal line into space.

Five years ago, Savino was at a breaking point himself, saddled with depression so severe he said he tried to take his life.

“I felt absolutely worthless,” he said about that dark time. “I didn’t have anything to look forward to, and (I believed) that I had been an abject failure for years.”

But at one of the lowest points in his life, he found a way forward. Introduced to art therapy during his recovery, he said he discovered a passion for creating. Initially just a hobby, he has now found success as a sculptor in an unlikely medium: knives, forks and other humble kitchen utensils.

In his workshop, he gestured at the metal bric-a-brac around him that became his salvation.

TJ Savino works on his latest piece in his garage...

TJ Savino works on his latest piece in his garage workspace in Bay Shore on March 21. Credit: Randee Daddona

“Once I started doing this, I couldn’t stop,” he said.

Eric Wong, a Manhattan curator who met Savino a year ago at an art show, hopes he doesn’t.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if five or 10 years from now you see his works in museums all over the world,” Wong said. “I’ve never seen any other creations like his.”

Emerging from darkness

How all this began is a tale with an extended grim period and a surprisingly happy ending.

A 36-year-old Bay Shore native, Savino said he never felt as if he fit in, either in high school or at Hofstra University, where he earned a physics degree in 2010. After graduation, rather than pursue a career in his field, he said he worked a series of jobs ranging from construction to waiter to dog-walker.

At a trade school in Dayton, Ohio, he said he learned welding and tried that field for awhile. Other unsatisfying occupations followed, as well as a failed personal relationship while he was living in Virginia that he said left him emotionally drained and filled with self-doubt.

One day in March 2019, it all seemed too much.

During a lunch break at his job, he said he left a note on his desk that he was going to end it all, then went home to asphyxiate himself.

But someone had spotted the note and called the police, who rescued him. He said he was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where he was exposed to art therapy. Savino had always been interested in art and said he began experimenting with painting, origami and other mediums.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said he moved back in with his parents on Long Island, where he kept trying different forms of creativity. Then about a year ago, Savino said he switched on his welding machine, picked up an old set of flatware and spread them on a table, contorting them into various shapes looking for inspiration.

“I thought, well, that kind of looks like a head. And those sort of look like arms,” he recalled.

At first rudimentary, Savino said his human figures gradually became more sophisticated and he advanced to more elaborate designs. The first piece he made for someone else was a phoenix that his sister asked him to create for an acquaintance who had recovered from a series of strokes and heart failure. He found the concept of a mythical creature that rises from its own ashes an appealing theme.

“It resonated with me, too, especially since I hit rock bottom,” he said.

TJ Savino's work, clockwise from top left: A tiger built from leftover and damaged components from his previous work; swing dancers; "Date Night" at The Firefly Artists in Northport; a sturgeon sculpture on display at the Inn at Little Washington Credit: Randee Daddona

Friends began urging Savino to start selling his work. Then, he said his brother-in-law, an experimental and retail designer who was working with the Petrossian caviar boutique in Manhattan, set him up with a couple of commissions. One was a sculpture of a sturgeon, the species that produces the fish egg specialty. The other was a chandelier set with schools of fish made with spoons and forks.

Faced with such a large project, he said, he gulped and began.

A month later, the chandelier was up and the 4½-foot-long sturgeon was on display in the boutique’s front window. It became an immediate attraction.

Everyone stops to take pictures of it, said the store’s manager, Ines Rodriguez. Then, they come inside to photograph the chandelier, she said.

“Sometimes it feels like a museum in here,” she said.

Meanwhile, Savino said he kept creating, producing pieces like a red-stained “bleeding heart” pierced by skewers, a dragon with spiky fork scales and dancers suspended in a graceful maneuver — whatever leaped into his head.

“My mind is all over the place and this is a place to put it,” he said.

His work draws “oohs and aahs” from shoppers at The Firefly Artists, a gallery in Northport, said Katheryn Laible, a managing partner. She thinks “Date Night,” which shows a man holding flowers behind his back and sneaking up behind a woman who is eating an ice cream cone, is “very sweet.”

“He has a degree in physics and an artistic sensibility, and he somehow brings those two things together,” she said. “The tenderness with which he bends metal is breathtaking. I say to people, have you ever seen someone who gets so much emotion out of a spoon?”

