For 20 years, the artist and architect Maya Lin had produced a stunning body of work: sculpture, earth works, memorials, buildings. Her designs blended the aesthetics of east and west into a reverence for nature and the evocation of our human relationship with our natural environment. This is an extended version of an interview that Bill did with Maya Lin for Becoming American: Personal Journeys. It was released for home video distribution and never aired on PBS.
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BILL MOYERS: For 20 years now, the artist and architect Maya Lin has produced a stunning body of work–sculpture, earthworks, memorials, buildings. Her designs blend the aesthetics of East and West into a reverence for nature and the evocation of our human relationship with our natural environment. While still an undergraduate at Yale University in 1981, she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, which stands today as one of the great public monuments of America. I met Maya Lin recently after reading her book, Boundaries. My favorite line from your book comes very close to the end, where you write, “I do not think you can find a reason for everything you make.” Talk to me about that.
MAYA LIN: I think that stems from everything you make is being made by every single experience you’ve ever had in your whole life. On top of that, things you were born with, just — I think your personality comes out. There’s no way of really saying, if A, then B, or A plus B equals C in creativity. And I think the true strength of the creative arts is that you allow yourself to think about something. And then how it finds its way in your mind to the surface through your hand, whether it’s paint, sculpture, is — others outside the creative might say it’s intuited.
BILL MOYERS: I think there’s reason to it, but could you extrapolate? Could you actually formulate a mathematical theorem?
MAYA LIN: Absolutely not. You couldn’t put a pin on a map of an idea. No, you could never do that, nor would you want to do that. Whereas I — it’s sort of interesting, because I sort of split my time between art and architecture. And in art, that’s truly the case. I think in architecture, a lot of it is fairly reasoned. There is a lot of problem solving going about. But still, the underlying thread, again, will be something that, I would hope, you can’t quite put your finger on why you exactly did what you did.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever experience an idea physically before you see it? Do you feel it in your body before your eye beholds it?
MAYA LIN: Absolutely. I would say you’d get a sense. I would say I would feel in my fingertips sometimes. I just have a sense for what I would like to be in or see or sense. Sometimes you’re basically imagining an emotion. I want to feel like this.
BILL MOYERS: Let me take just a few of your works. And you describe as simply as you can, the idea and the emotion that led to that. And one of my favorites, of course — the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Tell me about that.
MAYA LIN: I got a phone call from the Southern Poverty Law Center. And they asked me over the phone, would you be interested in designing a civil rights memorial? And I thought, well, isn’t there one already? And he said, no, no no, there isn’t. There’s one for Martin Luther King, but actually, no one has really tackled the civil rights memorial as a piece. Would you be interested? And I had two feelings at the time. One, I really did not want to be typecast as a memorial designer. Two, I could not believe that there hadn’t been a national civil rights memorial. And so I asked them to send me materials. I was stunned at what I began to read. The fact that — You were aware of the civil rights — Because as a child, it wasn’t percolating up to where you were. You’re not very news-conscious at that point. I think the Vietnam War was much more in the main news. I think the rioting was. But I think a lot of facts — let’s think of where children are going to be absorbing their information — in the textbooks. It hadn’t been written into the textbooks, because it was current news.
MAYA LIN: And I actually think, from a child’s point of view, you’re not focusing on the daily news the same way. I was stunned at how there was this part of American history that, say — and I know now it’s absolutely covered in textbooks books, but could I offer something out as an information table that would give people a brief glimpse of that era the way I had been, sort of after having looked at this material, been given a glimpse. And of course, the idea is, you look at this, you’ll want to study it more. Because the one thing about sculptures, the one thing about memorials is I can draw you in. I can make you think for 15 minutes, whatever. Then, it’s really about where you go after that. It starts with 1954 Brown v. Board of Education. You walk around clockwise, it chronicles the history, people’s deaths, legislative events. It was a sort of cause and effect. Sometime a person’s action led to better legislation. Sometimes legislation went to a riot and someone’s death. But what I wanted to stress here is this was a people’s movement, and one person’s actions could really change history. And a lot of my works deal with history and teaching. It’s not so much about death. It’s really about sharing a history so that we don’t forget it, so we can improve upon it.
