When Mariah Reading was a studio art major at Bowdoin College, the Maine native was shocked by the amount of waste generated by her sculpture class. “We had to throw out lots of stuff, constantly,” she says. “If the paintbrush touched concrete as you were making a mold, then you couldn’t wash and reuse the brush, because it was about to harden. All kinds of new materials were being tossed out every class.” This palpable feeling of loss stayed with her over the years. “I started to notice the connection between my painting landscapes and my work filling landfills,” she says. “I decided to use all the scraps and paint tubes around my studio to make art with it.” Now a ranger based in Acadia National Park, Reading continues to be mindful of waste as she paints landscapes on detritus she finds in nature. So far, she’s visited roughly 30 national parks across the country, making art from items discarded there.
Reading keeps an eye out for items such as hubcaps and disposable coffee cups, which she uses as the substrate of paintings made either in her studio or en plein air, at the exact spot where she found the trash. (If she paints in her studio, she takes a reference photo for context.) She always makes sure she can hold up her finished painting and see its borders blend seamlessly with the real-life vista, aligning the edges of the work to the horizon—almost like completing a jigsaw puzzle. It isn’t so much an act of elevating trash to the realm of fine art, but an exercise in raising awareness of the cost of mindlessly littering. “I’m an imperfect environmentalist, but I’m trying to do my best to be a sustainable person,” she says. “I hope that my work sparks that in other people, so they can recognize the objects left behind in their daily lives and make small changes.”
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