This Eco Artist Turns Litter Into Landscape Paintings: 'We Can Be Better, More Sustainable Humans'

"There's humor in my art, but I hope people see themselves and their own habits reflected into these objects," Mariah Reading tells PEOPLE in this week's issue

Mariah Reading has a confession: yes, she's an environmentalist, but she can't help perking up when she comes across a piece of trash on a trail.

"I get excited about trash - knowing it's out there for the taking is exciting," Reading tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands today. "I always have to remind myself like 'Mariah, if I don't see trash, that's a good thing. And if I see trash, that's a bad thing.' "

Over the past four years, Reading, 27, has made rubbish her muse and medium, painting landscapes on more than 100 pieces of trash that she's found while hiking, climbing or paddling through 29 national parks.

"It's like breathing new life into forgotten objects," says the artist, who photographs her transformations against matching real-life backdrops.

Mariah Reading
Mariah Reading artwork. Mariah Reading

The results are whimsical but also carry an important message.

"There's humor in my art, but I hope people see themselves and their own habits reflected into these objects," she says. "I would love people to see my work and make small changes in their everyday lives so we can leave this place better than we found it."

"It can be overwhelming to go to these parks and find way more trash than I could possibly respond to. Grappling with that has been something that I'm trying to come to terms with in my work," she adds.

Mariah Reading
Mariah Reading. Mariah Reading

For more on Reading's art, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

The Bangor, Maine, native grew up with an early appreciation for nature exploring the nearby forests and coastlines.

While studying art at Bowdoin College – and seeing the vast amounts of waste from her painting and sculpture classes — she began to seriously consider her footprint as an artist. "I thought, 'How can I paint landscapes if I'm harming them?' "

Two weeks before her graduation, she changed her thesis and began using the refuse as her canvas.

Mariah Reading
Mariah Reading's artwork. Mariah Reading

After teaching and traveling throughout the country, while also picking up trash to bring to her studio, she began volunteering at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Then, while in Texas during the summer of 2017, a broken hubcap she picked up by the side of the road gave her a new idea.

"I was finding a lot of car parts at Guadalupe because there's a major highway going through and I found this half a hub cap had cracked all off to form the line of the mountain range that I was in," Reading says.

She began to paint the mountain landscape on the hubcap and held it up in front of the real range and snapped a photo. It became the first in her ongoing series.

Mariah Reading
Mariah Reading's art. Mariah Reading

Since she began the project, she's logged some 6,000 miles and has painted everything from a can of bug spray in Minnesota to a pair of flannel pajama pants she found hanging on a tree in Maine's Acadia National Park, which Reading refers to as Wabanaki Confederacy land, honoring the area's original native community.

"You think, 'What is the story there?' " says Reading, who recently completed an artist residency in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and who will head to the coast of Oregon in January for a residency at the Sitka Center For Art & Ecology.

Mariah Reading
Mini shovel Mariah Reading spotted before making painting. Mariah Reading

Reading, who sells prints of her work for $110-$250, often paints outdoors after kayaking or hiking five or 10 miles into the wilderness, completing her landscapes and snapping photos a few hours later.

Sometimes she takes her trash to the studio and then hikes the finished product back for her photo session, painstakingly lining up the painted object with the natural landscape.

"When everything jives, it's magic," she says.

Mariah Reading
Mariah Reading's art. Mariah Reading

Friends have even contributed to her work — one gifted her a bra pad found on the ground in the parking lot at Guadalupe. On it, Reading painted the aptly named local landform known as Nipple Hill.

For better or worse, materials for Reading's chosen medium will never be in short supply, which means that artistically — and environmentally "there's a lifetime of work to be done," says Reading, who hopes that her work reminds others of that fact.

"I don't want to be preachy. I know that I'm a consumer as well. I'm an imperfect environmentalist. It's just a reminder that we can be better and more sustainable humans."

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