Maya Lin has dedicated more than 40 years of her career to creating pieces of artwork that make spectators respond, or, in her words, creating works that make people “stop thinking and just feel.”

From her earliest designs as an imaginative child innovating works of art in her Ohio bedroom, to undertaking numerous large-scale projects, monuments and memory works over the past decades including the communal sculpture Women’s Table at Yale University, the architectural design for the Langston Hughes Library in Tennessee, the installation Ghost Forest in New York City and the 60-foot-tall The Bell Tower in Guangdong, China, the core of Lin’s aesthetic is to produce an emotional interaction between her work and the beholder.

Ghost Forest, Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York, James C. Ewart, 2021
Ghost Forest, Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York, (Maya Lin Studio), 2021 Courtesy Maya Lin Studio, photograph by James C. Ewart

Lin says in “Maya Lin, In Her Own Words,” a video interview produced by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, that there are two ways to relate to creative works: One is intellectual, and the other is her preferred road of psychological discovery.

“It’s like, stop thinking and just feel. It’s almost like you absorb it through the skin. You absorb it much more on a psychological level, and that is the empathy,” Lin says of how she envisions reaction to her artwork. “So what I’m doing is I’m trying to create a very private one-on-one dialogue with the viewer.”

Creating dialogue is something Lin has done well since the launch of her career in 1981 when she was studying architecture at Yale University. The 21-year-old’s winning drawing of a walled monument etched with the names of the fallen was selected in a national competition from 1,421 submitted designs for construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Maya Lin at Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication, Harry Naltchayan
Maya Lin at Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication by Harry Naltchayan, November 13, 1982 The Washington Post

Lin’s striking vision for the memorial met at first with intense criticism from veteran groups and others, including members of Congress, who sought among other things a more traditional style. But the architecture student remained steadfast, holding to the intent of her design.

Robert Doubek, who was the project director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, says he admired Lin’s assertiveness and remembered how the “very impressive” young student stood up for herself in organizational negotiations, and in defense of the integrity of her design. Today the V-shaped memorial is widely celebrated and visited annually by more than five million people, with many treating it as a pilgrimage and leaving behind small offerings of letters, medals and photographs in memory of their lost family and friends.

Study for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Study for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Ying Lin, 1980 Yale University Art Gallery, promised gift of Maya Lin in honor of Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director and Vincent J. Scully, Jr.,

Since that very public career jump-start, the groundbreaking artist has continued to impress fans, fellow artists and even world leaders with her marvels.

In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Lin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her celebrated works of art and architecture addressing human rights, civil rights and environmentalism.

Existing on the boundary

Lin, who prefers to keep most of her inner world private and avoids speaking with media, including Smithsonian magazine, is now the subject of a biographical exhibition dedicated to the designer and sculptor. “One Life: Maya Lin” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery takes a journey into Lin’s evolving career and features an assortment of family photographs and memorabilia from her childhood along with an array of 3D models, sketchbooks, drawings, sculptures and photographs that showcase the methods behind some of the artist’s noteworthy designs.

Dorothy Moss, the show’s organizing curator, says she first met Lin when the museum set out to commission the artist’s portrait to honor her contributions to American history, culture, art and architecture. The 3D miniature sculpture—a color scan of Lin created by capturing millions of photographs around the artist to produce an unconventional print that is both 2D and 3D, designed by artist Karin Sander in 2014—is also on view in exhibition.

Lin’s feelings of existing on the boundaries informs Sander’s portrait. Lin says this perspective of living where opposites meet is narrated in many of her works.

Maya Lin 1:5, Karin Sander, 2014
Maya Lin 1:5 by Karin Sander, 2014 NPG, © 2014 Karin Sander, Courtesy Galerie nächst St. Stephan, Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna. All Rights Reserved

“Maybe it’s because of my Eastern-Western heritage, creating things that are on the boundary; is it science? Is it art? Is it East? Is it West? Is it solid or kind of liquid? Is it a two-dimensional work or is it a three-dimensional work?” says Lin in the museum’s interview.

Moss says she took an interest in sharing Lin’s story after learning about the artist’s family heritage and her childhood growing up in the only Chinese family in her neighborhood. “I started to think, you know, it would be so wonderful to tell her story as the daughter of two Chinese immigrants who was raised in rural Ohio, and then went on to have this really extraordinary career. So that’s kind of the beginning of how I got to know her,” says Moss.

“We were really a tight family unit, and they were also in a way a very typical immigrant family who had left so much behind. Not much was spoken about, ‘Oh, what was their life like in China?’ They never brought it up,” Lin says, but she sensed in her parents a feeling of being “other.”

Maya Lin with mother and brother
Maya Lin with mother and brother by Henry Huan Lin, 1968 Courtesy of Maya Lin

The “One Life” exhibition, part of a series that dates to 2006 and has included in-depth showings of the lives of such luminaries as Dolores Huerta, Babe Ruth, Marian Anderson and Sylvia Plath, is the museum’s first dedicated to an Asian American.

“The way that we lay out the ‘One Life’ exhibitions is roughly chronological so that you get a sense of the childhood, early influence, and then the contributions as they develop over time,” Moss says.

