Bangor native Mariah Reading was well on her way to making environmentally conscious art by the time she was 8 years old, spending summers throughout her childhood and teen years at Windover Arts Center in Newburgh. She just didn’t realize it until she was in her mid-20s, after graduating from Bowdoin College.
By now, she has traveled to literally every corner of the country as a seasonal ranger in the national park system, visiting Zion in Utah, Denali in Alaska, Guadalupe Mountain in Texas and her “home park,” Acadia. She’s been a resident artist at many of those places.
But Reading’s artistic roots lie in the experiences she had growing up in Bangor, as a creative kid from a creative family, in a state with seemingly endless opportunities to experience the natural world. Her father, Brian, is an architect, and her brother, Liam, is also an artist, best known for designing and painting the mural on the exterior of the Together Place on Union Street in Bangor.
In a state where per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are increasingly found in soils, waters and even wildlife, and where the Gulf of Maine is warming at a higher rate than most of the world’s oceans, Reading’s art is part of a larger dialogue in Maine about the effects of climate change and sustainability.
“I think growing up in a family that really encouraged me, and having amazing art teachers in school, and then going to Windover and just being in those beautiful rolling hills in Newburgh, making all kinds of different art — I think that’s made me who I am,”
Reading’s art has been seen in galleries across the country, showcasing her expansive and ongoing project, “Recycled Landscapes,” in which she takes man-made refuse found in nature and transforms it into works of art, informed by her training as a landscape painter.
She’s one of two Bangor natives represented at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s biennial exhibition at its museum in Rockland, and one of 35 artists in total either from Maine or with connections to the state. The show, which takes over the entire facility, opens on Saturday, Jan. 28, and runs through May 7.
As part of her artistic practice, she takes refuse found in nature and paints it to blend in with the landscape — things like an Adidas slide sandal from Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota; a scuba flipper from Channel Islands National Park in California; and sunglasses from the Grand Canyon.
She does it on other public lands as well, from a to-go coffee cup found near the boat taking her to Elephant Island in Antarctica, to a Maine license plate found at the Bangor City Forest.
“I was kayaking in Oregon and found this folding chair stuck in the mud in the riverbank, and I knew it would be perfect for what I do,” she said.
“So I yanked it out, strapped it to my kayak and brought it home. People find trash for me. It probably sounds crazy, but it’s part of the process.”
What were once grimy pieces of trash become meditations on waste, sustainability, humanity’s relationship to nature, climate change and pollution. There’s a certain element of humor to her work — it’s hard not to smile seeing old birth control pill packages or Crocs turned into art — but there’s a serious message in it.
“Climate anxiety is a real thing my generation grapples with. The planet is changing. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other part of the ocean,” she said. “This is how I make art that not only is aesthetically pleasing but also grapples with reality.”
Reading will have two works displayed at the biennial, one of which was created in Acadia National Park. In the summer of 2020, she came across a huge piece of a larger aquaculture installation that was shedding bits of pressed foam into the ocean along the Park Loop Road. She crammed it into her car and turned it into a painting.
The painting, as well as the actual piece of refuse, will be shown at CMCA.
Reading is about to turn 29 years old, and she has already visited nearly half of the country’s 63 national parks. She said she would like to visit all of them, and has an even larger goal to visit all 424 units of the U.S. park system, which includes places like monuments and historic sites.
That goal should not be difficult to attain, since she spends the summer season as a ranger in different parks each year, before returning to spend the winter on Mount Desert Island. She’s also done residencies at art centers in Oregon and Alaska, and has won grants for her work from Subaru and shoe company Merrell.
This winter, in addition to participating in the CMCA Biennial, she’s teaching a workshop on recycled art at ArtWaves on MDI, and has another group show coming up in March at Casco Bay Artisans in Portland.
She may have lofty goals of visiting as many wild places across North America as possible, but she said she will always be home in Maine.
“This is the place that taught me how to be an artist,” she said.