The Legacy Issue

Maya Lin’s Soft Power

From making monuments to moving mountains, the artist and architect's whisper speaks volumes.

The artist and architect in her NoHo studio, captured on large-format film by Sasha Douglas-Nares.

Arriving at Maya Lin’s expansive studio loft in NoHo, I was warmly greeted by the artist and architect, whom I’ve known casually since the early ’90s and with whom I last sat down when writing about her 2013 solo show at Pace Gallery in New York. After being offered coffee and pastries, I joined a conversation Maya was having with artist James Nares, who spoke about his upcoming show at Kasmin and a big retrospective exhibition opening in Milwaukee this summer. It was a reunion of sorts, as I have also known James and his work for decades and have previously interviewed him, too.

Maya was taking a break from being photographed for the cover of Surface, so, as the shoot continued, I poked around the studio, studying tabletop models for the new Neilson Library at Smith College and outdoor installations at the Princeton University Art Museum. A number of artworks were on display, including one of her digitally carved and hand-polished marble floor sculptures that follow the line of peaks and valleys along a fixed latitude of the Earth and an apparent group of large water droplets, cast in glass, a material she inventively uses in her work.

It was also instructive to discover some of the things that inspire her art, such as chunks of rough-hewn marble and various river rocks, which she said she was once obsessed by. I sat down on one of the vintage Eames side chairs in her library and leafed through a selection of photographs of her diverse projects until she joined me to talk about her fascinating life and work. An ever-curious, interdisciplinary creative whose influence on environment, history, and culture is as subtle as it is profound, getting to know Maya Lin takes time.

Lin was propelled into the American cultural and political realms at the age of 21 with her controversial proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Overcoming the battle to get it built—it’s now one of the most popular memorials in Washington, D.C.—the Yale grad went on to design the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama and the Women’s Table for her alma mater, and continues to work on her last two memorials, the Confluence Project, which spans Native American lands and repurposes state and national park sites along the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, and What Is Missing?, her ongoing web project about how our planet is changing, while also pursuing an art and architecture career.

With more than 25 solo shows over the past 25 years, including two traveling museum surveys, Lin has taken drawing, sculpture, and installation art to new levels of experimentation while employing traditional, unconventional, and recycled materials. From such private residences as the Box House in Colorado to institutional projects like the Children’s Defense Fund in Tennessee and Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Massachusetts, her innovative architecture projects have continually been critically acclaimed.

The daughter of immigrant parents—her father was a ceramist and dean of Ohio University College of Fine Arts and her mother a poet and literature professor—Lin was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009 and in 2016 she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President Obama.

A woman with a great legacy, Lin recently sat down with Surface in her New York studio to discuss her past, her process and what she calls her tripod of pursuits—art, architecture, and memorials.

A private residence in Telluride, Colorado, Box House sees Lin employing a very human simplicity attuned to its natural surroundings. Photos: Courtesy Paul Warc Hol.

You got your degree is in architecture, but it sometimes seems overshadowed by your other pursuits. How does it differ from your art, and what’s your aim when working with it?

I think my aim in art is more personal, because in architecture, though you’re building, and finding your aesthetic voice, you’re also problem solving—you’re designing for someone else, and I think that’s the beauty of it. You find the art in the constraints, and that is I think part of the art of architecture. I’m very much interested in the more organic, free-form drawn shape, juxtaposed against the more linear. I’m exploring the formal differences between the hand-drawn and delineated. That said, I’ve always been committed to sustainable materials and creating buildings that aren’t too big, because I like utilizing outdoor rooms.

You almost didn’t pursue architecture.

I went to Yale to study animal behavior, but my science advisor told me that the program was neurologically based, and that it would involve dissection. I didn’t quite know what dissection was, but when he explained it I realized that it wasn’t the right program for me. I decided architecture was the perfect combination of art and math. A broader education was also required, so I took a lot of art and science courses and studied social sciences, too, because I was interested in the psychology of space—how it impacts the way we relate to it. But with my artwork, I want to be very careful I’m not designing it to conform to the building. I want it to be its own thing.

What does being an artist mean to you?

It means I get to experiment, play, and explore issues and places that are important to me. I get to both sculpt the earth both with my hands—although I start everything in my head—and in the studio with small models. My work is heavily researched, but then you have to kill off that side of you to find the poetry within the thought. I’m definitely my father’s daughter.

The San Juan Mountains loom over Box House. Photos: Courtesy Paul Warc Hol.

How did growing up with an artist father impact your work?

I spent my whole childhood, in Ohio, making things, playing with clay. He went from being a ceramics professor to Dean of Fine Arts. The art school was my play- ground—making art was something that came very automatic to me. I was casting bronzes by the time I was in high school. Maybe I survived my childhood because I was always making things. I didn’t yet realize that it was part of my voice.

