38. Mariah Reading: Sustainability through eco-art

Sue Stockdale talks to Mariah Reading, an eco-artist who creates impressionist paintings from recycled items she picks up in the natural environment, in order to highlight the harm of pollution and climate change.  Mariah explains how she developed this particular area of interest, and how big brands such as Merrell and Subaru have collaborated with her as it highlights the issue of leaving a smaller carbon footprint.

Mariah Reading was born and raised in Bangor, Maine where the surrounding landscape gave her a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty that was reinforced by her degree in Visual Arts at Bowdoin College. The 2016 National Park Centennial propelled her Recycled Landscapes, designed to bring attention to the need of preserving and protecting the environment. Having already visited 24 National Parks, she plans to continue her project in all 62 US National Parks. Mariah has dedicated herself to the field of eco-art through her Artist in Residence at Denali, Zion, and Acadia National Parks, working as an Arts In the Parks Volunteer at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, assisting in Yosemite Facelift efforts, developing a K-12 STREAM curriculum with University of California Santa Barbara Oceanography students, and creating conservation workshops with the Channel Islands National Park.

She has exhibited work in San Antonio, TX; Seattle, WA; Fort Collins, CO; McKinley Village, AK; Brunswick, ME; and Kamuela, HI; Poughkeepsie, NY; and has an upcoming show in Davis, CA. from April through September 2021.

Stony Dome Camp Stove Lid by Mariah Reading. Acrylic on camp stove lid found on Stony Dome by a Camp Denali guide. 2019

Connect with Mariah Reading on social media at Instagram or Facebook or via her website

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Mariah Reading Transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] Hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unalike you. We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. In today’s episode, my guest is Mariah Reading who describes herself as an Eco Artist. She uses trash recycled from the natural environment as the canvas to create her impressionist paintings. Mariah is also a passionate advocate for the preservation of America’s national parks. Having already visited 24 of them across the country. And she’s been an artist in residence in three of them so far Denali, Zion and Acadia National park. Whilst others may walk on by a discarded plastic bottle or a piece of clothing lying on the ground. I’m curious to find out more about what inspired Mariah to pick up and use the trash that she saw in these protected landscapes as the canvas for her work. Welcome to the podcast, Mariah.

Mariah: [00:01:20] Yay. Thank you so much. So happy to be here.

Sue: [00:01:24] So, as I said, I haven’t ever heard of an eco artist before. What is it? An eco artist?

Mariah: [00:01:30] It’s definitely an up and coming type of art where artists use like recycled materials or just kind of sustainable ways to make art. To reflect on the Anthropocene that we’re experiencing right now, reflect on climate change and the changing world that we’re a part of. So using your art form to highlight those things.

Sue: [00:01:53] So are you saying that if somebody, dropped a piece of trash, then basically you pick it up and use it as the medium to create your art on.

Mariah: [00:02:01] Yeah, so that’s kind of the way that I’ve taken it. And other artists have done loads of different things. But what I do is I find trash on the ground. I like to hike and be outside as much as possible. So whenever I’m hiking, my, bring my paints with me or trash bags or gloves, especially now. And if I find a piece of trash, pick it up and that essentially becomes the canvas that I paint onto.

Sue: [00:02:26] How did you come up with this idea? This way of thinking people often think of just a canvas and an easel or traditional sort of paper or something like that to draw on. How did you see that trash could be the medium of choice for you?

Mariah: [00:02:39] Yeah. I studied art in college and it was my senior year. I took this sculpture class. And we did lots of rubber molds and concrete molds, and we would just mix these big vats of wet, heavy, concrete to make sculptures with, and it was a lot of [00:03:00] installation based projects. So I started to see just the amount of waste and trash that were accumulating from just my practice alone. We would have these huge wet bins of trash, two or three of them, every single class. And wet concrete can’t really be reused. So we just had to throw it out. And I was a landscape painter at that point. I still am, but I kind of drew this parallel between feeding landfills and creating landscapes, the materials that I was using to paint these landscapes that so inspired me for my whole life were being harmed by my practice. So I really wanted to make that intentional switch so that things like that wouldn’t happen again.

