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 Maya Lin  (1959 - )

About: Maya Lin
 

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: commemorative sculpture, environmental installations

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Maya Lin
from Auction House Records.
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Best known for her unconventional public monuments, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, Maya Lin combines intuition with the tools of science.  Some have called her work a "spiritualized geometry," which she achieves by working with computer- enhanced imaging, aerial and satellite photography, topographic mapping.

Maya Lin was a 21-year-old undergraduate when her design for the Vietnam Memorial was chosen in 1981 from a field of more than a thousand proposals. Though she did no research prior to creating her design, she didn't want to be swayed by politics.  Lin sensed that Americans were still in pain. "I was trying to come to some understanding of mourning and grieving," she recalls.

Lin achieved an uncomfortable fame because of the Memorial and the controversies that at first swirled around her design.  As a result, she declined to discuss the experience publicly for more than a decade.  Filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders finally dissolved that reluctance while creating Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, their documentary that won an Academy Award in 1995.  Since then, the rift that had grown between Lin and a lot of Vietnam veterans closed.

Now 43, Lin, reticent, with a slight physique, lives in New York City with her husband, Daniel Wolf, an art dealer, and their two young daughters.  In her SoHo studio, she is currently working on a dozen design and renovation projects, such as a sculpture center in Long Island City, New York, and a chapel for the Children's Defense fund in Clinton, Tennessee.  A recent commission will consist of installations along the Columbia River in Washington State marking the Lewis and Clark expedition, while also acknowledging Native American and environmental concerns.

Her work has frequently tested the boundaries between architecture and art, a tension that she cultivates.  Her sculptures have drawn crowds to gallery shows, and she is in demand as a lecturer.  She has also produced a line of minimalist furniture. "I have to model everything," she says. "I can't see in two-dimensions." One of her first models of the Wall was constructed, in a college dormitory, of mashed potatoes.

Her designs since the Vietnam War Memorial have many of the attributes that made the Wall a triumph, such as a respect for nature and a less-is-more aesthetic. "I do like the simplicity of her work, the way she strips things down," says Carl Pucci, a New York City architect who has followed her progress since her undergraduate days. "And she's gained confidence in that style over the years."

After the veteran's piece, she went on to produce other memorials, and in response to requests, she has sketched ideas for a World Trade Center Memorial.  Though she insists that she won't officially be involved in creating one, the fact that she springs to mind as a prime candidate for that immense and solemn undertaking is ample evidence that Americans have grown to appreciate her singular talent.  This circumstance was not true when she was chosen for the Vietnam Memorial.

Initiated by Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs, more than 175,000 individuals, civic groups, unions and corporations contributed $8.4 million to the war memorial fund, which sponsored an open competition for the Vietnam Memorial design.  In May of 1981, after reviewing 1,421 entries (including a two-story combat boot, a two-acre flag and a 40-foot rocking chair), the eight-member jury of architects and sculptors announced that the winner of the $20,000 competition was Maya Ying Lin, the daughter of two native Chinese who had fled Mao's Communist regime, and settled in Athens, Ohio.

Maya Lin, an architecture student at Yale University, had entered the competition as an assignment for a funereal architecture class.  The drawings for her winning concept are deceptively simple---an extended black V suspended in a murky blue-green wash. "They almost look like kindergarten drawings.  A lay jury would never, never have chosen that design," says Paul Spreiregen, a Washington-based architect who organized the competition and helped select the judging panel.  But he views Lin's design as an effective symbol: "It's a rift in the earth, as the war was a tear in the fabric of the American experience."

Lin accompanied her drawings with an essay, handwritten on a single sheet of paper, that helped make her case. "For death is in the end a personal and private matter," she wrote, "and the area contained within this memorial is a quiet place meant for personal reflection and private reckoning."

Though the judges selected her design, she had to fight to see it built as envisioned. Some members of the veterans' committee responsible for raising the funds, wanted the names of the dead listed alphabetically, to make locating friends or loved ones easier.  But Lin argued that dozens of Joneses and Smiths lined up in rows would prove monotonous.  Plus, she wanted to depict the passing of time from America's first fatality in Vietnam, in 1959, to the last, in 1975.  Initially, she thought that the chronology would begin at the far western point and play out as one walks east.  But, on the advice of an architect who evaluated her class work, she began the chronology in the center instead, and continued it along the eastern wing before resuming at the start of the western wing and finishing at the center.  Because of this, it is said that time loops back upon itself, symbolizing closure (Indexes at the site help people find specific names).