Several of Savino’s pieces are of couples performing dance moves, which is reflective of another major change from his former bleak days.

When he was in college, Savino said friends dragged him to a swing dance contest and he liked it. But he stopped after he broke his collarbone playing rugby.

TJ Savino dances to music by The Haymakers with friends...

TJ Savino dances to music by The Haymakers with friends from the Long Island Syndicate at Twisted Cow Distillery on Friday, March 15, 2024. Credit: Randee Daddona

About a year ago, Savino said he decided to try dance again. Since he doesn’t like to drink alcohol, he thought it would be a good way to socialize without going out to a bar.

After watching several swing dancing competitions, Savino said he decided to practice enough to compete and now spends his free time taking classes and attending gatherings at cities up and down the East Coast.

“It’s very healing for me,” he said. “Every time I go to a dance convention, I think this is the best time in my life.”

Dazzled by his work

When Wong first met Savino, he said he was impressed with the metal flowers and the tiger he brought to an exhibition. Wong was surprised to learn that Savino had no formal art training and later was dazzled seeing some of his other pieces, such as the chandelier he made for the caviar firm.

“He works with dissimilar metals, which takes a lot of technical skill,” Wong said. “I’m an engineer myself, and when I saw what he was doing it blew my mind.”

This variation in metals is one of his particular challenges, Savino said during a recent interview in his workshop.

With his short, dark beard and shoulder-length hair, people say he looks a bit like Keanu Reeves. At 6-foot-5, he has no problem reaching the top shelves for his materials — a combination of garage sale finds, store-bought purchases and contributions from friends and family.

Looking his collection over, he explained that utensils often contain different ratios of elements like iron, chromium and nickel. He said he never quite knows what he is going to get with his materials, but he has to find a way to make it work.

"Shoaling Chandelier" displayed at the Petrossian caviar boutique in Manhattan. This custom spiral chandelier features overlapping monofilament threads that cause the shoal to "swim" as a single unit. Credit: TJ Savino

“Some are more brittle and their molten puddles don’t combine right,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to make the metal behave like I want it to.”

Perhaps the most difficult project he has worked on so far was the chandelier, he said.

The first step was finding a set of polished, high-quality metal spoons and forks. The next was creating 72 metal fish, Savino said. After that, he tied each one to a heavy fishing line, then positioned them in a descending order to make them look as if they were in a coordinated school. The end result took him more than 120 hours to complete and install, he said.

The chandelier and the sturgeon are “amazing,” said Christophe Jadot, American sales director and master caviarologist for Petrossian, founded a century ago in Paris.

The sturgeon in particular was so admired that Jadot, who grades caviar sold to restaurants, said Petrossian commissioned Savino to make another as a gift for one of its clients, an award-winning chef who owns a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Washington, Virginia.

Savino was paid $8,000 for the sturgeon. His smaller works generally sell for several hundred dollars, he said.

One of the secrets to Savino’s work is maintaining a certain flexibility himself. The tiger, for example, was made of remnants from other projects. He said he decided to use them anyway, which allowed him to give it a “raw and dirty look,” he said.

Left, a sketch shows two concepts for fishermen sculptures. Right, the finished product. Credit: Randee Daddona

The artist’s latest effort is also his largest — a breaching 7-foot-long orca.

He plans to display it at the Artexpo New York Art Fair, the world’s largest art fair trade show, which is being held this weekend. It contains more than 1,200 pieces, 1,000 of which are dessert forks fused together to make 500 fish, which in turn form the shape of the orca. Savino said it is priced at $27,000.

Speaking last month, he was still trying to figure out how to mimic the orca’s color patterns. How he was going to put it all together was still a puzzle. But that’s part of the fun.

“I like to put some whimsy in my work,” he said. “I want to see people light up when they see it.”

This life — of art exhibitions, high-profile commissions and work he is passionate about — is very different from the one Savino was living not so long ago. Gone are the mornings when he said he felt so dejected he had trouble getting out of bed to face the day.

“It’s been a weird kind of reset in a way,” he said of his former life. “I’m a different person than I was even a year ago. I’ve gotten to the point where I always have something to look forward to.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

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