Q&A with Maya Lin

The world-renowned artist and designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial discusses inspiration and her new exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art.

Maya Lin with Rollins students. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Maya Lin with Rollins students. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

Parking spaces and seats were at a premium at Thursday evening’s opening of “Maya Lin: A History of Water” at the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA). But then this wasn’t just any opening. A collaboration between OMA and the Rollins Winter Park Institute made possible the acclaimed artist’s appearance and talk at what museum Director Glen Gentele called “the most important exhibit to be presented in the state of Florida this year.”

Though she may be more widely known for her sculptural masterpieces, the Vietnam Veterans and Civil Rights memorials, Lin is also the creative mastermind behind everything from smaller-scale projects, such as detailed drawings of complete river systems that she renders in recycled silver and metal pins, to larger-scale projects, such as the transformation of a brownfield pit into a 240,000-square-foot work of earth art. “I really love looking at the world through a technological lens,” Lin says, “and using scientific data to get you to look at the world we live in slightly differently.”

The project that consumes a good deal of Lin’s time these days is the “fifth and last of the memorials,” a global undertaking to reconnect humans with nature. “What Is Missing?” is arguably the most profound expression of Lin as an environmentalist grappling with the shifting biodiversity of the planet and humans’ impact on it. She poses the vital question, “How can we protect it if we don’t even know it’s going?”

Before her opening-night lecture, Lin answered some questions about her approach to her work and the acclaim she has received since winning the design competition for the Vietnam memorial nearly 34 years ago at the age of 21.

Lin discusses her work with art students and faculty. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Lin discusses her work with art students and faculty. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

Dixie Tate: You’ve said before that part of you is an artist, and the other part builds architecture. Are the two that easily separated?

Maya Lin: Yes and no. I do think basically art is more what I am interested in exploring. Whereas architecture is a functional art and I am creating works that are specifically for use, making “useful art” would take away from the poetry of art. Imagine a walkway cutting through the wave fields.

DT: Your list of awards and honors is long and impressive. Included among them are the National Medal of Arts, awarded in 2009, and, just this month, the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts. What does this recognition mean to you?

Lin discusses being a female artist with Associate Professor of Art History Kim Dennis. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Lin discusses being a female artist with Associate Professor of Art History Kim Dennis. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

ML: It has shifted over time. I think at the start, I was concerned it was too much about my first work [the Vietnam Veterans Memorial]. But to have the recognition now—and, frankly, from the past two decades it has been about recognition for a body of work—that I am very grateful for. Not that I am not very proud of my first work, but as an artist, I was focused on very much developing my voice throughout these years, and to be recognized for the entirety of the work means a great deal to me.

DT: It is human nature to wonder how the prolific and high-profile creative individuals among us do what they do. What is a day in the life of Maya Lin like? How do you recharge your creative batteries?

ML: I am pretty full on when I am awake—supercharged and just really energized by my work. I am led by a crazy curiosity and probably a slightly insane ability to juggle and balance all my work. But I am a really heavy sleeper; it’s probably how I recharge every night.

DT: What—or who—inspires and/or informs your work?

ML: Nature. My parents’ belief we should all give back to the world, and that their commitment to learning means I also am dedicated to works that are, I think, educational in nature in some respect.

DT: How do you go about choosing your materials for particular projects—recycled silver for rivers like in Silver Thames, for example?

ML: When Europeans first came to the new world, there were so many fish in the rivers and streams. The phrase “running silver” was coined to describe the silvery reflection off the fishes’ backs. It’s partly that description and partly the way water reflects light that led to the recycled silver. For other material, it’s always the natural material and its natural color. The outdoor works—earth, grass, stone. The exhibitions—wood, glass, metal pins. The pins I selected because they evoke dispersion or ambiguity as to where the water’s edge ends.

Lin discusses “Silver River - Yangtze,” part of her river series created with recycled silver, at the Orlando Museum of Art. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) Lin discusses “Silver River - Yangtze,” part of her river series created with recycled silver, at the Orlando Museum of Art. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

DT: What is your favorite part of the artistic process? Do you have a favorite medium?

ML: All parts, from thinking about something—sometimes years in advance—to I love sketching on airplanes, looking down at the landscape, to the figuring out of each work. I have made things since I was a child. There is nothing as fun and as challenging.

DT: Which of your projects has been the most challenging? The most enjoyable? Is there a piece you are most proud of?

ML: I have quite a few works that have been real breakthroughs for me—the wavefield series, groundswell, systematic landscapes—that have helped me discover my aesthetic voice in my artworks. I think the most challenging is “What Is Missing?”, which is so complex and developing in full view, yet iteratively. So I am in the midst of figuring out what it is, yet each successive iteration I make public.

It is far easier to develop the work in its entirety and then release it. But I am committed to exploring this iterative development process for “What Is Missing?” It also is one topic I am so personally concerned about. I think the other memorials I could look at the subject matter much more from a distance, as an outside observer. So it is very hard to see through the emotional concern I personally have about what we are doing to the environment.

DT: Last year you received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which is awarded to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” You said that the $300,000 prize will help “move forward” work on “What Is Missing,” an ongoing multi-media, multi-site project designed to increase awareness about the loss of biodiversity and natural habitat. Can you share a little more about “What is Missing?” —which you have said is a project “I will be donating to the rest of my life.”

ML: Since I set up a not-for profit foundation, I donate any and all of my time to “What Is Missing?” So this prize helps me as an artist continue all my work. With about 50 percent of my time devoted to a completely volunteer project, it helps me immensely to keep my studio running. I will be asking people to participate in its making. “What Is Missing?” is like water: It will flow wherever it is invited in.

To participate in the “global online living memorial,” visit whatismissing.net. You can contribute a memory to the map or just explore the wealth of information that has already found a home on the site. “What Is Missing?” is also part of the OMA exhibit, which runs through May 10.