Sue: [00:03:41] So it was firsthand experience. And just thinking about, as you say, the waste that was being accumulated through the work that you were doing, I know you said you love the outdoors. What particularly do you enjoy about the national parks in America?

Mariah: [00:03:54] They are  beautiful. First of all, they’re amazing spaces that I feel very fortunate to have lived in and gotten to explore. And just getting to experience kind of how dynamic the country is. I first did  a cross country road trip to move from Maine to California. Once I graduated college. And just starting at Acadia national park where I am right now, which is Wabanaki  Confederacy land. And then making my way all the way to California weaving across the Plains and the desert. And we saw the Grand [00:04:30] Canyon. And then we’re all of a sudden on the Pacific coast, there’s just so much to offer. And just so much dynamic beauty that just a lifetime of inspiration. I really can’t describe how beautiful seeing all those different dynamic places and all the unique colors and land formations each one had. I think growing up in Maine definitely gave me an appreciation for the outdoors.

Sue: [00:04:54] And I know you’ve been an artist in residence in a number of the national parks. How did that happen?

Mariah: [00:05:00] That was another piece of advice that I was given by a mentor, just exiting college and starting to make it on my own as an artist, trying to paint the way she just told me to apply to as many residencies as possible and try to get your stuff in shows, you know, try to just get out there as much as possible. I kind of had this itch for traveling and when I started the project, it was the national parks Centennial. So that’s why I happened to weave through a bunch of different national parks. And the national parks are, were largely built off of artists coming through and being inspired by this land shooting out their paintings across the cities and everything so that people could understand the importance of why these places were necessary to protect.

And of course too, they have a long, long history of indigenous populations being there and passing down oral traditions and creating their [00:06:00] artwork based on the land too. So it goes way farther back than just the national park. 15,000 years, people have been inspired by those lands. So they have these residency programs where artists can go in, be fully immersed in the landscape and then in exchange donate a piece so that it can be used as an educational tool for visitors to see.

Sue: [00:06:22] You get to experience the glory of the national parks and the results of your work are used by others afterwards that come to appreciate the parks for themselves.

Mariah: [00:06:32] Right. Most national parks have a good online catalog. So you can, if you can’t physically be at the park, you can still go through and see the different artists work. There’s a catalog of poetry because writers get to come. Dancers can come. It’s not just visual artists. So that’s really wonderful. And then when visitor centers are open, if they ever will be, again, usually there’s a gallery area where the artist statements are listed and you can go in and see the art, which is always so interesting just to see how vastly different people’s approaches to the same landscape is. And yes, it’s changing and moving and everything, but.

Sue: [00:07:10] Those who are listening to the podcast might be inspired to think about how they could make a living from being an artist. And sometimes I think there is a sense that it can be quite a tough way to make a living and particularly thinking about COVID of late, where you aren’t perhaps able to get into those national parks and wild places in quite the way you would have done [00:07:30] before. What’s your sense of the reality of being an artist these days?

Mariah: [00:07:35] I think it’s not a traditional way of making a living, but I feel like that passion there and you have something that brings you so much happiness and joy, like to not do that, I think would be harder. You know, that would be more painful. I’ve done my fair share of jobs that didn’t bring me too much happiness to make ends meet and everything. And I remember telling myself. When I started my art business that, you know, just the menial tasks of ordering prints or signing and editioning and just those little nitty gritty things. I loved doing that so much more than the best days at the job that I hated, because it’s your vision, it’s your passion.