Maya Lin’s artistic roots

In 1959, Lin was born to Henry Huan Lin and Julia Chang Lin. Her father migrated to America in the 1940s and became an accomplished potter after studying ceramics at University of Washington, where he met his wife, Julia. The pair moved to Athens the same year Lin was born. Henry launched a ceramics program at Ohio University and eventually became the dean of the Fine Arts College. One of her father’s untitled handiworks is featured in the exhibition.

Lin shares with the museum that her father’s artistry greatly impacted her. “Every bowl we ate off was something he made by hand: stonewares connected to nature and natural colors and materials. And so I think our everyday lives was imbued with this very clean, modern, but very warm aesthetic, and that very much influenced me.”

The early influences of minimalistic contemporary art are often embedded and weaved into Lin’s compositions and objects. From her 1987 sundial-inspired model of the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama to drawings of grander-scale buildings and public architecture projects like the redesign of the historic 1903 Smith College library building in Northampton, Massachusetts, visitors to the exhibition can experience the deep-rooted expression of Lin’s homegrown techniques.

Lin reminisces on the tools of empowerment that she took from her parents’ influences—from her father, the superpower of belief, and from her mother, the encouragement to pursue her passions. These were, she says, rare gifts to receive as a young woman.

Maya Lin working on Civil Rights Memorial, Adam Stoltman, 1989
Maya Lin working on Civil Rights Memorial, by Adam Stoltman, 1989 Courtesy of Adam Stoltman

“My mother especially gave me this very real strength that having a career was very important to her. She was an author. She loved teaching, and I really feel that kind of empowered me from day one,” Lin explains.

Julia Chang Lin, like her husband, was an artist and educator. So when Lin had the opportunity to remodel her mother’s alma mater library, she felt the architecture assignment was close to home.

“You rarely get to bring it home in architecture,” Lin said after the reopening of the Neilson Library at Smith in 2021.

Photographs in the show depict the multistory library building constructed with a mix of local stone, glass, metal and timber made to serve as a connection to the masonry tradition at the campus.

The Bell Tower, Shantou University, Guangdong, China
The Bell Tower, Shantou University, Guangdong, China, Maya Lin Studio, 2013 Courtesy of Maya Lin Studio

A responsibility to the environment

In addition to drawing inspiration from her artistic family heritage, which dates back to her aunt, the world-renowned poet Lin Huiyin, Maya Lin also credits the time she spent playing outdoors, exploring the topography of southeastern Ohio as a youngster.

Her entire childhood was marked by the amusement she found traversing the ridges, streams, woods and hills behind her Ohio home.

“In art, I get to walk into my head and do whatever I want to do, to free up completely. That goes back to my roots in Athens, Ohio, my roots in nature and my feelings of connections to the environment, that everything is coalesced around being inspired by the natural world and reflecting that beauty out to others,” Lin says in the video interview.

Eleven Minute Line, The Wanås Foundation, Knislinge, Sweden
Eleven Minute Line, The Wanås Foundation, Knislinge, Sweden, Maya Lin Studio, 2004 Courtesy of Maya Lin Studio, photograph by Anders Norsell

Elements of the correlation between nature, wildlife, climate and art are conveyed in many of her models and projects, some of which are presented in the exhibition.

Small silver deer sculptures intricately constructed by Lin in 1976 complement a photograph of Lin working on her 1993 work Groundswell, created in Ohio with 45 tons of recycled broken safety glass that she chose for its color, reminiscent of water, and the 2010 model of her largest earthwork to date, A Fold in the Field, constructed in New Zealand, as well as a photograph of Lin using steel pins to create an interpretation of the Hudson River. Each is a standout example of the type of environmentally conscious works Lin strives to make.

At a young age, Lin says, she grew a great passion for caring for the environment, so she made a promise to herself to create memorials dedicated to Mother Nature.

Now, that promise is coming full bloom in what Moss says is Lin’s final memorial to the environment: a collection of science-based artworks titled What is Missing?

The multisite, multimedia project, focusing on climate change, brings an interactive piece to the exhibition where onlookers can write down memories of special places that were lost due to environmental destruction, and place them on a vinyl map.

“She’s very interested in collecting data, but then also offering information about what we can all do to change our lifestyle and make a difference in stopping the destruction of the environment,” Moss continues. “And like the Vietnam Memorial and the Civil Rights Memorial, where she offers a personal connection through empathy, she’s created this map for us with prompts that include memories.”

Maya Lin receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, Chip Somodevilla
Maya Lin receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla, 2016 Courtesy of Maya Lin Studio

Freida Lee Mock, director of the 1994 award-winning documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, says that Lin’s projects are beautiful and astonishing, and that every one of Lin’s works demonstrates an extreme sensitivity to the setting and the natural environment.

“She’s just amazing, when you think about what she has done, the work she quietly does in her way,” Mock says. “She doesn’t seek attention, but at the same time, people come to her because they know that she will take that opportunity and the gifts, the talent she has and from what I’ve seen, and we all see, that it’ll be remarkable.”

Among those coming to her is former President Barack Obama, who commissioned Lin earlier this year to sculpt the art installation Seeing Through the Universe for the garden of his Chicago presidential library and museum. The work honors his mother, Ann Dunham. Obama said Lin’s installation, a fountain at the center of a serene garden, “would capture who [my mother] was as well as just about anything else”—yet another personal, empathetic and natural work from the acclaimed artist.

The “One Life: Maya Lin” exhibition will be open to the public at the National Portrait Gallery through April 16, 2023.

In Conversation with Maya Lin

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.