Nick Mayer ambles along Main Street in Bristol, Vermont, population 3,894, on the kind of crisp fall day when the sun provides all the warmth. He looks out of place in his lobster T-shirt and white Nikes, an average Joe in a sea of flannel. He slips into a doorway and walks upstairs to a high-ceilinged hallway with creaky floors. He unlocks the first door on the right.
Sunlight floods the room, and immediately we are in the land of sharks and tuna, a saltwater fishing oasis in a landlocked state. Mayer’s meticulous paintings line the walls surrounding a plush red couch on wheels and a long wooden table with two paintings in progress, a muskie and a giant trevally. The studio has just the essentials: pencils, paper, paint, brushes, a coffee maker and a bottle of Scotch.
Mayer, who is 49, is as much a scientist as he is an artist, having been steeped in both since birth. He was born in Michigan to parents who were professors — his father an abstract oil painter, and his mother a microbiologist. The family moved to Rhode Island when Mayer was 5, following professorships at Brown University in Providence. He remembers bringing home art supplies that his father’s students had left behind at the semester’s end. His mother researched one single-celled organism for her entire career.
From a young age, Mayer was a keen observer of underwater life. His mother took him and his sister fishing for bullheads at a local pond, but he was more interested in turtles. “Everybody called me the turtle man,” Mayer says. When he was 12, he would squeeze through the bars of a grate guarding a culvert where big snapping turtles lived. He would grab them by the tail, examine them and let them go.
Today, in his home studio in Lincoln, Vermont, seashells fill a windowsill revealing ancient mountains that once cradled an inland sea. Mayer pulls out his childhood sketchbook and flips to a treasure map that his father drew for the young boy. More flipping reveals a giant chicken that Mayer had drawn and requested his father’s assistance shading. Next to the sketchbook on the shelf, below a microscope, is a yellowed copy of Life: Nature by the Sea. Mayer remembers memorizing the book’s captions.
As a child, Mayer visited an uncle in Vermont who took him to the local fly shop and introduced him to a man who would become a lifelong mentor. Gordy Hinds, who worked at the shop, was in his 30s and took Mayer under his wing. “We just kind of became friends. He introduced me to fly-fishing,” Mayer says. The pair fished the Battenkill and the Mettawee rivers together.
Mayer went on to study biology at Brown University, where he also took jewelry-making and oil-painting classes through a partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design. However, he never received any formal training in watercolors, the medium that would later inspire his livelihood. He graduated in 1993 and moved west. In Kodiak, Alaska, he studied the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on salmon before working on a commercial fishing boat for a summer. He then went to Oregon to study out-migrating salmon in the Columbia River. During this time, he started painting underwater scenes in his field notebook.
He next landed in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, where he tagged sea turtles with his future wife, Amy. “I would catch fish and sketch them in my sketchbook, thinking that it was the scientific reference that I could use later for other kinds of paintings,” Mayer says. He liked watching crevalle jack zoom through the water close to shore. “You’d see them way down the shore, and then by the time you cast over here, they’d have already come that far.”
After a stint with Oregon Fish and Wildlife, he went to graduate school, where he again studied biology. During this time, he began painting more taxonomic pieces that draw on the techniques of Flick Ford and James Prosek. He says painting in this style is his way of getting to know a fish. In 1997, he sold his first painting, a tarpon, in a gallery in Key West, Florida. “That was a data point,” he says.
Soon after, a friend invited Mayer to visit his home in Lincoln, and Mayer was sold. He and Amy moved there in 2000. He taught high school biology in a neighboring town, then worked as an environmental consultant. But neither of those jobs were a good fit. “At that point, I knew I really wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t think I could make enough money doing it,” he says. Amy was a behavioral therapist in a local elementary school, and they were raising two kids.
Mayer lives on a winding dirt road hemmed by fields that sweep into the rainbow palette of the Green Mountains. His truck, laden with a beat-up blue canoe, bounces over potholes and kicks up dust on the way to his favorite top-secret fishing spot. A few years ago, he and Amy hacked a path through the underbrush from the road to the riverbank, and carefully camouflaged the opening with brush to hide it from other anglers. They did such a good job that we drive by a few times before we find it.
