35 Who Made a Difference: Maya Lin

The architect melds surface simplicity and underlying intellectual complexity into works of enduring power

Enrico Ferorelli

Near the wind- and water-swept expanse of a park on the coast of Washington State, energy born in distant storms rises out of the seas to break against the bar of one of the great rivers of North America, the Columbia. In the park there's a terrific view of a bay north of the breakers, and in the middle of the view there's a sink.

"It's hysterical," says the artist and architect Maya Lin. "It's this double stainless-steel sink, and it's just sitting out there in one of the most beautiful vistas. But it's not so beautiful, because it's this beat-up thing."

The beat-up thing is actually used for cutting fish. It's where you go if you've just caught a salmon and you need to clean it to take it home. It's a working sink, with piped-in water: blood, guts, a bit of slime, and you're done.

But for Maya Lin, who may never be able to shed her introductory credit—"She designed the Vietnam Memorial"—this sink is a window that her art can open. The fact that the trajectory of Lin's creative life allows her to focus on a beat-up sink with the same thought and energy she brought to memorializing American soldiers killed in Vietnam makes the direction she has chosen in life clear. It's not an easy path, but it's a good one.

Her work so far includes some striking additional memorials, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and a memorial to the women of Yale, where, as a 21-year-old architecture student in 1981, she designed the Vietnam Memorial as a class exercise. Her work also includes several public and private buildings, furniture, individual sculptures in stone and other media, earthworks, and sculptures of the shapes of the land in media such as wood and broken glass.

The acclaim Lin received for the Vietnam Memorial, still one of the most emotionally powerful monuments in the world, gave her extraordinary freedom right at the start of her working years. She held the ticket to prolonged fame in her hand. She could have made a career as a designer of monuments, a specialist in the honoring of people, places, things. She could have become a person of grandeur, building great monuments for only the greatest of events. Princes would have begged her for an audience; warriors would have wondered if their battles were worthy of being noticed by Maya Lin; the president would have invited her to the ranch.

But that was not the choice she made. She spurned the golden ticket and, symbolically speaking, went looking for the sink. "People ask, 'If you’d never won the Vietnam Memorial award, where would you be?'" she says. "I reply that I'd be making things, same as I am now."

Individuals who are driven by that kind of creative desire seem to have no option but to follow it. To them, all of those other lovely flames of fame, fortune, glamour, money, power or influence seem hardly to burn. They are drawn to the greater pyre. "I think we don’t have a choice," Lin says. "It's exploration." Her book about her work, Boundaries, says virtually nothing about the personal impact of her early prominence; in it she seeks to understand how her process of making things operates.

"I think with my hands," she says in the book. She also notes, "I do not think you can find a reason for everything you make." The sections of the book that touch on her personal life focus almost entirely on how experience has informed her work.

In one way Lin's early success gave her the authority to take the risks that a creative life requires, but in another way it made the risks greater by raising expectations. This does not appear to worry her; her response to the success seems to be to worry not about acclaim but about the demands of the critics inside her own head. Her concern is not that she won't get the acclaim again but that her creative voice might be fragmented by the breadth of her explorations in both art and architecture.

"OK," she says, "so your great fear was you're going to be very scattered. But I think at this point in my work the voice is consistent. And that's all you want."

As with many artists driven by wide-ranging passion, her unique view may be difficult to grasp whole until her life's work is seen in its entirety.

Many of her projects have a surface simplicity, shaped by an underlying intellectual and emotional complexity. These forces often emerge through a few words carved in stone. Context combines with content to hit you in a way you did not see coming.

At one site of her current Confluence Project—a series of artworks that honor the explorations of Lewis and Clark—a timeline will describe their journey. But the text that accompanies it will not say: "Then the great explorers passed through the wilds of what is now Idaho." Instead, there will be a list of the names of the Native American tribes who lived in the places the explorers passed: Nez Percé, Chinook, Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, Mandan and others. The list gathers quietly in the mind, then suddenly rises up and breaks over you, like the waves of the Columbia, with a forgotten truth: this land was not unexplored. It was their land.

"It's subtle," says Lin. "You know I hate to preach. But we can give insight."

And that's how the sink—also a part of the Confluence Project—works.

Lin does a lot of research for the foundations of her work and enlists experts to make sure she gets it right. "The last thing I would want to do," she explains, "is something that, from an academic or historic point of view, is not just inaccurate but wrongheaded." Research, however, gets her only so far. Once she is sure she has the background right, she quits gathering.

"At a certain point I sort of stop looking for research," she says. "I just shut it all down, and then this other stuff comes out."

In the case of the sink, it was this: when she thought about the beat-up piece of stainless steel, Lin remembered something about the Chinook tribe that lived in the area. The tribe's creation story was about how a fish or a whale was cut wrong, and the badly cut fish turned into a thunderbird and laid eggs that became Indians.

So Lin will replace the old sink with a chunk of columnar basalt that will have a sink carved into it and an inscription of the creation myth engraved on its surface. This new sink will still be used by fishermen; it will still run with blood and slime.

In describing it, Lin sees it from an individual's point of view—that of a fisherman. "You're not coming here to see what I've done," she says. "You're coming here because you've always come here. You're coming here because you've just caught a king salmon that's two and a half feet long and you're going to cut your fish here. And then, maybe, you're going to start reading this and you’re going to say, 'What is going on here?' And maybe you'll get a hint that this was the sacred grounds of the Chinook tribe." No preaching. Insight.

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