Lincoln artist turns love of fishing into watercolor art

LINCOLN — “One of my biggest passions,” says Lincoln artist, award-winning illustrator, fish lover and fly-fishing aficionado Nick Mayer, “is fly fishing for pike in Otter Creek, being in my canoe in Otter Creek, going for the big pike.

“Otter Creek’s an amazing river. You get in there and it’s almost prehistoric or like a Louisiana swamp, where you have these giant trees in the river. And the pike are so big and ferocious that lately they’ve been going after these giant flies that look like baby muskrats. They’ll eat anything from a baby duck to a big frog to small mammals. It’s crazy.”

Nick Mayer’s boundless passion for fish, fishing and the beauty of the natural world has taken him from his initial training in biology to work as a fisheries biologist and environmental scientist in Alaska, Oregon, Costa Rica and Vermont, time spent as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and as a marine ecology instructor on the Florida Keys, to galleries across the U.S., where his stunning watercolors have been shown in countless exhibitions.

Now, through a series of new licensing ventures, his scientifically rendered and brilliantly colored images of fish and sea creatures will by January 2016 be found around the globe on tableware, T-shirts, fabrics, high-end quick-dry sports apparel and even key chains and mint tins.

Over the 18 years since Mayer, now 44, sold his first painting of a tarpon (a large saltwater fish found off the Florida Keys) at a gallery in Key West, Fla., his work as an artist and illustrator has grown and expanded. Mayer has just returned to Vermont from a week on the Isle of Jersey, where he’s been painting Channel Island sea creatures for a new U.K. pottery line. In June, the clothing and lifestyle brand Nautica launched its “Fish of Fiji” apparel line, based around Mayer’s illustrations. The international company that has 170 branded stores worldwide featured Mayer as a guest artist on its website.

Locally, Mayer, who was drawn to Vermont in 2000 because of its natural beauty, was June’s highlighted artist at Middlebury’s Edgewater Gallery, where his richly detailed fish watercolors were paired with Missy Dunaway’s paintings of fly fishing lures. He’s just finished illustrating his second book, “Fish ABCs.” And website sales of cards, prints and posters has been so successful that he’s recently expanded into a warehouse in Lincoln to handle packing and shipping. Ordinary Addison County shoppers can pick up a Nick Mayer card at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op or at Bristol’s Art on Main.

As a Brown University undergraduate majoring in biology, Mayer took a handful of art courses at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, but as a painter he’s largely self-taught.

“I’ve been drawing ever since I was a kid,” says Mayer. “It’s just something I’ve always done, doodling at school. But creating art is also a lot like doing science, in that both require astute observations. That’s the number-one trait you need as both a scientist and an artist.”

Mayer hopes that his work will better inspire viewers to protect and conserve the natural world.

“The Atlantic salmon, for example, used to come all the way up the Connecticut River into Vermont, up the White River. But now we’ve pretty much brought them to extinction,” Mayer observes. “Or when I think about where I grew up in Rhode Island, with the industrial waste the water was literally orange. It was just gross. Here, especially around Lincoln, the waters still feel pristine and the biggest challenge is just to make sure that we don’t let what’s happened in places like Rhode Island happen here.”

For Mayer, conservation begins with appreciation. And for all his concerns as a scientist, anyone talking with Mayer and looking at his work realizes that his desire to paint is driven primarily by his sense of wonder, by that sense of awe available to anyone who stops to look closely at the natural world. That awe is what he most wants to inspire in others.

“As a kid, I’d spend my summers catching frogs and turtles down at the local pond. I’d take my net and spend all day there. And I guess I’m still kind of doing the same thing.

“Recently, I found this really remote beaver pond in the national forest using Google Earth, there’s no path even,” he continues, “and I’ll hike in there with a float tube and fish for these small native brook trout. Every time I go in there, I’ll see otters and moose and bear. It’s just a really beautiful place. At the opposite end of the spectrum, (last September) I went tuna fishing in the canyons off the shores of New England; you’re right on the edge of the continental shelf where it drops off to close to a thousand feet of water and you can just encounter anything — hammerhead sharks, whales — you never know what you’re going to see. It’s like you’re on the edge of the world.”

Unsurprisingly, this fishing trip led to a beautiful piece of work.

Mayer caught a 230-pound tuna, which he then turned into a 6-foot-by-3-foot watercolor now hanging on the walls of an anonymous private collector.

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