And I think artists are romantic people, the most part. And I would just so much rather live that life than a stale one. That’s a cookie cutter. Here you go. And with COVID, it’s been a huge bummer and really scary and stressful, but I also am very thankful that we’re living in an age with the internet and having, you know, online sales and being able to purchase and support my artists, friends, just online, super safely, super easily. I think it’s also been this level playing fields where the arts have been only really certain types of people have had access to certain fine arts. And I think it’s a really beautiful [00:09:00] time that you can just scroll through your phone and see things that are hanging in the Met or hanging in these big institutions or galleries or anything like that. And it’s awesome. It’s beautiful

Sue: [00:09:12] In a way it’s made accessibility to art, more available for people because we’re having to all view it remotely.

Mariah: [00:09:18] Yeah, I would say so. And also just being isolated and quarantining, I feel like there’s been a lot of inspiration from that. And people dealing with these emotions and expressing themselves and maybe even having the time to express themselves in ways that they didn’t before, when they had to commute to work or zigzag back and forth. So I’m trying to reframe it, but it hasn’t been the easiest, but I think it’s an important opportunity to just grapple with.

Sue: [00:09:48] Hi, it’s me again. Remember, you can keep up to date on all the news from us by connecting with Access to Inspiration on social media. You can find us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So just type in access to inspiration, find us there, and then let us know about what you think of the podcast series so far. Also, please tell just one other person about the series. It could make a big difference in their lives. And by just taking one small action, you could help to make a positive impact on them. Now back to Mariah. Mariah, that you have collaborated with a number of big brands like Merrell and Subaru [00:10:30] for some of your work. How do those collaborations work?

Mariah: [00:10:33] Most of them are different. Usually people find me on Instagram, that’s my main channel and just reach out. Usually they have a project in mind. So for Merrell they had this new shoe that they wanted to promote. So they actually sent me a GoPro and had me film myself, like in the process of creating art. And hiking. I was living in Big Sur at that time. So just hiking from the redwoods to the ocean and going through that process and picking up trash and painting. So that was really fun because I consider myself a painter and that’s kind of it. So it’s been fun to expand my horizons to more photography and videography, and then Subaru also had kind of this vision for an artist feature project, but they brought in videographers. So it was just more of telling my story and professional videographers came in and that was a trip for sure.

Sue: [00:11:34] So do you see that this is an opportunity for commercial organizations who have an interest in understanding more about landscapes and recycling and sustainability, and so on that they can collaborate with people like yourself to get a new insight into how to utilize recycled materials?

Mariah: [00:11:56] I would hope so. I think that’s where a lot of the companies that I’m [00:12:00] looking to collaborate with or have collaborated with. They are migrating towards, okay, how can we have less of a carbon footprint, especially big car companies and the big way companies that have super large aggressive carbon footprints? I think it is important for them to snap out of that. And some of the smaller scale companies are making products out of recycled materials now and integrating that more into just their everyday launching of products. So I think it goes both ways. And again, you know, just as an artist, trying to make it in the world, trying to get myself out there as much as possible and using those larger platforms to speak your truth and hopefully inspire others to make their own sustainable art.

Sue: [00:12:44] Tell us a bit about the process of going along the beach or being hiking in the wild country and spotting a piece of trash. How do you then get the ideas and the practical sense of utilizing that trash to get into your finished product? Tell us about how you actually do that.

Mariah: [00:13:01] So I got two different veins of course has been affected by COVID. Cause I, we used to just pick up trash and trash and trash and now it’s like, Ooh, I’m a little more wary. But like I’ve mentioned before, I usually, when I’m going out on big backpacking trips or hiking day trips, I pack a little kit with my primary colors, my paints, a little jar of recycled gray water, and just go on out there. I first [00:13:30] got started by just picking up a piece of trash. If I find took a water bottle off the side of the trail or lots of shoes, a lot of the time just picking it up right there and then finding a perch somewhere nearby. And painting the actual landscape where the trash was found right then and there. So I do love my plein air sketches. I think if they’re more color studies sketches, there are a lot of at the time were gestural and only take a few hours, but sometimes you can find a piece of trash and it’s huge, like a hubcap, or I found this like cracked aquaculture box last year. And there’s no way that I can finish the piece just in one sitting or, you know, the weather comes in the sun’s about to set all these environmental factors as well.