I wasn’t much of a social person. I spent a lot of time in the woods—surrounded by animals, by sounds, by nature—time play- ing in the hills and creeks. I think that really helped shape me, as well as my dad being a potter, and watching him pull a pot. He had the steadiest hands. He could pull an enormous pot, and then with just a tap, beautifully fold it in. I would watch in awe.

There seems to be an obvious correlation between that experience and your earth work projects, such as Wave Fields and Eleven Minute Line.

I always feel like I was intuitively drawn to using the earth as a type of clay. The terrain of Southeastern Ohio has these incredible hills. There are also these ancient burial mounds of the Hopewell and Adena. So there’d be like, in the middle of a farmer’s field, a mound—or the Serpent Mound or the Chillicothe earthworks in Mound City. This is where this is coming from; it’s coming out of the earth itself.

These works are a sight to behold, from both above and at ground level. How difficult are they to make and how are they best meant to be experienced?

The conceptualization is almost always the most time-consuming part. Being a site- specific artist, I need to understand a site— to walk it and to have possibly made a few small models before I even do that. Since the sites are often quite expansive, you actually cannot get a full grasp of the terrain by just walking it. You need the aerial views and the small scale site models to really get a feel for the terrain.

Once I have visited a site and have a sense of where I want to begin to work, I start sculpting in clay at a small scale and increase the scale in each new model, so I can get a very full grasp of what it is I am trying to make. But then I make sure there is time in the making of the work to allow for being able to make adjustments in the field, as the work is being built. I feel that these in site shifts and modifications truly make the sculpture come to life—that it’s fully engaging the landscape it’s situated in.

As for experiencing theses earthworks, I like them to both be seen from far off and then from within, so you can get a sense of the whole form before you walk in and get lost in it once you do.

Maya Lin in her studio.

The exhibition “A River is a Drawing,” at the Hudson River Museum, showed how you’ve been able to magically turn the mapping of waterways into striking works of art. What excites you about transforming these natural wonders into marble, glass, and precious metals?

I like to find my drawings in maps that span the globe and take us back in time. So often waterways—rivers, streams, and under- water ocean canyons—become the focus of the work, but in the end the geographic location is only the start. I then have to draw and redraw the waterway and look to create a drawing that, though accurate, also becomes something more unique, with some of them being evocative of other forms. For example, the estuary for the Lena River looks similar to the brain cortex, the pin interpretation of the Yangtze River reminds many of a dragon, and one of my favorites—the Chesapeake Bay in recycled silver—looks like the root of a tree.

I’m also very focused on the ambiguity of my drawings, between two- and three- dimensional space. Whether they be in pins, marbles, or recycled silver, each draw- ing is playing with the space it is in—quite literally jumping off the page and onto the floors, walls, and ceilings. As a sculptor, that desire to exist in a 3-D world, yet play off of the page, so to speak, is something I love exploring.

Is there a dialogue between these outdoor projects and your indoor sculptures?  

Absolutely, I think the indoor sculptures are going to weigh the seeds in genesis, because when you’re working at the scale of a bulldozer it’s sculpting. So I’ll come in and just make some things. I like playing with my fingers, sketching with my hands. In a weird way, the smaller scale works were always the seeds for some of the larger ones. Plus, with a lot of the larger scale sculptures, because they are so big, we make models. Now that doesn’t mean I’m not going to manipulate and alter them in situ. But I really need to understand the site from a bird’s-eye perspective. I think that the museum works, the studio sculptures, are a little more cartographic right now. I don’t know how long they’ll be in this phase, but I’m really loving the exploration of tributaries, waterways. I’m in love with water, and I’m still not done exploring it. I’m working on an outdoor water piece for Princeton that’s based on a black hole, and Einstein. Its working title is Einstein’s Table and the water comes out of a hole that looks like it could go into itself.   

A rendering of what would become Lin's 2004 earthwork, "Eleven Minute Line." Photo: Courtesy Maya Lin Studio.
"Eleven Minute Line" in situ at the Wanås Foundation in Wanås, Sweden. Photo: Courtesy Maya Lin Studio.
Another of the artist's earthworks, "Storm King Wavefield," at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York. Photo: Courtesy Maya Lin Studio.

Are you trying to alter our perception of the world around us? 

Absolutely, and I think whether it’s just subtly getting you to look, and ground yourself in where you are, we have a learning curve every time [we] experience something. We kind of know what it is. So, at a certain point we stop looking, and if I can arrest that for a minute, and you can actually look around at nature again, you’ll see things and hear things.  

What inspired the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, which you initially designed as a college project? 

I spent part of my junior term in Denmark studying architecture and was given a section of Copenhagen to survey that included an incredible cemetery. That summer, I traveled a bit and visited some other great cemeteries. It wasn’t that I was morbid, I was just fascinated. When I returned to Yale for my senior year one of the seminar courses was on funereal architecture, which I thought was a perfect twist of fate.  

