Eerie art made from sickly yellow polluted water and sculptures created to depict the destruction of nature—the visual medium has always been a powerful platform to raise an alarm on environmental issues. It’s this ideology that Mariah Reading, an ecological artist from Maine, New England, captures in her work that “blurs the lines between landscapes and landfills”.
Reading’s process is fairly straightforward. She visits stunning landscapes, beaches and national parks around the world and then paints those vistas onto trash visitors have left behind. The idea is to promote picking up trash and upcycling, but also question whether we and our trash are separate from the environment or integrated to it.
Growing up in an artistically inclined family in the picturesque landscapes of Maine, Reading gravitated towards landscape painting in her high school days, finding herself heavily influenced by Impressionist painters. But it was in her final year at art school that her eco-conscious approach kicked in.
Reading realised that much of the material used in her art classes, including the large vats of concrete and rubber required to make moulds, were going to waste. “If you didn’t mix the exact right amount [of water or paint], it would all be thrown away, creating a lot of heavy, wet garbage,” Reading told VICE. “That’s when I decided to switch gears, put together all the discarded waste, use my crusty old art materials as canvas, and painted a landscape on it as my graduation project.”
While her final year college project introduced Reading to the irony of how the materials used by landscape artists were feeding landfills, it was her research and reading on indigenous native lands and national park conservation efforts that pushed her to positively contribute to conservation efforts. Soon after graduating, she embarked on a journey to travel across some of the world’s most beautiful fading landscapes to pick up the pieces of other people’s trash.
From crushed beer cans and keyboards to smoke detectors, bottles, toys and broken objects, all the world’s trash is a canvas for Reading. For the eco artist, broken shoes, sandals and flip flops people leave behind at the landscapes are also intriguing as she sees them as a literal footprint of the trash people generate.
“I usually carry a backpack with all my art materials,” said Reading. “When I go hiking and find trash along the way, if the elements around me are pleasing and there’s good weather, I usually paint where I found the trash itself. This allows me to view the colour and motion of a place and use it in my art.” Sometimes, if the place is too cold or her vision for the art too large, she takes photos of the landscapes and recreates them in a studio. She also regularly rifles through recycling centres or uses her own used food cans and water bottles as trash.
So far, Reading has travelled as far as Hawaii and the Arctic, initiating cleanups to aid the local communities. While she would initially get a part-time job at cafes and restaurants near the landscapes she’d visit, she has now shifted to taking on residencies at national parks across the U.S., from the Denali National Park in Alaska to the Zion National Park in Utah. She also hosts eco art workshops during her residencies, where the community is invited to pick up trash and then learn her techniques of painting on it.
“The most inspiring place I’ve been to so far is the Denali National Park in Alaska,” she said. “I come from a very temperate climate in Maine, so to see that expanse of environment in the Tundra region, come across bears, watch wild flowers emerge in the snow, and live on the edge of fear and excitement was beautiful.”
Another inspirational vista for Reading was her visit to Antarctica, which she experienced during its hottest summer yet. “It’s easy to forget about climate change when you’re in temperate locations, but you realise how fast it’s happening in the South and North Poles when you’re able to see the ice slipping away and watch animals losing their home. It’s a fleeting landscape, so painting over there allows me to preserve what I can.”
“Art is a really powerful medium that allows viewers to connect and engage, and make changes that have a visceral connection,” she stressed. “That’s something no graph or statistic about climate change can do.”