Maya Lin

      Maya Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, to parents who encouraged her to explore the arts. Maya’s father was an artist who made ceramic sculptures; her mother was a professor of literature at Ohio State University. Trying out various artistic endeavors came naturally to Maya.
     
When she was in grade school and high school, Maya was a serious student who spent lots of time alone, reading and hiking. She also experimented with different artistic forms, including silver smithing and bronze casting.
     
After graduating from high school, Maya Lin went to Yale University, where she studied architecture.
     
While a senior at Yale, Maya entered a national competition to create a memorial for veterans of the Vietnam War. The war, which finally ended in 1975 after more than a decade of conflict, had been very unpopular. Many people had protested the United States government’s participation in it, and those who were soldiers often felt angered and betrayed by the unpopularity back home of the war they were fighting. It wasn’t a happy time for the United States because opinions about the country’s actions were so divided.
     
After the war, it took a long time for the bad feelings to heal. Veterans of the war wanted to create a monument to those who had died in combat and established a competition to see who would create it. The monument, the veterans felt, would be a way to help bring the country back together.
     
In entering the competition, Maya was competing with some of the best known and most highly regarded architects and sculptors in the country. Remarkably, her design was chosen from among 1,420 entries as the winner of the competition. Her idea consisted of a black granite wall inscribed with the names of the nearly 58,000 American servicemen and women who died fighting the Vietnam War.
     
The monument has become one of the most visited sights in Washington, D.C., and has earned a reputation as a place of great emotion and healing. But at the time of her selection as the winner of the design competition, some veterans and their families expressed dissatisfaction with her ideas. They felt the design’s simplicity and starkness recalled the controversy over the war rather than the heroism of those who fought it. Protesters petitioned for another design — they wanted a more traditional memorial — and eventually a bronze sculpture of three servicemen with an American flag by sculptor Frederick Hart was placed 120 feet away from Maya Lin’s wall.
     
Maya Lin was only 21 years old when she won the competition to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After she graduated with honors from Yale in 1981, she coordinated the construction of the monument. But the negative publicity surrounding her design — much of which was directed at her as well as at the monument — had taken its toll. She dropped out of graduate school and went to work at an architectural firm, where she would draw less attention.
     
Eventually, though, she returned to school and received a master’s degree in architecture. She began working on both sculpture and architecture and went on to create several other outstanding public memorials and works of art.


Adapted, with permission, from “Asian American Biography, Vol. 1” by Helen Zia and Susan B. Gall (Gale?), eds. (New York: UXL/Gale Research Inc.), 1995, pages 180-183.

 

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