One of the assignments was to design a memorial to [a fictional] World War III, which got me thinking about the political import of what a war memorial is in the 20th century. As I studied different memorials, I realized for the most part, until you get to World War I, it was always about the victor. It was never about the foot soldier—looking at the individual is a very modern conceit. That was filtering through my head, when the same classmate who had brought the course to my attention said, “Hey, I just saw a poster for a competition for the Vietnam Memorial,” and I think all of us as a class said, “What a great way to end the project.”  

 So, I designed it for the class, which means you’re really designing it for yourself, because I think that the artist in me was beginning to think, “What do I want to say?” Anyway, that’s how it started; and the rest, you know, has been written about ad nauseam.  


Lin's design for Montgomery's, 1989 Civil Rights Memorial used the same combination of granite, type, and tactility as her Vietnam Memorial, but for a new purpose. Photo: Courtesy Maya Lin Studio.

How did your rapid ascent into the public eye impact what you did next?  

It didn’t affect me, because I just pretended it didn’t happen. I took a summer teaching job. I knew my best antidote for politics in D.C. was to teach high school kids. I taught a summer school program in architecture at Philips Exeter Academy. And then I entered grad school at Harvard. So I literally took no break, which was probably a mistake. I was beginning my first year in architecture school at Harvard and flying down to D.C. to testify at committee meetings, because that’s when the statues were kind of marching. I was trying to write this paper, taking the shuttle back, and getting up at 6:00 a.m. after having testified. And I said, “Bad time to be in school” so I left, and re-applied to Yale. My way of dealing with it was to kind of say, “Okay, did that—I know it’s really an anomaly. I’m going to maintain what I was going to do before.” 

And then, three years in grad school, where I mean, professors, they cared about me. And they were looking at me like, here’s this kid—architecture—she’s got an aplomb. Why is she blowing it? Why is she not finishing projects? Why is she running over to the art department to build some crazy-ass sculptural tree house with a fellow student? And at one point, I think one of them said, “You know, you’re going to have to make a choice. You’re going to have to choose art or architecture.” I wasn’t trying to rebel. One, I was pretty stressed from what I had just gone through, and I wasn’t allowing myself to deal with it. And two, I was finding my voice. I really do think I’m sort of an in-between creature. That tripod between the art, architecture, and that hybrid form, the memorials— from Vietnam and Civil Rights to the Women’s Table, Confluence Project, and now Missing—is very much who I am. 


The marble rings of "Around the World" from the 2014 "Platform: Maya Lin" installation at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, with "Pin River" piercing the wall in the background. Photo: Courtesy Maya Lin Studio.

For a person who started out playing in the woods, you’ve become technologically savvy. How did that develop? 

When I was in high school I was kind of bored, so I ended up teaching myself Cobalt and Fortran. This was back when there were computer punch cards. There’s a side of me that is interested in technology. I can’t program worth crap today; my brain doesn’t work that way anymore. I am mathematically inclined, but most of this technology that we use in the studio is done by experts.  

Some 54,000 marbles mark the walls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum for Lin's 2015 "Folding the Chesapeake." Photo: Courtesy Maya Lin Studio.
A closer view of "Folding the Chesapeake." Photo: Courtesy Maya Lin Studio.

What does legacy mean to you? 

Well, immediately, we have to try to help [curb] climate change. We have no time. Our legacy, everyone of us living today, if we do nothing, or if we don’t do enough. I look at my kids—they’re going to feel it and their kids will really feel it. We’re feeling it now. We have an obligation. It is a disaster like nothing we’ve ever witnessed. We are in it, and unfortunately, that’s our legacy. What can I do to help improve, stop, repair? 

Other than that, I think as a woman what I went through in D.C. needs addressing. There was a very public battle to get the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial built. There were those that felt it was too different and then there were others who had a problem with who I was—there was consternation shall we say? At some point I want to sit down with two other women in different professions to talk about what we’ve gone through. We got through it, but I’d rather not have my girls have to go through what I had to endure. So that’s the second part of the legacy.  

The third part [is], I’d love it if a hybrid mind could be more accepted, rather than everyone trying to silo you. Because in a weird way, we are mathematical. We try to problem-solve, which means we’re going to put transportation over here. We’re going to put energy over there. We’re going to try to solve it in a mathematical way. You want to solve climate change, and bring back biodiversity? We have to be much more holistic. So that’s that shared ability, where it’s seamless. We can’t silo these problems. And they’re all interconnected. I think that idea of interdisciplinary systems and research and solutions is something that probably is very much a part of where I’m coming from.  

Can art change the world? 

Absolutely. In fact, I think sometimes art can cut through the politics, the complexity, the data sets. Art can make you feel, and when you feel I believe you can better communicate with people. In a weird way it’s still thinking, but it’s thinking with a much more core part of our psyche, that I believe we can get people to understand. It’s not too late. As a species, we’ve used art from day one. It is part of our wiring—it is one of our languages, and it’s our way to move people enough to do something. 

All Stories