No sooner had the plans been made public than proponents of heroic statuary objected.  Some veterans grew so vociferous that Secretary of the Interior James Watt told the Memorial Fund to look for an alternative design.  Scruggs says he was one of Lin's staunchest supporters, but his group was torn between defending her design, and achieving its goal of building a memorial by the fall of 1982.

Practically every detail was debated.  Many critics who attacked the design were appeased after General Michael Davison, an adviser to the memorial group, proposed that a conventional representational statue be added to it.  Lin opposed the change, but the Memorial Fund commissioned sculptor Frederick Hart, who died in 1999, to create a statue.  "Hart looked me straight in the face and said, 'My statue is going to improve your memorial,'" recalls a still-indignant Lin. "How can an artist say that? And at this time, the statue would have gone at the apex, and their heads would have stood above the wall." In a compromise, Hart's statue, which depicts three resolute foot soldiers, would be situated about 120 feet from the Wall's western ramp.  It was dedicated in 1984.

The success of the Vietnam Memorial made Lin an obvious choice for other projects that aimed for quiet eloquence. But after graduating from Yale, and going on to earn a master's degree in architecture there in 1986, she turned down offers to design monuments, worried that she might become typecast. And, she says, she feared she might not again conceive a memorial as inspired as the Wall.

Then, in the spring of 1988, while working toward an internship at a New York architectural firm, she was asked by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, a pioneering civil rights group, to design a memorial to Americans who fought for racial justice.  She accepted, immersed herself in the movement's history, and found a theme in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, in which he said the struggle for equality would not end "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Lin had King's phrase engraved into the curved black granite stone wall that serves as the memorial's backdrop.  Water flows down the wall and wells up from the center of a 12-foot-diameter stone table onto which a timeline of the civil rights movement is engraved, from the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark "Brown v. Board of Education" ruling in 1954 to the assassination of King in 1968.  Dedicated in 1989, the Civil Rights Memorial was an instant sensation.  Visitors feel compelled to touch it, as they do the Wall, and run their fingers through the moving water.

"I'm asking for a one-on-one relationship between the viewer and the work," Lin says of her memorials. "They're large-scale artworks, but they are anti-monumental. No matter how large the piece might be, in the end, it breaks down to an intimate, psychological experience.

A subsequent project by Lin was closer to home.  Installed at Yale in 1993, it is a tribute to women at the college (founded in 1701), who studied or worked on the campus beginning in 1873.  Water flows across the top of the granite Women's Table, which is scored with a spiral of numbers radiating from the center and representing the number of women students year by year from zero to 5,225 in 1993.

Lin's love of nature's handiwork is evident in one of her favorite installations, Wave Field, dedicated in 1995 on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Inspired by a photograph of water waves in a book, she reshaped a campus quadrangle into a series of gently undulating berms.  She raked the "waves" herself before the grass was laid down.  "When you walk up to it, it's completely changing, it unfolds before you," she explains.  "What I'm not after is trying to re-create nature, but to use nature as a taking off point. It's a way of looking at a natural landscape through an unexpected lens."

In the spring of 2002, she completed another installation that challenges perception: an indoor courtyard at the American Express corporate office in Minneapolis.  The square is enclosed by glass walls.  Water flows down one wall in warm weather. During winter, the water freezes, changing the appearance of the courtyard as well as the view.  The wave-like hardwood floor evokes a natural landscape.

Also in 2002, Lin was designing four private houses.  In her 2000 book, Boundaries, she describes her design style as one that borrows elements from Japanese temples and Shaker, Scandinavian and early modernist ideals.  She favors uncluttered space, natural materials and as much natural light as she can coax into the interiors.  In the only house she has so far completed from the foundation up, a residence in Williamstown, Massachusetts, built in 1994, she brought nature into play with a roof that has peaks and valleys, mimicking nearby mountains.  A New York City apartment she designed in 1998, echoes Japanese tradition. Adjacent bathrooms can be combined by removing a temporary wall.  Two of the apartment's three bedrooms can also be made one by rolling away a wardrobe.

By 2006, Maya Lin was creative seven massive commemorative sculptures along the Lewis and Clark trail, 450 miles in length of the Columbia River---the last leg of their journey.  For each piece, she is using materials native to the area and is incorporating texts from diaries of the travelers and the Indians they encountered.

Source:
Robert F. Howe, Smithsonian, November 2002
Carly Berwick, "A River Runs Through It", ARTnews, December 2006, p. 44

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