So in that case, I would take the piece from the location and take some source images. Of where I found it and bring it back to my studio, paint it, using the source image, and then hike it back out to align it and photograph it then and there. And that one’s always interesting because sometimes seasons have passed. And so I have a few pieces that I found in the summer, but I aligned in the spring and that’s what landscape painting is. It’s not a stagnant thing. It’s constantly in motion. So if leaned into that little disconnect a little bit,

Sue: [00:14:49] So, what you’re saying there is, if you found a hubcap halfway up a mountain, you could paint it then and there, if the weather turned, you would take it back to your studio and then you’d hike back out to the mountain [00:15:00] and take a photograph of it in situ in that landscape. Is that what you’re saying?

Mariah: [00:15:05] Once the painting is done, I would probably complete it in my studio and then bring it back out. And it’s like, I’m hiking with my little hubcap buddy. Breathing new life into these discarded literally and forgotten objects then is a fun part of the process too. It’s not just the painting or the standing or whatever, or hanging it on a wall. It’s bringing it back to the landscape is a part of the process as well.

Sue: [00:15:29] So I imagine in a way there’s an element of backstory to a piece of art. When somebody purchases they’re getting, not just that piece of art, that material, it’s got a lovely image on it. They’re getting the backstory about where it came from and why.

Mariah: [00:15:42] Right. Yeah. It’s very interesting. I definitely think about where that piece came from. And especially with single shoes, just thinking about where’s the other shoe who walked in those shoes, it’s a very personal thing. And I think it’s like a portrait of the human experience upon the landscape. And so thinking about things that I’ve personally lost through my travels and where those pieces ended up and why this piece landed before me and there’s a lot, and I think it’s personal too. So I can add my own stories, my own flare, but I think people gravitate towards certain pieces because they remind them of aspects of their life or whatever, and they can put their own story on that. But it is interesting.

Sue: [00:16:26] And I’m wondering, what piece of trash have you found most challenging [00:16:30] to work on?

Mariah: [00:16:30] It’s hard. It’s slick surfaces are hard. So I struggle with glass. I usually just end up picking it up and recycling it. So I more gravitate towards plastic because that says a lot about where we are in the world right now, with microplastics just embedded within it. Everything. I gravitate more towards that. And I did struggle a little bit with fabrics before finding wet, crumpled up t-shirts that are shoved to the side of trails or gloves and things of that nature. But I recently just started a series called worn landscapes. So I am stretching I’m washing and cleaning the discarded fabric clothing item. But then I’m ending up stretching that fabric around stretcher bars, like a canvas bar. So they become this traditional surface. That looks like a canvas, but there’s like a shirt behind it or sweatshirt or pants. So that’s been a fun process because getting started. Wet t-shirts. I was like, eh, maybe not. I don’t need to get that sock I’ll just put that to the side. So it’s been fun seeing the project kind of transform in that way.

Sue: [00:17:39] So in a way when other people might think trash, yuck and they avoid it, or perhaps pick it up and hopefully put it somewhere more relevant, as opposed in the middle of the countryside. You’re looking at it as a medium from which to create a wonderful piece of art.

Mariah: [00:17:54] Yeah, I have trash vision right now. People are like, how did you find that water bottle [00:18:00] 20 yards into the dark forest? I was like, I got it. Yeah. It’s really funny. And sometimes I see things like rocks that have flecks of reflective material and I’m like, Oh my gosh, is that plastic? And it’s been this weird switch where I’m like, no, that is a natural thing that should be there because I’m so ready to find trash. And just acknowledging that it’s a good thing. If I can’t find trash. And when I was first in Denali, that was my first artist residency, the 6 million acre park. It’s huge.