BILL MOYERS: Where did the water come from, the idea of the water?
MAYA LIN: Water was literally on my first plane ride down to see the site. I came across Martin Luther King’s quote from the book of Amos in his “I Have a Dream” speech — we are not satisfied, we shall not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I knew right then and there, before the plane even landed, the piece was going to be about water. And what bothered me about going down thinking about the past in this one is that it’s not done. It’s not a closed timeline. It’s ongoing. What the Southern Poverty Law Center is struggling with is the ongoing, is the future. So I needed something to connect the past — which would be the history, which became the water table — with the talk about the future, which is the quote. And then the water pulls them together symbolically.
BILL MOYERS: What about the Women’s Table at Yale?
MAYA LIN: The Women’s Table at Yale was even a trickier one because it’s not a memorial. The then-president, Benno Schmidt, called up and said, could you do a sculpture at Yale commemorating women at Yale? What does that mean? I had no idea. That one I sat on for over a year, reading about coeducation at Yale, women at Yale, the history of gender at Yale. And all I remember, having gone there for seven years, is that every little stained glass image, every sculpture, every statue, was a man. And so, as I start reading, I’m thinking, it’s not about when Yale officially went coed, because women had been at Yale since the 1700s technically. But we were never known. There was a daughter of one of the professors who was sitting in on a class. And I think even very, very early on, I think I came across a phrase that actually sent chills down my spine. Women were allowed to sit in on classes, I think, in the 1800s. And they were called “silent listeners.” “Silent listeners.” And I thought that was the most atrocious attitude about women. And then you find out that when Yale officially went coed undergraduate, it went coed with a very tough quota system. Because the idea is we still have to graduate X number of Yale men. But then we’ll let a few other women in. But again it was the quota system. And the quota system is fairly — it was highly contested, and then they stopped that. So it was about numbers. It’s a spiral of numbers, and it counts the number of women enrolled at Yale since when there were none. And by truly counting the number of women at Yale, it also kind of mirrors the growing emergence of women being educated, going on into society.
BILL MOYERS: Another of my favorites is the — Topo. The earthworks sculpture in Charlotte, North Carolina.
MAYA LIN: Topo was my first large-scale earthworks site. It’s a series of what look like topiary that are rolling down a hill. It starts with two balls that are on top and then pushing the earth around. So literally, if you had carved that in wood and dropped a marble down it, the marble would roll until it hits the hole-in-one, which is an amphitheater at the bottom of the hill. So it’s a game. Because again, I would say my works are very site-specific. But it’s not just the physical site. It’s the contextual site. So for that one, it’s a sports coliseum. I wanted to play with a game. So we called it Topo. I worked with a landscape architect in more — Topo meaning — Topo, just playful. Like topo, a little kid’s game. Topography. Topography, of course.
MAYA LIN: And one of my favorite pieces is a piece called Wave Field. It’s on the University of Michigan North Campus. And the building surrounding it teaches aerospace and engineering. So, of course, being site specific, I wanted to connect it to what was going on behind the building. So I started talking to the scientists, talking to the professors. They started giving me books on aerodynamics, fluid dynamics. And one of the books, I came across this repetitive water wave. And I said, that’s the piece. Of course, I presented it to the engineers, and they were going, well, that belongs over in naval engineering. It doesn’t belong over here. Because again, I always now say when I go in to kind of mine for information — because I never know what I’m going to find — that probably nothing I get from you will be used in the artwork. Just can I ask a lot of questions? Otherwise, especially scientists, they tend to get very specific and think you’re going to do it very literally. And I think art is about almost the non-literal connection. It’s that one thing doesn’t correlate directly to the other, or it’s too obvious, it’s too easy. And in a way, if it can be understood and explained not it will not have its own life, I think.
BILL MOYERS: But with all due respect, it isn’t just intuition. You work hard at this. You went out there, you studied, you asked — you reported.
