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Know the West

Meet the artist who makes trash into art     

How one painter recreates the sublime beauty of nature on the plastic bottles you threw away.


Visitors to Yosemite National Park leave behind nearly 4,000 dumpsters full of trash each year. In September 2017, during an annual cleanup of the park, Mariah Reading was thrilled to see so much trash collected, but disappointed it was there in the first place.

That’s because she likes to turn rubbish left behind in national parks into painting canvases.

It all started while she attended Bowdoin College for visual arts. Reading decided to use the waste from sculptural art projects as materials for new art. She felt better seeing the leftovers upcycled rather than thrown away. Then, in 2016, Reading took a cross-country road trip from Maine to California to start a new job. On her way she visited as many national parks as she could and started picking up discarded water bottles, cans, plastic bags and even shoes. She painted the objects that people left behind and turned them into colorful scenes that blended in with the landscape where they were found.

Her project, called “Recycled Landscapes,” carries a few lessons. At face value, it raises awareness about Leave No Trace practices, and just how much refuse is left in parks. But Reading hopes it also inspires people to make art, stifled by the notion that you have to have the “right” materials. She sees discarded objects as multi-functional. “I’m making art accessible to all,” she says. “And I take things that pollute landscapes and turn them into meaningful objects.” 

After photographs of Yosemite helped inspire Lincoln to preserve that valley, setting that stage for conserving more public land, art became tied to the creation of national parks. Today, there are more than 50 artist residency programs in the nation’s parks. This summer, Reading will be doing a residency in Denali National Park, where she will make art in these places and for these places — to carry on the tradition.

The trash Reading finds is telling of the environment they’re found in. Water bottles in the desert; car parts in parks near roads; broken flip-flops in the Narrows, a canyon hike, in Zion. “Shoes in particular are really interesting,” she says. “This project is about our footprint on the land and how we’re impacting natural landscapes.” —Brooke Warren