Maya Lin is an artist, architect, and environmentalist. Back in 1981, as a 21-year-old architecture undergraduate, she won the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial caused controversy for its minimalist design and because the artist was Chinese-American, young, and female. Lin has since created numerous memorials, urbanscapes and artworks dealing with memory, the environment and ecosystems. Here are 6 of her most incredible achievements.
1. At 21, Maya Lin Designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Maya Lin was born in 1959 in an intellectual Chinese-American family. Her parents had emigrated from China after the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1948. Lin grew up in rural Ohio. She loved school but didn’t have many friends. After finishing school, she studied architecture at Yale University.
In her last year of undergraduate studies in architecture and sculpture, she won a national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. At the time, she was only 21 years old. The competition submissions were anonymous and her project won among 1422 other submissions. This caused quite a media stir.
Her design features a black V-shaped granite wall featuring the names of the U.S. soldiers that had lost their lives in Vietnam. The design idea follows that of a wound. The shape showcases an opening in the earth that is representative of the suffering and pain caused by the war. Apart from Lin’s ethnicity and youth, the dark, minimalist design of the memorial was considered problematic, as was the exclusion of the war veterans who survived.
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The reaction was so strong that Lin had to defend her design to the US Congress. In 1982, the memorial was completed and it soon became a pilgrimage site for the families of the Vietnam veterans. Today, more than five million people visit it annually and it has become a memorial for the veterans of two more U.S. invasions in the Middle East: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
2. Lin’s Work with Memorials Has Impressed Critics
When Lin first got the media attention as the undergraduate architecture student who won the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, few architecture critics were on her side. By 2007, however, the memorial was ranking in architects’ polls of America’s Favorite Architecture. That same year, the American Institute of Architects also awarded it with the 25-Year Award. The turbulence caused Lin to wait before making another memorial until 1989 when she was commissioned by Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ohio to design the Civil Rights Memorial. This piece also became a famously minimalist work.
The 14-ton piece consists of a curved granite wall bearing a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a 12-foot disk inscribed with the names of the movement’s 40 martyrs as well as the major dates of the Civil Rights era. A thin layer of water streams down the wall as through the table, forming what has been called a water table. The idea of water, which Lin later also used as inspiration for her earthworks, came from a passage from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech I have a dream. The passage comes from the book of Amos, reading We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Another one of her famous memorials was commissioned by her alma mater, Yale University. Women’s Table is a communal sculpture commemorating the role of women in the history of the university. The 1993 work was made to mark the 20th anniversary of allowing women to study at Yale College.
3. Lin Has Made Land Artworks
Lin’s concern with the environment began when she was still in school. Once she entered university, she became an environmental activist. It is therefore not surprising that she began creating land art using the earth as the main artistic material. Much of her architecture, too, is inspired by nature.
Together with Agnes Denes and Nancy Holt, Maya Lin is one of the three most famous women artists working with land art. Even the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that she first became famous for is an earthwork of sorts. Located slightly lower than the surface, its shape symbolizes the mark of a wound in the earth. As a conceptual artist working specifically with histories that objects and forms hold in their memory, Lin’s use of the earthly materials is subtle. She creates encompassing environments to wander through.
An example of this can be seen in the 2004 Eleven Minute Line at the Wanås Foundation in Knislinge, Sweden. Here the ground shapes a serpent through the field. The shape is visible in full only from the sky. The work responds to the Great Serpent Mound, a prehistoric serpent earth sculpture from 1070 AD not far from Lin’s birthplace in North America.
Her unusual earthwork is the installation art piece called the Ghost Forest. Located in the Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York, the work stood for half a year in 2021. It featured 49 Atlantic white cedar trees, each around forty feet high in a replica of natural ghost forests which occur when a previously vigorous growth has been replaced by dead woodland due to logging and climate change. The choice of tree stems from the tree being endangered as a result of logging and extreme weather conditions.
4. Lin Shaped Land Like Water
Lin’s most famous earthworks are the three Wave Field renditions: Wave Field (University of Michigan, 1995), Flutter (Miami, Florida, 2005) and Wave Field (Storm King Art Center, 2007-2008). The first Wave Field was also Lin’s first earthwork. It was based on the idea of transferring the motion of water onto the earth. The second, Flutter, formed 10,000 sq. ft of calm, serene field of waves.
The third and most famous Wave Field was the first earthwork of the Storm King Art Center, one of the world’s biggest open-air contemporary art centers, a U.S. version of the Inhotim Institute. The 2008 Wave Field was significantly bigger, built across four acres of land. In 2008, Lin also created what she would call an attempt to bring the Wavefield indoors: 2 x 4 Landscape exhibited at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.
Lin’s interest in water also continues into other sculptures, such as the Bodies of Water series. Here, three plywood sculptures are shaped to represent a sea eponymous with their titles: The Black Sea, The Caspian Sea, and The Red Sea. Measured to scale, they are balanced on their deepest point, drawing attention to the ecosystem damage that their decreasing water levels could bring.
5. Lin is an Environmental Activist
The theme of environmentalism runs through Maya Lin’s work. With this aim in mind, she has designed spaces and memorials, conceptual artworks, and landscape installations. Although trained as an architect, she considers her work to be that of a designer and artist, sculpting pieces and spaces. Key works include the Langston Hughes Library and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York.
Lin’s activist work continues in her ongoing multi-sited work What Is Missing?. Starting in 2007, the pieces form a commemoration of the environmental crisis of today and the loss of biodiversity that follows. The multi-media project features temporary and permanent installations as well as online parts. She speaks of the work as her fifth and final memorial. Lin has also created a specific foundation for the cause called the What is Missing Foundation.
6. Maya Lin Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Maya Lin received two significant medals: the National Medal of Arts in 2009 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. By this time, she was already a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
These were not Maya Lin’s first honors. Since being awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Williams and Smith Colleges, she has received numerous accolades for her memorials and earthworks. Her first major award was the Henry Bacon Memorial Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1984. Others followed, including the Rome Prize, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement, and the Finn Juhl Prize. Maya Lin was also given the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture.