Lin comes from a cultured Chinese family. Her father emigrated from China in 1948; he was a ceramicist and became Dean of Fine Arts at Ohio State University. Her mother emigrated in 1949; she was a poet and Professor of Literature at Ohio State. Lin grew up among the members of the university and had access to the schools many cultural and artistic offerings. “I was always making art and my parents encouraged us to follow our passions. Hence, my brother is a language poet and I am still making things”. Her parents brought Maya and her brother up to assimilate: “Typical with immigrant families, they didn’t talk about what they left behind. We were brought up without either parent teaching or wanting to teach us Chinese. It was a conscious decision on their part.” Lin’s mother’s advice was “to do what was challenging and what you were passionate about.” For Maya Lin that was art and architecture.
Maya Lin was one of nine artists invited to participate in the inaugural exhibition (2015), for the re-opening of the restored Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. The overall title and concept for the exhibition was “Wonder.” Lin chose to do an installation about the Chesapeake Bay. She often incorporates water into her work. “The Chesapeake is one of my favorite waterways, partly because people outside of the area aren’t as familiar with it. But if you know the area and know how significantly it’s changed ecologically speaking since we settled the area, it’s huge. It’s an incredibly beautiful form.” “Folding the Chesapeake” (2015) (318’’x391’’x273”), is composed of 54,000 clear marbles that she glued to the walls, floors, over a fire place, and onto the ceiling, to form and fold the shape of the Chesapeake Bay. Her intent was to make the viewer aware of the ecology of the bay as an extensive waterway. Those who live on some part of the Chesapeake rarely envision it as a whole. Lin does extensive research for all of her projects, and gained significant knowledge concerning the Bay and the 2,700 species of plants and animals which are supported by its ecosystem. “This piece allows me to give people an idea of the totality. You see it as a single organism, as a living system.”
Lin’s choice of subject and material for this work had several influences. When she was eight years old, Lin remembers that her father brought home a box of artisanal clear marbles, the type glass blowers employ. “It was like opening a box of water. They capture light in a way I had never seen.” She also was inspired by the Renwick. “The Renwick Gallery is probably one of the more historic buildings that I’ve ever installed in and so taking something and being able to, in a way, transform a room without necessarily becoming physically overbearing or overly large was very important.” Perhaps most significant, is Maya Lin’s continuous interest in saving the environment. From her childhood she recalls Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring from1962, the passing of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Clean Water Act of 1972. “I’m very much a product of the growing awareness about ecology and the environmental movement. I am very drawn to landscape, and my work is about finding a balance in the landscape, respecting nature not trying to dominate it.”
Water has played a significant part in Maya Lin’s work. Her Civil Rights Memorial (1989), in Montgomery, Alabama, commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a large fountain in the shape of an asymmetrical upside down cone. Water flows over the top of the cone. The cone is inscribed with 41 names of martyrs who were killed from 1954 to 1968. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled segregation of schools was unlawful and in 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Lin chose a water memorial after researching the history of racial segregation, and read King’s speech “I Have a Dream” in which he said “…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The water flows in a gentle but solid stream across the top, and visitors are encouraged to touch the water and the names of the dead, which momentarily interrupts the flow of water, but it returns quickly to a steady and calm stream.
During her career, Lin has maintained a balance between earthworks that create wave patterns with grass and hills, memorials, architecture, and museum pieces. Lin is prolific in all of these areas. Some further examples of her works relating to water are “Bodies of Water” (2006), a series of sculpted birch plywood bases, shaped to scale, of the Caspian Sea (19”x58.5”x33”), the Black Sea, and the Red Sea. Lin states these bodies of water are “unseen ecosystems that we pollute” and are “endangered bodies of water.” “Disappearing Bodies of Water “(2013), are marble sculptures carved to scale, that illustrate the loss of water due to overuse in Lake Chad and the Aral Sea. “Pin River Yangtze (2015), located in the lobby of the U.S. Embassy compound in Beijing, is composed or 30,000 steel pins tightly grouped and tacked into a backing. “Pin River- Hudson Watershed” (2018), is one of twelve works in the Hudson River Museum. It is a time line of the Hudson River from the past to the present, with art and text that illustrate the changes in population and species over time. Lin does extensive research into each of her projects using available twenty-first century technology. These include micro and macro views of the earth, solar resonance scans, and aerial and satellite mapping systems.
Since 2014, Maya Lin is creating a series of works called “What is Missing?” She refers these as her last memorial. “In all my memorials, time has been a huge driving, underlying structure. For Missing, there is the past — what we have lost, but more importantly, pointing out things you don’t even realize are missing like the sounds of songbirds, the scale of species, the abundance of species. In fact, in the 1890’s the Atlantic Cod fish was as large as man and New York coast oysters were 12” in diameter. Lin has set up her own not-for-profit organization and plans to contribute to it for the rest of her life. There are 40 conservations groups working with her to look at what has been lost and what can be done to correct the situation. The group is also thinking about how conservation and climate concerns can generate both jobs and climate change.
From the beginning Maya Lin’s has been involved in politics. Her choice, by a blind jury, to create the Viet Nam War Memorial (1981), raised many alarms. She was too young and therefore inexperienced, she was a woman, and she was not American but an alien, an Asian, despite that fact that she was born in America. Today it is thought by most to be a singular monument and a moving testament to the soldiers lost in the war. In 2003, she was asked to serve on the jury for the World Trade Center Memorial. In 2016, President Obama awarded her the Presidents Medal of Freedom.
Most of her work has been involved with the environment and climate change. “What is Missing?” is dedicated to continuing the efforts to save the planet from disaster. “It is a very dark moment in history. Sixty-nine percent of Americans agree that climate is changing. The good news is that cities, states, and countries are moving, they have been moving, and will continue to move towards a sustainable future. I think nature is resilient – if we protect it – and with my background I wanted to lend a voice to the incredible threat we are under from climate change and species and habitat loss.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.