And I barely found any trash. So it had to use my own personal trash instead of finding things in the field and just realizing that’s a good thing. The hope is to not be able to find  just water bottles and gloves and masks now just scattered across the street.

Sue: [00:18:48] So thinking into the future, Mariah, what are your ambitions and where do you want to take this approach to art?

Mariah: [00:18:55] My ambitions are definitely to become a full-time artist right now. I am a CSML environmentalist, interpreter naturalist. And in the winter I focus more on my art business and I try to balance the two, but I think the vision for the future is to just be a full-time artist. And I love working with kids and students and definitely a social person. And I think finding that balance is really important for me, where I can be out in the field with others being [00:19:30] inspired by what they’re inspired by and soaking that all in. And I also worked as a teacher. So having that element and then being able to retreat to my studio, cause I love my me time. my alone time where I can just get into the zone with my painting. So finding that balance is something that I’m searching for, but I love the outdoors. I love kayaking, canoeing, hiking. I’ve got a lot, a lot of dreams and hopes and reconfiguring that in a world of COVID has been another fun challenge. I could imagine.

Sue: [00:20:03] It strikes me that with your experience that you’ve had in education and  your sociability that you like being around other people, have you ever considered encouraging other people to go along the same path as you? So for other people to become eco artists.

Mariah: [00:20:18] Yeah, definitely. When I taught, I taught in a K through eight school, that was kind of my whole thing, recycling as much as possible and realizing that my goal as an artist and hopefully as an educator is not implant my like, this is how I make art and you should make it that same way too, but hopefully using my art as a tool or like an opening so that others, especially the young upcoming generation right now, who’s in school and Teleschool right now, they can take that idea but grasp on the ways that they’re passionate about the world, where they see the world. So it doesn’t necessarily have to even be visual art. It can [00:21:00] be anything science, history, writing. There’s so many different ways to be sustainable across all disciplines. So I think that’s my hope.

Sue: [00:21:08] So it’s a catalyst for change. It doesn’t have to be another Mariah approach to doing eco art in exactly the same way.

Mariah: [00:21:14] Right. That’s just one option out there. That’ll hopefully you get the gears turn in. Absolutely.

Sue: [00:21:19] Well, it’s been really fascinating to hear from you Mariah, about your approach to eco art. It’s a new term I’ve learned from our conversation today, and I’m hoping that when, as and when in the future, we get out into the national parks and wild places that I find fewer opportunities for you to create your work, because people are actually more considerate about what they’re leaving behind.

Mariah: [00:21:39] Yes. I really hope so too. And it does seem, there are a lot of efforts being put forth to minimize personal waste, but it also goes up, we gotta be conscious of our own footprint, but also have to be conscious of the brands we buy from and what their footprint is and go up the ladder there because there’s a lot of waste out there that is easy to ignore, but it’s got to go somewhere.

Sue: [00:22:04] Absolutely. And if people want to find out more about you and the work that you do and look at your gallery of pieces Mariah, how might you do that?

Mariah: [00:22:11] I’ve got a website, Mariah Reading art.com. So you can find me on there. I’ve also got a Facebook page, Mariah Reading art and an Instagram Mariah Reading so you can just follow me on all those contact me if you’d like and say hello.

Sue: [00:22:29] I’m sure [00:22:30] our listeners will do that. Right. It’s been great to speak to you. Thank you so much for your time today.

Mariah: [00:22:34] Nice speaking with you too. Thanks for everything.

Sue: [00:22:38] Well, Mariah’s story reminded me. But what can seem like trash to one person maybe seen as valuable by another and sometimes it’s not until we explore new possibilities and ask the questions, what else, or how else, do we come up with innovative ways to address bigger societal challenges?

Next week, I’ll be in conversation with Denise Nurse TV presenter and co-founder of a pioneering law firm about her career and how her interests in creating more diverse and inclusive work environments have weaved its way through a number of the business ventures she’s been involved with.

Listen to other episodes about sustainability on our playlist.