Maya Lin

U.S.A. (1959)

Artist, designer, architect and environmentalist Maya Lin has created a singular and wide-ranging body of work, beginning when she was still attending Yale. During her senior year, her entry won the national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, now on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A study in simplicity comprising two polished black granite walls inscribed with 58,000 names, the monument is built into the land and is the first of Lin’s many works to merge history with earthy environment and to encourage interaction between the physical structure and its beholders. She’s since designed a series of monuments, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and “The Women’s Table,” detailing the history and impact of women at Yale, where Lin studied architecture and sculpture as an undergraduate and earned a master’s from the school of architecture.

Lin’s relationship with nature is rooted in her childhood in Ohio. Her Stones Collection (1998) seat and coffee table invoke the common childhood experience of learning the Earth is round and then trying to see the curve. Lin grew up in an intellectual and artistic household. Her father was a ceramicist and the dean of Ohio University's college of fine arts, and her mother was a literature professor at the same school. They moved from China to Athens, Ohio, a year before Lin was born. The family’s home, backing up to woods and a stream, included furniture and other household items made by Lin’s father, including clay bowls the family ate from. That backdrop formed Lin’s early relationship with and protectiveness toward the environment.

Among Lin’s large-scale land art is “Wavefield” at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York, a series of undulating grassy waves spanning 11 acres and flowing visually into the mountains in the background. She also designed a work to mark the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a series of seven installations along the Columbia River illustrating the historic impact of the expedition on the native people of the Pacific Northwest and their environment. Architectural projects include the Langston Hughes Library in Clinton, Tennessee, and Museum of Chinese in America in New York City.

In 2012, Lin designed her fifth and, she says, final memorial. “What Is Missing?” is an ongoing multi-platform project, including an interactive website and exhibits at scientific institutions. It was a passion project for Lin the environmentalist, who shifted her focus from memorializing groups of people to memorializing the planet, in advance, while raising awareness about and suggesting solutions for habitat loss and climate change.

Lin and her work have been featured in Time, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, and after multiple solo exhibitions around the world, several of her pieces have found homes in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, The Smithsonian Institution and the California Academy of Sciences. The film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Lin was also awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

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