MAYA LIN: I always research something for three months, a year, six months. I think I do it because it’s an incubation period. And it’s also because I come from a family of academics, and I guess I miss school. So this is my way of being a little bit of a student. I never become an expert. And you can tell, the minute I’m done with the project, I forget, almost immediately, facts. And then I go onto the next one. It’s funny, but it’s for that moment that I’m — for the two or three years, I’m sort of immersed in it. But again, say, for the Civil Rights Memorial, I didn’t choose whose name goes on it. I am not a historian. I would never want to assume to be that. So the Southern Poverty Law Center, as I was developing the artwork for a year, they developed the team of historians and experts who would put together the history, choose the events, the people. And then I worked with them on how it was set. Because again, I wanted text that was factual, but wouldn’t be sensationalized.
BILL MOYERS: You were dealing with a lot of deaths. And again, how do you factually put that forth without, again, sensationalizing it? How did you come to think about death so early? Because so much of your work deals with death, and you were so young when you were doing it.
MAYA LIN: I have no idea. I don’t know. I think I had studied in Denmark. I had taken my junior term abroad, and I ended up being given a section of Denmark which included the largest cemetery. And as an architect, you’re out to analyze what’s going on. And I started walking through this cemetery in Norrebro. And unlike in America, cemeteries — whether it’s Pere Lachaise in Paris — they’re used more. They’re habitated more. I think the one in Denmark is actually part park. Because I think land is more scarce. People have been living there for many more hundreds of years, so you use your free, open space in ways. And I think the cemeteries became really a part of the city fabric. They are sort of this — they’re a little more park-like in that sense. And then I started just, out of curiosity, checking up on a few of those as I went through Europe in the summer. And I know it’s very weird, because the journalists had a heyday.
BILL MOYERS: Why, as a 19-year-old, are you fa–
MAYA LIN: I wasn’t fascinated with death. It was just sort of from an architectural point of view. It was interesting. And I think funereal works are very psychologically and emotionally-based. And I think I was very interested in almost the psychological effects architecture has on people. I’m beginning to understand the last line of your book, where you say, “Maybe I’m just asking you to pay closer attention to the land–” Yeah, definitely. “–whether the land is a cemetery or sports coliseum.” Right. Or in the middle of nowhere, just a little brief inclusion that you can’t tell if it’s man made or natural. I love that ambiguity.
BILL MOYERS: Where did this come from, this intrigue about the land?
MAYA LIN: Growing up in southeastern Ohio, it’s very hilly, very rural, beautiful. And when I was growing up, Rachel Carson had put out Silent Spring. Lake Erie was catching on fire. DDT was decimating bird populations. I think at a very, very early age I understood what it means to have a species go extinct. And I think I was horrified that one species could do this to another species. And I think what my work is about is about appreciating and being respectful of nature, which again ties into an inherent love for the natural environment. I will go to sites that are just so beautiful beyond compare and I know that nothing I do can ever be better. And I think whether I’m making art that deals with this — taking a closer look at the land, paying attention to it, appreciating it, being respectful of it — it’s just something I’ve been incredibly concerned with since I was a kid.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about your family background.
MAYA LIN: My mother was born in Shanghai. My father, Fukien and Beijing — he grew up in both places. And they immigrated separately to the states. They both ostensibly came out because of the communist takeover. My mother came out on a scholarship to go to Smith. She got smuggled out on a junk boat in Shanghai harbor when the communists — when the harbor was being bombed. That was 1949. That would have been ’49. Imagine, you get sent out with, I think, $50 sewn in to the neck of her coat with a suitcase, never to see your family ever again. Never to see your country until 30, 40, 50 — yeah, 40 years later. I don’t know how they both did it. My father had a career in China. He was an academic administrator. And he came out mid-career, decided that he would never get a comparable position in America because he was Chinese. So at the age — I think late 30s, decided to study ceramics. Goes to University of Washington, takes up pottery, and did quite well.
BILL MOYERS: Your father left, I believe in 1948. Why did he leave China?