A former high school wrestler, Mayer is 5 feet, 8 inches and barrel-chested, with freckles that frame his blue-gray eyes. His 5 o’clock shadow could be an artist thing or a Vermont thing. He speaks with long pauses, and I can tell he’s listening intently when he utters a drawn-out mm-hmm. We load the canoe — an aluminum hand-me-down from Amy’s parents that has survived collisions with a snowplow and a hurricane — with fishing gear and skid down a muddy embankment. He confirms that I know how to swim.
The river is murky, flanked by grassy vegetation and snagged logs that bring to mind images of the deep South. It smells like mud. It’s a side of Vermont I doubt many people have seen. Mayer says he’s never encountered anyone else on this stretch of river.
We paddle to a bend where Mayer is certain a single 50-inch muskie lives. He has been chasing it for about four years — he’s hooked the fish six times in total — and it’s become an obsession. “I’d like to catch him just once,” Mayer says.
Muskies were reintroduced to Vermont after disappearing in the 1970s and are now a protected species. Mayer likes apex predators: His other fishing obsession is blue sharks and makos off Maine. He casts a large carp fly imitation on 20-pound tippet toward the bank under a tree. The fish grabs the wiggle tail but doesn’t take. He goes wild. “Holy f---! That was him!”
Mayer is electrified. It takes him a couple of minutes to calm down. He switches to a white carp pattern with a tail. I demurely cast a spinning rod with a magenta spoon, trying not to let on that I’m not exactly a master angler. We dip into an eddy untouched by the sun, and the air is instantly chilly.
After a half-hour of fruitless casting, I get a strike and feel the weight of a good fish. I fumble the hook-set; Mayer notices and starts yelling excitedly. Before I know what’s happening, the large fish, which Mayer describes as “dragon-like,” is gone. Mayer is beside himself. Here he is, attempting to glimpse this elusive creature, and not only is the catch not going to be his, but I’ve bumbled a good shot of at least hooking what he believes was the fish. Rather than disappoint, the ordeal seems to provide him with that perfect blend of hope and wonder that keeps dreams like these alive.
Life of an Artist
After five years running his art business on the side, Mayer went full-time in 2012, despite his father’s warnings about how financially unstable the profession can be. “It just got to this point where the business grew, and I had all this creativity. I just had to take the plunge,” he says.
His mother was his first sales representative. She pitched his prints to stores up and down the East Coast. The wholesale market continues to be a large part of Mayer’s business. He used to go to art shows and display his work in galleries, but he says he never made much money that way.
Mayer is earnest, diligent and measured like a scientist, but has the hustle of an entrepreneur. He estimates that he spends 40 hours sketching a large painting before he begins mixing paints. Painting, which is his favorite part of the process, might take another 90 hours. Like many artists, he is his own biggest critic. He stresses about whether he used too much paint or if a painting is even going to work out at all.
From a distance, it’s impossible to see the wild level of detail in his paintings. But standing with my nose six inches from the 4-by-3-foot giant trevally that is almost finished on his table, I let out an exclamation. Big washes of color bleed down the paper as a base layer, and he has painted each of 84 scales white in a way that gives the fish its signature iridescence. He’s never seen a giant trevally in real life, but he says, “there is something about that fish.”
Every artist occasionally wonders what the hell they’re doing, and Mayer is no exception. He doesn’t have many artist friends, and sometimes he wonders why he lives in Vermont. But it’s the community that seems to keep him here. Until recently, he was the varsity wrestling coach at the regional high school, and he likes how the sport draws kids who might not fit in to other sports. He has a group of friends who are also entrepreneurs: One makes slate products and another designs quirky suits. And he has his fishing friends, some of whom he met at the local bakery.
We haul the worn canoe up the muddy bank and turn back to cover the trail with brush. The light is low, and the air hums with insect life as the truck crests and dips over Vermont’s hills. We talk about love and fish and the meaning of home, those elusive forces that keep us returning to the creek and the palette for one more glimpse of what is true.