Math drives the eye-catching work of artist and structural engineer Nico Meyer, but his goal is to create art that’s accessible to everyone
As a child, Nico Meyer always liked building things.
“Legos,” he says, “I was all into that.”
“Working with your hands and bringing it to reality. There’s satisfaction ... in being able to manifest an idea into reality for people to enjoy,” says Meyer, who grew up to be a structural engineer and an artist. “You’re taking something from this imaginative realm and making it into something physical.”
Now, at 27, Meyer still likes to build things. They’re just a little bit bigger these days.
This past summer, he installed a large-scale kinetic sculpture at Nashville International Airport as part of the sixth annual Bonnaroo-themed Skylight Exhibition. Four winners were chosen for the competition, a partnership between Arts at the Airport, the Bonnaroo Works Fund and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
His sculpture “Decidedly Bonnaroo” — a 3D representation of trefoil knots — hangs high above the airport’s Concourse C, near Gate C-7.
Mary Grissim, curator of Arts at the Airport, points to Meyer’s ability to look at art from both a creative and a mathematical perspective as one of the factors that gave him an edge over others.
“Nico’s artwork is incredibly sophisticated,” Grissim says. “His background as a structural engineer and sculptor allows him to pull from the right side of the brain for creativity and the left side of the brain for the math, numbers and problem-solving elements.
“The suspended sculpture that hangs at the Nashville International Airport is a beautiful trefoil knot using triangular frames,” adds Grissim, who says that the judging panel gave Meyer’s sculpture the highest score in all categories, from “exhibits the integrity in its originality and design” to “aesthetically pleasing in form and color and displays high-quality craftsmanship.”
“The sculpture looks like it is separate triangular shapes, but it is a continuous connected piece. Brilliant use of geometry, engineering and art!”
The Nashville sculpture is Meyer’s most recent public art installation. His work has graced public spaces in Vista (“Where is the Present,” “Context of Awareness” and “Useful Constraints”), Palm Desert (“Stranded Heart,” in the El Paseo shopping district), and soon, in Manhattan Beach (another kinetic piece, “Emergence,” in the Metlox Plaza). Last year, the NTC Foundation’s Art in Public Places Committee chose him to install “Toying with Light,” a temporary installation at Liberty Station that was on display during most of the holiday season.
A structural engineer who specializes in carbon retrofitting existing buildings, mostly for seismic upgrades, Meyer says his work as an artist isn’t a hobby — “it’s more like a pursuit.”
A native of Temecula, Meyer’s artistic inclinations surfaced early.
“I suppose I’ve been drawing since like the third or fourth grade,” says Meyer, who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in structural engineering at the University of California San Diego. “It all really goes back doing things with my dad. At some point, he bought a welder, and we would mess around and take scrap material and make something cool out of it. So I guess in a way, I’ve always been making cool little stuff, doodling and drawing.”
In the seventh grade, family friends offered to buy a couple of his paintings, but “I was not smart enough to sell them,” he says, chuckling.
These days, creating “cool little stuff” goes beyond doodling and drawing to something more complex. Meyer’s work as an artist relies heavily on mathematics — aspects of math that involve patterns, shapes and repetition.
But Meyer is aware that more often than not, his work will have to stand on the merits of what a viewer sees and how she reacts to it. The mathematical theories and equations that inform the work, he says, will not be as easily accessible to the average viewer.
“I definitely know that for many, it will be just a cool object for people to enjoy on its own — at minimum, something that will force them to stop and think and see something beautiful and interesting ... a jewel in a public forum.
“We have all these things influencing us and how we see the world and live in it,” he says. “I really like the mathematical stuff because it’s so approachable. Like geometrical shapes ... there’s something appealing about it because of symmetry. ... The crazy math behind some of this stuff may not be that approachable, but I think the result — the art — is accessible to everyone. It spans every language, every culture.”
For his Nashville installation, Grissim and her committee of 15 jurors all agreed: Meyer’s work had “accessible” written all over it.