MAYA LIN: Politically, I think, because he was the eldest son of a family with wealth, that what could have happened to him had he stayed would — they could imprison you, execute you, take over the family holdings. My mother’s side of the family was protected because they wanted my grandfather to keep practicing. They needed doctors. He was protected. But there was redoctrination and retraining of, I guess — both my uncles were sent away to reeducation camps. On my father’s side, because I think it was more political, and there would have been a chance, I think, that he would have been endangered.
BILL MOYERS: And your parents didn’t talk to you about all this?
MAYA LIN: No. The one funny thing about our background is my mother and father — and it’s this cute little chicken and egg thing — they never told us much about their past. My mother said, well, you never asked, you never seemed interested. So they weren’t going to force it on us. But I also think that, as a child, you don’t know to ask, because if you didn’t know it existed, you just know what’s in front of you. And so I think it’s a bit of both, where I think they were definitely wanting us to assimilate. I think they were dealing with having left a past, and it was probably painful for them to talk about.
BILL MOYERS: Must be a bit traumatic.
MAYA LIN: Yeah, and so between the two, and then my brother and I being the only Asian — Chinese Americans — in a small Midwestern community–all I wanted to do was fit in. And I remember there was a classmate when we got to high school, who was, I think — his parents were from Eastern Europe and he wasn’t allowed to speak English at home. He had to speak the mother tongue at home. And I always felt sorry for him. And to this day, I might regret that I don’t speak Chinese, but at the same time — because I think there are two different ways. And I think now in generations, you learn both, it’s OK. I think it was probably very painful for my parents to, without really deciding upon it, they wanted us to fit in. They didn’t have you learn Chinese. No. Again, very unusual, I think, to a Chinese-American family. My father was brought up fairly strictly. Calligraphy lessons in the morning for an hour and a half, music lessons here, upper-crust upbringing. And I think he was a bit of a rebel. He wasn’t allowed to go into art in China.
BILL MOYERS: Why did he like pottery so much?
MAYA LIN: Because his father had an amazing collection of Chinese ceramics and porcelain, so he had an appreciation for it. And there he was, finally being able to get to do what he wanted to do in America. And I think with it came this unusual psyche that we’re not going to force Tan or Maya to do anything they don’t want to do. Your home was full of ideas. It was full of art, full of living. And I think that’s the other side of the Chinese culture.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MAYA LIN: In China, you have the sort of intellectual scholar. And it was very highly respected and revered. And I think you see — and the stories I know of are friends of mine who basically wanted to go into the arts, and their parents were just worried, terrified. Because how are you going to —
BILL MOYERS: How are you going to make a living?
MAYA LIN: How are you going to make a living? And I think as an immigrant, coming over, what do you want your kids to do? You want them to be able to make a living. You’re there to protect them. And my parents were just definitely — I think academia is its own little protective bubble.
BILL MOYERS: Did you fit in in Athens? Did anybody ever make you feel uncomfortable there?
MAYA LIN: In hindsight, I didn’t realize what it was. I was so miserable by the time I got to high school. And so I had pretty much retreated into my own world.
BILL MOYERS:Miserable because?
MAYA LIN: Didn’t know, I was really out of place and didn’t understand why I was out of place. It seems so obvious, but if you’re going through it, you don’t have a clue. I think I had a really hard time with my identity.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MAYA LIN: I really was in denial about being Chinese American. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be American. And I think for the first 20 years of my life, I really — I remember when I was at Yale, you were recruited by the Asian American Society, ASA. And I was so uncomfortable. I was foreign in that group. I was the only — if you think about it, I was the only Chinese American growing up. So I looked out at everyone, and everyone is white. So what would make me more uncomfortable with–so it was this horrible —
BILL MOYERS: What would make you more uncomfortable?
MAYA LIN: Hanging out with a group of Chinese Americans. And I knew that this was bad. But at the same time —
BILL MOYERS: You mean feeling bad.
MAYA LIN: Feeling bad, like what is wrong with you? You’re Chinese American. And I remember just politely declining becoming part of ASA at the time. And it’s taken me my next 20 years to really understand.
BILL MOYERS: Was there a moment of awareness? A moment when you had to claim your Chineseness?
