Rather than depicting sweeping hillscapes in ornate frames, Mariah Reading ’16 uses trash as her canvas in the pop-up exhibit “Landscapes, Not Landfills,” which opened on Wednesday in the Edwards Center for Art and Dance.
Reading’s art contributes to a growing genre of “eco art” that promotes sustainable art practices and nature preservation. The recycled canvasses, ranging from broken buoys and discarded sunglasses to calcified beer cans and water bottles, are paintings of the areas in which discarded objects were found—often national parks and other preserved areas.
Each painting hangs next to a photograph of the artwork in the places that they were found, with Reading’s hand holding the painting aloft so that the painted landscape aligns perfectly with the real one. She only paints one side of the recycled objects to let part of the original object remain visible, a reminder of the human carelessness which made the objects available to her in the first place.
Reading has been interested in the natural world since her childhood in Bangor, Maine, but it was during her time at Bowdoin that she was able to put this interest into practice. In her Visual Arts major, she trained as an impressionist oil painter and nurtured her obsession with the artistic process.
By her senior year, she noticed the sheer amount of waste occurring in her art classes, such as concrete that was incorrectly mixed and chip brushes that were used only once. While this waste is in no way unique to Bowdoin, Reading knew she wanted to change her wasteful art practices.
“I am constantly inspired by the changing landscapes, and I [was] trying to make the world a more beautiful place but instead I [was] harming it,” she said. “So that’s when I decided that I needed to make a shift.”
The summer after graduating from Bowdoin, she travelled to four national parks, where she was inspired to create art using trash as recycled canvases. Now, in her position as an Interpretive Park Ranger in Denali, Alaska, Reading creates educational programming concerning the park’s history as well as the science behind the nature and the effects of global warming seen in the park.
She noted that her work is especially relevant in Alaska, where global warming’s effects are especially obvious.
“[This year] we had to implement lightning protocols for the first time ever because the temperature was so high,” Reading said. “It’s never been around 85 degrees before, so the animals were stressed, the plants were stressed and we used that as teaching material in our programming.”
Reading paints in “plein air,” which is the act of painting outdoor landscapes with minimal to no planning. She said that painting in this way has made her process more authentic, both to the plates themselves and to the mentality common among climate activists to “Leave No Trace.” She lugs her paints and equipment with her, using everything brought to the site and leaving nothing behind.
Although Reading’s exhibit was only shown through Thursday, her determination to pursue environmental activism through art is bound to spark critical discussion in time to come.