A Lincoln artist gets fishy
LINCOLN — There’s something fishy about a scientist who’s also an artist, isn’t there? Especially when he’s a marine biologist. Well, that’s exactly what Nick Mayer is. He’s a bona fide science guy, with undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology from Brown University to prove it. And two studios, one in Bristol and the other in his Lincoln home, where he creates his pencil and watercolor, lifelike illustrations of aquatic life.
So which is he? Scientist or artist?
The short answer is both.
“I use my biology background to inform my artwork, for sure,” he said during a recent interview. “Ever since I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island, I’ve been interested in all things aquatic… I started off catching turtles — the kids would call me the ‘turtle man’ — then I got into fishing, then fly fishing, scuba diving and pretty much anything to do with the water.”
Choosing to study biology seemed natural to Mayer, who would rather wear hip boots than a suit any day. His biology track took him to a transfer program at Duke University that really sparked his interest in marine biology. And from there his career as a marine biologist took off.
Mayer’s worked for the fish and game departments in Alaska (doing research on how the Exxon Valdez oil spill affected the sockeye salmon on Kodiak Island) and Oregon (where he did radio tracking of steelhead to learn more about their habitat restoration.) He’s also worked for the Caribbean Conservation Corporation in Costa Rica, and did marine biology education in the Florida Keys.
After his research concluded in Alaska, he got a job on a commercial fishing boat. Now, Mayer had worked on a couple commercial boats in Rhode Island before, so he knew what kind of hardship he was signing up for… but this time was the closest to death he’d ever come.
“There was the captain, one guy on a tractor skiff, a native and me — that’s it… I jumped on this boat with a crew of four and spent a few months fishing,” Mayer remembered. “It’s a hard life, you fish for 21 hours and sleep for three… One day we blew a hydraulic hose and it sprayed the fluid all over the deck. We used this special soap to clean it up, which caused us to lose the whole catch. It was devastating. We ended up fishing for 48 straight hours to try and make up for it… At some point during that shift, I found myself sliding backwards across the whole 20 maybe 30 feet of the deck, and flipped backward into the water.”
Man overboard. With no PFD, just a raincoat, and something like two minutes to survive in the frigid, rough Bering Sea.
“I remember seeing bubbles from the prop and then I popped up and just saw the stern of our boat going away,” Mayer said. “I started freaking out a bit and then saw the bright line hanging off of the tractor skiff nearby. I swam over to Fred’s boat and had to pull myself in — there’s a thing out there, where you don’t help the man overboard in, otherwise you might end up with two drowned men.”
Usually it only takes one of these close-call experiences to inspire us to pursue our dreams. For Mayer, it took two.
The next came when he was out hunting caribou in northern Labrador, Canada.
“My wife and I had decided to move back East and I got a job as an environmental scientist in Burlington… that’s when I had my second close-call,” he said. “We went up into northern Labrador to hunt for caribou in the fall of 2011.”
Mayer had a successful trip: he got two big bulls. But on the return trip from their remote camp, the crew of seven’s 1950s floatplane encountered some fog.
“The normal procedure is to land on a lake, since they are everywhere, and wait it out,” Mayer said. “Our pilot kept skirting the perimeter of the fog to try and get around it and then he decided he would try and go through it to find the other side. There are no electronics on these planes — pilots just use their vision. We couldn’t see anything at all in front of us and we were all looking back and forth at each other discussing what was wrong when all of a sudden we see a rock face directly in front of us. The pilot turned the plane vertically and did a 90-degree turn, everything in the plane fell to one side, everyone was screaming. It was definitely an event that made me feel like I had to treat every day of life as a gift.”
That was it. That was enough.
“After that, I knew I had to give my dreams of being a full-time artist a try and see if I could make it work,” Mayer said. “Art was always a passion of mine, but it was something I did on the side. Science was how I made my money.”
Mayer ditched the lab coat (so to speak) in August 2012 and went full time with his art.
“I start with a pencil sketch, using a No. 2 pencil — just like you used in school… Every species of fish has a specific number of scales along the lateral line, this is key in identification. So I count those scales and pencil them in; that’s the most laborious process. That’s the more scientific, head-scratching and measuring part of the process. Once the pencil sketch is all right, I start painting.”
Mayer uses watercolors, which he taught himself through trial and error.
“I feel like painting is the fun part, there’s a little more pressure because you can’t really afford to screw up with watercolors… I make these paintings look more realistic by using layer upon layer. I don’t paint the whole thing when it’s wet and loose. I do one layer at a time and build up the painting until it looks accurate.”
Mayer’s art has been commissioned by Anglers Journal, American Angler, and Grays Sporting Journal, he’s also the author of three books: “Catalina Dive Buddies” published in 2013 by Silverfish Press, an adult coloring book called “Wild Oceans” published in 2016 for Fox Chapel Publishing, and in 2019 his latest title, “An Angler’s Journal” also published by Fox Chapel. Mayer was a finalist in the World Illustration Awards in Seoul, South Korea, in 2017, was awarded Artist of the Year by the Billfish Foundation in 2016 and was a Martha Stewart American Made Finalist in 2015. His work and licensed products can be seen in galleries and stores in over 30 countries around the globe.
Accolades and praises follow Mayer’s work for it’s technical accuracy and authentic realism.
“Scientific illustration of fish is what I’m known for,” he said. “But there’s not a lot of opportunity for me to experiment in styles and get more expressive in that area.”
To open a little more flexibility, Mayer started up a side company called Predator Fly Gear. It’s a gear shop that allows the artist to do more in line drawings and work with single colors. He puts these images on t-shirts, hoodies, stainless steel drink containers, hats, iPhone cases, neck gators… you name it.
“The images are all inspired by warm-water, toothy fish,” said Mayer, who is — surprise, surprise — an avid angler. He mainly fly-fishes for pike around here with big flies (that he ties). “These fish are the boss of the water. They’re not even afraid of the canoe. A lot of the time we catch these pike and muskies, it’s a pretty visual experience: you see the fish, it opens its mouth and chomps… The initial take is so exciting — it’s so aggressive. The whole predator fly-fishing is a different game; it’s explosive.”
Together, Mayer has made a sustainable life for himself with Predator Fly Gear and his fine art work.
“This is year eight,” he said. “And I’ve been able to make it work… I view things more like a business owner; I make and sell my artwork and product with my art on it. I’m always trying to make it consistent and sustainable.”
Mayer does this with the help of 24 sales reps nationwide who work for him on commission, as well as a small-business advisor.
“The sales reps pound the pavement with my wholesale catalogue,” he said. “They give me the orders and I give them commissions — it works.”
Mayer stressed how important the business aspect is for him.
“I’m a working-class artist,” said Mayer, a father who’s eldest son just started college. “I grind every day to try and make it all happen. For me, I don’t choose a whole lot of what to paint, it’s what someone is paying me to paint. I also spend a lot of time wearing all the different hats of an entrepreneur: I make my own catalogue, design ads, work in QuickBooks, etc.”
But every once in a while, Mayer has a good catch.
“There was this guy in Maine who commissioned me to do a life-sized portrait of a blue fin tuna he caught,” Mayer said. “The fish was 10 feet and the canvas was 10 feet. That took several months and was the best of both worlds, because I got paid good money and got to paint every day.”
In the end, Mayer’s not wearing a suit. He’s living his dream as a fishy, art-inspired scientist and casting new lines every day. And true to his angling style: “It’s all about that one rare fish of a lifetime that keeps us casting.”