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As a young camper at Windover Art Center in Newburgh, Bangor-native Mariah Reading valued the connection between “the great outdoors” and art. She immersed herself in nature and went on nature walks, played outdoor games and participated in glass blowing and bead making classes, among others.
The experience not only gave Reading a chance to have the Maine camp experience, but also showed her where her talents could take her. Her passion for art and the outdoors has taken her beyond Penobscot County via art residencies at National Parks in Utah and Alaska.
In October, Reading will return to her Maine roots as she begins the Artist-in-Residence program at Acadia National Park, continuing her latest project, “Recycled Landscapes.”
“Recycled Landscapes” is an art series in which Reading collects pieces of trash that haven’t been disposed of properly from scenic areas and paints landscapes on them, reflecting where the items were found. The idea came to her as she prepared to embark on a cross-country trip through national parks while heading to her post-graduate job teaching in Santa Barbara, California. She began her work on the project in 2016 in Acadia National Park during the centennial, so this is a bit of a homecoming for Reading and her art.
The program at Acadia is Reading’s fourth art residency. She also participated in programs at Denali National Park and McKinley Chalet Resort in Alaska and Zion National Park in Utah in 2018. According to the National Park Service, the Artist-in-Residence program at Acadia National Park, “encourages accomplished, professional artists to create fresh and innovative new ways for visitors to experience Acadia through the arts.”
“The history of art in preserving our federal lands has been paramount,” Reading said. “Artists go out and express the landscape through the art and show why it’s essential to keep it preserved.”
Each residency at Acadia — which includes visual arts, writing and “At-Large” such as music, dance, indigenous arts and emerging technologies — spans for two weeks. Participants are asked to host a public outreach activity such as a lecture and donate a finished work that will be displayed seasonally in public spaces as well as in a permanent online catalog.
To be considered for a residency, Reading had to submit a proposal, artist statement, information about her current project and why she wanted to work in that specific park.
“[Acadia] has always been the crown jewel of residency because it’s so connected to my childhood and who I am as a person,” Reading said.
As a student at Bangor High School, Reading was most passionate about painting in her art classes. At Bowdoin College, where Reading majored in visual arts and minored in education, she expanded her focus into landscape painting with the Maine coast serving as inspiration.
In Reading’s junior year at Bowdoin, she dabbled into bio-art, which connects biology and art and required the use of organic materials to make artistic formats. Reading calls the class “eye-opening.” This class would serve as a foundation into the type of work she does today.
But during a mold sculpture class at Bowdoin, Reading noticed the heavy amounts of materials such as chip brushes that she and her classmates would throw away, about two giant trash bags each class. Focusing on landscape art at the time, Reading couldn’t justify harming the environment that gave her so much inspiration.
“I looked at myself as an artist and thought how can I validate this process if this landscape that I’m so inspired by is being harmed by the waste that’s being put in the landfill,” Reading said.
She started using old paint brushes to lessen her impact. After Reading graduated from Bowdoin in 2016, she looked for ways to continue these efforts to help the environment.
During that cross-country road trip in 2016, she would find disposed materials such as sunglasses, flip flops, hub caps and fins. She picked up trash from Rocky Mountain, Arches, Zion and Grand Canyon parks.
Once she settled into Santa Barbara, she took the trash out and sculpted and painted them into scenes from each park.
“I found my way that summer to make the world more beautiful,” Reading said.
Reading was inspired to visit as many parks as she could in the area and continued to Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Channel Islands and Yosemite.
As she started finding more pieces, Reading would either paint on the object on the spot or take a picture and go back to her studio and paint, later returning to the location for a photo. Depending on the amount of time and the object, she’ll paint for anywhere from 30 minutes to the whole day, in detail or impressionist style.
She says the type of pieces she finds tell a story that is indicative of the landscape, like how a hubcap tells a story about a park that has a highway running straight through it.
Reading says her favorite piece in “Recycled Landscapes” is a crushed can she found along a bank in Denali National Park, the only piece of substantial trash she found in park boundaries during her residency there. She painted a blue stream across the can’s pull-tab top, in between intricately painted multicolor stones and grass. The painted can almost completely blends in with the background.
Denali — which is the size of New Hampshire — has a zero landfill initiative. The fact that she only found one piece of trash — which Reading says is “astounding” — revealed the type of landscape that the park provided.
Reading says that more now than ever, especially in the midst of climate change, it is important as an artist to show that these native lands need preserving. Part of the residencies in the parks is showing the changes first hand and teaching communities to be more sustainable.
“FDR had a quote: ‘There’s nothing so American as our National Parks.’ [It] speaks so much to the culture and the native history as our lands,” Reading said.
Currently, Reading is a seasonal interpretive park ranger at Denali, working as a frontline representative at the park. As art jobs are seasonal, Reading spends her winters focused on dispersing art, shows, lectures and residencies before she explores other ventures.
Her art has been publicly displayed around the country including The Grand Canyon in Arizona; Santa Barbara, California; and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas.
After she is finished with her pieces, Reading keeps a stockpile of her work and ships them to shows nationwide.
“It’s kind of in motion,” Reading said. “These objects were forgotten and now they have their own footprint traveling from one place to the next.”
When she goes to Acadia, she will continue her “Recycled Landscapes” concept, and will be working at Isle au Haut, Schoodic and Brown Mountain Gatehouse. But with a different park, comes different debris and opportunities.
Through her art, Reading wants to show that we can make the world a more beautiful place. She said her goal is to show small steps make big impacts and that her art can highlight ways people can mitigate their own waste.
Although Reading appreciates her time traveling across the country, she is excited to go back to the place where her passion first started, the “mother” of her project.
“Maine will always have my heart.”
Watch: Hike the Jordan Cliffs Trail in Acadia National Park
This story appeared in the August 2019 issue of Bangor Metro magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.