The Naturalist Painting Spectacularly Lush Landscapes on Discarded Trash

Mariah Reading uses unique canvases for their pictures. When the nomadic park ranger and frequent artist-in-residence finds lost objects and trash on adventures in state and national parks across America, she paints the surrounding landscape on the object, highlighting trash and showing the beauty of the protected areas. She has captured the morning light streaming through the gaps between redwood trees in Big Sur on a lost crocodile, mimicked the sheer cliffs of Channel Islands National Park on a fin, and – on a forgotten helmet – depicted colorful fall leaves hitting the banks of the River cover a calm lake in Acadia National Park.

When she finishes painting, she photographs her art against the landscape that inspired her. It is often difficult to tell where reality ends and the picture begins.

Reading’s series is a multi-year project. While studying fine arts at Bowdoin College, she took a mold making course that required students to cook large vats of concrete and rubber to make molds. The installations they referred to as handicrafts ended up generating huge amounts of waste: any brush that touched the rubber had to be thrown as the material could not be flushed down the drain.

For this 2020 piece, <em>Snorkel with sea lions</em>Reading was painted after an experience snorkeling in Argentina and used disused goggles given to her by Lobo Larsen Bueco.  “width =” auto “data-kind =” article-image “id =” article-image-81172 “src =” https://assets.atlasobscura.com/article_images/lg/81172/image.jpg “/> For this 2020 piece, Snorkeling with Sea Lions, painted after an experience snorkeling in Argentina, Reading used disused goggles given to her by the company Lobo Larsen Bueco. <span class=Courtesy Mariah Reading

“I was very confronted with all this waste in the arts and decided that if the materials I used to create landscapes with ended up in landfills, I couldn’t continue this practice,” says Reading. She decided to collect all of her old, crispy tubes of paint, brushes, and things that would normally be thrown away and cobble them together to make a canvas for her landscape paintings. This ethos of turning discarded objects into works of art has served as the basis for many of her projects since then. Over time, her work shifted from combining multiple discarded objects to a canvas to painting a single object. On her most recent show, Worn Landscapes, readings included canvases, jeans, hats, a snorkel mask, and more – all items she found littered along paths and beaches. The aim is to show how we as humans wear down these wild lands (pun intended).

The artist is currently working on Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park in Maine, where she worked as an outdoor educator last summer. She will continue this project in 2021, first out of the border waters of Northern Minnesota and then in two residences – one in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas and one in the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Oregon.

Atlas Obscura spoke to Reading about pajama bottoms, time in nature and the importance of seeing your mark in the world.

The 2018 work <em>Fireweed keyboard</em> (left) is acrylic on a keyboard that was found at a recycling center in Denali in Tanana Land.  See sewn gloves and gloves around recycled canvas poles to make them <em>Glove bay</em> (right), in 2021, on Wabanaki Confederation land on the Maine coast.  “width =” auto “data-kind =” article-image “id =” article-image-81202 “src =” https: // Assets.  atlasobscura.com/article_images/lg/81202/image.jpg “/> The 2018 Fireweed Keyboard (left) is made of acrylic on a keyboard found at a recycling center in Denali on the Tanana Land Glove Cove (right) on the land of the Wabanaki Confederacy on the Maine coast in 2021. <span class=Courtesy Mariah Reading

Some of the items you’ve painted on are quite surprising, including a smoke alarm and keyboard. Did you find all of these in nature?

These two were specifically done in Denali National Park [in Alaska]Denali is part of the Zero Landfill Initiative [an effort to cut down landfill-bound waste in Denali, Grand Teton, and Yosemite National Parks] and before going to my back country cabin, I met with the NPS waste management and recycling staff and rummaged through their trash. So the ones I didn’t find in nature, but they were rubbish from the park.

That being said, the whole idea is to find objects in those specific parks or landscapes. I’ve also switched to using my own trash because I don’t want my art to point my fingers at anyone. I would like to recognize my own footprint in these landscapes too. I want to acknowledge that I am a consumer and have a lot of growth towards a zero waste person as well.

Can you give an example of something that really stood out to you as something that really doesn’t belong to the place where you found it?

That summer, when they were hiking the Pemetic Mountain Northwest Trail in Acadia National Park, those flannel heart pajama bottoms were just resting on a tree. And it just leads to a lot of questions like, “Who doesn’t wear pants?” and “Where did you go?” It’s fun to develop stories around an object and how it got there.

This 2019 painting, <em>Stony Dome Camp stove</em>was made on a storage oven lid found by a Camp Denali guide on Tanana land.  “width =” auto “data-kind =” article-image “id =” article-image-81173 “src =” https: // Assets.atlasobscura.com/article_images/lg/81173/image.jpg “/> This 2019 painting, Stony Dome Camp Stove, was made on top of a storage oven lid found by a Camp Denali guide on Tanana land. <span class=Courtesy Mariah Reading

Which of the landscapes you visited were the most littered with garbage and which were the cleanest? What types of garbage are most common?

The Denali hinterland was definitely the cleanest place I have ever been. It’s most likely a combination of a secluded 6 million acre park with limited attendance and part of the Zero Landfill Initiative. In any park, the coasts are usually the most polluted [spots]. I am amazed at how beautiful park interiors can be and how inevitable sea debris on land seems to be. There are lots of buoys, ropes and plastics made of styrofoam in these coastal parks. Elsewhere, water bottles or beer cans are probably the most common trash. However, recently there have also been a lot of gloves and masks.

Do you have a favorite piece?

Yes – the first piece I made was a single object, not a bunch [objects] glue together. I worked in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and there was a major highway along its edge. I would walk along it and find a lot of auto parts, just a lot of junk that falls down as the cars rush by. I found half a hubcap, looked at it closely, and found that it was perfectly torn to form the silhouette of the mountain range I was standing in front of. My vision was to simply paint the land on it and use the shape of the object to inform the piece. It was then that I began to work more with photography. Then my finished work shifted not only to the painting, but also to the painting that was photographed in the country where it was found.

Reading used acrylic paint on this hubcap (a work she titled <em>The (Hub) Captain</em> found in 2017 in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, on the land of Jumanos / Mescalero Apache.  “width =” auto “data-kind =” article-image “id =” article-image-81168 “src =” https: //assets.atlasobscura .com / article_images / lg / 81168 / image.jpg “/> Read of used acrylic paint on this hubcap (a work called El (Hub) Capitan found in 2017 in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the country of Jumanos / Mescalero Apache. <span class=Courtesy Mariah Reading

What did you learn from other people’s trash?

I think it was a lot of self-reflection, like finding a water bottle and thinking about how many times I forgot my reusable water bottle and had to go to the store to buy a plastic bottle. It really helped me build more sustainable habits. That is the point of my art: pick up an object and see myself in it. It has helped me become more aware of my own footprint and how to reduce my own impact.

What message do you hope will take people away from your job?

The beauty of these places deteriorates with increasing visits and waste problems. I also hope that people can see the accessibility of this medium. I have worked as a teacher in the past trying to encourage those interested in art that there are ways to do this without having to buy expensive canvases. You can literally make art out of your trash. You can use last night’s pizza box as a canvas or find some other way to creatively reuse things in your home. Art is an innate way of expressing ourselves and I hope that this will inspire the viewer – that they see the world in a different and more beautiful way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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