Grissim says: “The response to Nico’s work can be summed up in one anecdotal description: When people walk down the concourse, the large majority are looking down at their phones. Nico’s sculpture makes people look up! I have literally seen passengers stop dead in their tracks to look at the suspended artwork and the people behind them are blindly bumping in to them and then they look up. Nico’s artwork causes traffic jams on the concourse.”
‘Find a connection’
When he’s not working on his day job, Meyer can be found in the garage of his Mira Mesa home or his larger studio — 20 feet by 60 feet — in Temecula on his father’s property. There, surrounded by computers, 3D printers and machinery that shape his larger-than-life art pieces, he feels at home.
“I definitely will get into a zone, almost like a trance, when I’m working,” says Meyer, who’s partnered on two pieces with his father, John Meyer, who worked in city planning and redevelopment for the cities of Vista and Temecula before retiring. “Sometimes you play music, sometimes you listen to a podcast and get into that zone.”
Once in the zone, his sketches, plans and computer-generated schematics come to life. But despite the rigidity of mathematically based models, Meyer says he strives to not focus on “a fixed end state.”
“When you’re really playing around with the concept, you have to be open to what may come to you while you’re building,” he says. “You know, you have to be open to the muse.”
Sometimes, though, his sense of open-mindedness does give way to frustration.
“There are times when you definitely don’t want to do it,” he says, chuckling. “Like why am I doing the same cut a thousand times. But the joy of … turning something in your head and creating a reality out of that. We do that every day … like when you’re cooking … but with this, you do it in a way that can have an impact on people and have this beautiful thing even if it’s only going to exist for a short amount of time.
“The joy really is creating and being able to appreciate that you went through a process to get there. If it was all easy, it probably wouldn’t be as satisfying. It’s really the process of growth and struggle … that’s where the satisfaction and joy comes in, and then you have something cool at the end.”
Something cool that allows him to “be able to connect to other people,” Meyer says. “In a way, the art is an avenue to explore myself and find a connection. You make beautiful things to get people to pay attention to it. It’s either beautifully sad or beautifully happy, but it still has beauty to it.
“That fact that you can improve someone’s life with art, that’s powerful.”
Public artwork by Nico Meyer
2019: “Emergence,” Manhattan Beach (Metlox Plaza)
2019: “Decidedly Bonnaroo,” Nashville (Nashville International Airport)
2019: “Where is the Present,” Vista (Downtown Vista)
2018: “Stranded Heart,” Palm Desert (El Paseo shopping district)
2018: “Toying with Light,” Point Loma (Liberty Station)
2018: “Context of Awareness,” Vista (Downtown Vista)
2017: “Useful Constraints,” Vista (Downtown Vista)
For more information about Nico Meyer, go to his website at njmeyerart.com
What people are saying about Nico Meyer
Mary Grissim, curator for Arts at the Airport in Nashville: “Nico is a smart, professional and tenacious artist. We required an installation plan for the suspended sculpture in our skylight, for obvious safety reasons for our passengers and guests. Nico’s report read like a structural engineer had written it! We loved it, we felt extremely comfortable with the safety of the installed sculpture. Also, Nico could not find a reasonable means to ship the sculpture to us for installation, so he rented a truck and drove the sculpture across country for our install date.”
Victoria Reed, chair of Art in Public Places Committee for the NTC Foundation: “When the Art in Public Places Committee was reviewing the various submissions, part of the discussion revolved around the question, ‘Can he really get this done?’ He isn’t he only artist where this question has been asked; it comes up fairly regularly when reviewing proposals — especially when they have quick turnaround times like (Nico’s project), but with Nico’s proposal, it was such a unique idea we wanted to take the chance. He stated that he would create an icosahedron with rings spanning from the center of each face to each adjacent face and that the overall structure would be lined with lights that are programmed to cycle through various patterns. Needless to say, he got it done by the date of the kickoff event and then continued to tweak it so that the lights were continually changing. He had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish and he didn’t stop until he was happy with it. ... It was fun to watch him work and to see people’s reactions. For me, I loved the complexity and the simplicity of the work. He definitely knows how to create a sense of awe.”