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Maya Lin - Biography and Legacy

American Architect and Sculptor

Born: October 5, 1959 - Athens, Ohio

Biography of Maya Lin


Maya Lin was born to Chinese intellectuals who had fled China in 1948, just as the Communist takeover was occurring. Her hometown of Athens, Ohio, known for its manufacturing and agriculture, is also the home of Ohio University, an institution that played a major role in her youth. Her mother Julia Chang Lin, a poet, was a literature professor at the university and her father, Henry Huan Lin, was a ceramicist and also the Dean of the School of Fine Art. Lin was in her father's studio, "making art as long as she can remember." A precocious student, Lin was fascinated with the natural world and with science, and read constantly. She wanted to be a veterinarian or an animal behaviorist, and her parents allowed her to have a pet parakeet. As she was growing up through the seventies, environmentalism was on the rise and it remained an important part of her sensibility. In high school, Lin did not conform to the stereotype of the Midwestern teenage girl. She steered clear of the prom, football games, and make-up, and grew her hair down to her waist. While still in high school, she took art courses at university level and began experimenting with bronze casting at the foundry. In her spare time, she took walks in the woods, letting her imagination roam, or played chess with her older brother, to whom she looked up. Fueled by the traditional Chinese aesthetic of her childhood home and the surroundings of rural Ohio, Lin's sensibilities as an architect began to blossom. Elements of this background would return in her later work, especially in college.

Early Training

In 1977 Lin graduated as co-valedictorian of her high school and entered Yale University. She initially pursued an interest in zoology but soon changed her major to architecture. While traveling in Denmark with a group of students from Yale, she was mistaken for a Greenlander, a racial group against whom there is significant discrimination in Denmark. This experience was formative for Lin, causing her to look deeper into her Chinese heritage and address it more directly in her art. Racial and social justice became more central to her as a result of this negative experience.

Lin's final year at Yale was the beginning of the best-known part of her career. She entered the competition to design a new Vietnam Veterans Memorial for Washington D.C., and what began as a simple class assignment for a college senior became a life-changing moment. Amongst 1,400 anonymous entries in the nation-wide public competition for the memorial, Lin's design was chosen as the winning blueprint. It was a remarkable decision, virtually unheard of for an architect so young, and not everyone was happy with it. Some Vietnam veterans, civic leaders and officials in Washington who had not been part of the decision felt that the historic commission should not be entrusted to an architect with no established track record of realized works and no personal connection to the event. Others claimed that hiring an Asian designer would disgrace the soldiers who died at the hands of the Vietnamese, bringing to light blatantly racist elements in the controversy over the piece. The college senior was called to defend her project in front of the United States Congress, and despite her wishes, a bargain was struck with the opposition. Another statue, a traditional bronze representation of soldiers with the American flag, would be placed near the architect's minimalist work. During the installation, Lin began graduate school at Harvard, but was bussing down to Washington D.C. so often to testify on behalf of her design that she couldn't keep up with the rigors of Harvard life, and withdrew after one semester. She later returned to Yale and completed her Masters in 1986.

Mature Period

After concluding her studies Lin continued to design memorials across America, expanding her practice across public installations and memorials, but also inching her way into a studio practice focused on traditional sculptures. Her focus and work ethic paid off immensely during these years. She obtained solo and group exhibitions, various awards, teaching appointments, and artist residencies. She established her own studio in New York, and created many more.

After designing some widely recognized memorials, Lin decided she needed to prove to herself and others that she could do more. Her interest in the natural world began to blossom and she used the earth and landscape as subjects of her installation and sculptural works. In relation to her work a documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1995) won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

In 1996 while finding refuge from an electrical storm in an abandoned horse trailer during a backpacking trip in Colorado, she met her future husband Daniel Wolf, an art collector and film producer who shared her passion for nature and art. They became engaged and still return to the horse trailer for vacations. They both collect rocks. Lin looks for river-washed pebbles while her husband likes quartz crystals. Wolf describes the pair as being individuals who complement each other's eccentricities. A year after their marriage, at the age of 38, Lin had her first child: a daughter named India. Throughout the beginning stages of motherhood Lin designed their family home, and learned to lessen her obsessive work ethic. As an artist she loved living in her own world, but once she began to have a family she realized that she had to begin to spread her focus. In 1999 their next daughter, Rachel, was born.

Lin continued to work, receive awards, and lecture. In the late 1990s she returned to two of her original passions: science and landscape, and began to formulate a specific style using high-tech sonar resonance scans and aerial and satellite mapping devices. Her architectural background began to evolve along with her artistry as she created many more and varied artworks.

Later Work

Lin continues to look at the environment as she progresses as an artist. She creates important installations that use elements of the natural world, always focusing on landscape. She often revisits interests developed in childhood, among them biology and zoology. While recognizing that her art will never be able to rival natural beauty, she consistently works in conjunction with the land, demonstrating a reverence and understanding of it. Her travels have taken her to some of the most beautiful regions of the earth. Her most recent memorial, What is Missing?, responds to the loss of habitat and biodiversity and the threatening reality of climate change. The piece strives to catalogue and preserve the land and animals of our planet before they go extinct. First unveiled on September 17, 2009, the memorial is an ongoing project, extending into physical and cyberspace. Lin continues to have her hand in multiple endeavors, designing architectural and sculptural works out of her studio in New York City.

The Legacy of Maya Lin

Early success allowed Lin to watch perceptions of her work evolve dramatically over the years. Initial resistance to her work gave way to widespread public admiration for pushing the boundaries of what a memorial is. Her impact on other artists has been widespread in all fields, but perhaps most especially in conceptual sculpture and public art. Jane Hammond's Fallen, a collection of autumn leaves, each inscribed with the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq (purchased by the Whitney in 2009), highlighted cumulative loss in a manner indebted to Lin. In its recitation of individual names Ai Weiwei's Backpack Project of 2008, an installation commemorating an earthquake in which unsafe school structures collapsed on Szechuan children, owes much to Lin's strategy. Lin's ongoing What is Missing? project, leverages her prowess as the most famous living designer of memorials to call attention to climate change, which she sees as the greatest challenge to the human species. The piece inspires cooperative artists to this day.

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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Maya Lin Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 28 Mar 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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