MAYA LIN: No. I think I would say mid 20s onward, it’s been this increasing awareness of my heritage. That I think I did fight it. I fought it very hard, I think, in my late teenage years and 20s. And I think it’s my art that kind of guided me to see it. It was never an intellectual like — oh, my work is going to be about my Asian American identity. It was more like, I just make work. This is what I do. And I look back and I go, oh I get it. And my art has really helped me understand the two sides of me. I think that has sort of led me to a point where I’m actually — I have two children, and I am really — finally. My mother looks and teases me, like it’s about time. And I think, but you never put — really, I’m dying to get her — she’s beginning to write about our family history.
BILL MOYERS: You want your two children to know all the way back to Shanghai?
MAYA LIN: I want my two children to know. And I know that I don’t know it, and it’s embarrassing. And I want to finally know it. And I know that — my guess is the first half of my life I spent kind of finding a little bit. And now I can kind of — I think you want to feel comfortable with where you are. And then you can kind of study the both sides. And I’m very, very, very much wanting to know my past. There’s a story of something that happened when you were a student in your junior year abroad in Denmark. Yeah. now it was — I had been sort of blessed that racism had never really entered into my realm. And I get to Denmark, and ironically, I think, they thought I was a Greenlander at times, an Eskimo, because if I get a suntan, I kind of change through different races. Some people think I’m American Indian, others think — when I’m in Mexico, I blend. Anyway, so two things happened. When they thought I was Chinese, they would say things like, oh, so does your parent own a laundry or a restaurant? And I didn’t quite know if they were joking or not. And they weren’t joking and they were trying to be very kind, but the stereotypes were pretty hellacious. And then what happened is I — the sun finally showed up, and in Scandinavia I tan pretty easily. I remember getting on a bus once and sitting down, and no one would sit anywhere near me. And there was — for the first time in my life I felt, oh, now I know what it’s like. Because in a funny way —
BILL MOYERS: and I know that by this time in your life you’ve seen enough racism. You get spat on in Boston.
MAYA LIN: I had a horrible incidence.
BILL MOYERS: In Boston?
MAYA LIN: Yeah, once where —
BILL MOYERS: When you were in school?
MAYA LIN: Yeah, I was in school. And I was taking the subway in, and I remember these three working class guys were up on the top of the pass over. And they were trying to spit on me. And they were saying incredibly racist things, and intensely painful. And what’s strange is you look at black Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Chinese Americans, and New York is such a mixture, and at times you wonder — sometimes we’re acceptable. We blend in. We’re not spat on. Do other races have a harder time? And yes, the answer is horrible at times. And you can really relate. And you feel sometimes the funny thing about being Asian American is if you’re black American, you’re American. Whereas, I will always, inevitably, get into a cab sometime and the cabdriver will turn around and say, where are you from? I’ll say, Ohio. And they’ll say, no, no, where are you really from? And there could be a German, white German whose English is OK. He could have just traveled here yesterday, and they will assume he’s American. I was born and raised here. And no matter what, looking the way I look, you will always get that question. And sometimes at a polite cocktail party. Where are from? Where are you really from? And that leaves you in a weird, in between world. You’re both.
BILL MOYERS: Is that why you call your book Boundaries?
MAYA LIN: It just occurred to me. I think there’s a running liner text on the front that I came up with the whole sentence. I feel exist on the boundaries, somewhere between art and architecture, East and West. So everyone thinks boundaries, and they think of the container. I’m thinking of the actual line between things. Because it’s not about being divisive, it’s about being truly ambivalent. You’re in between. You’re in the place neither here nor there. And nobody thinks of that as a physicality. And so part of the thing I like to do is get people to rethink their idea of what things are. And imagine, you’re always thinking there’s one and then the other. And I’m going, oh, what’s that place right–that space, is a space right between that? What is that line? Of course, it doesn’t exist. But if you try to make a line into a spatial conceit — I’m asking people to rethink what even the term is. But I think it’s all about feeling like you’re indifferent worlds.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re still living between boundaries.
MAYA LIN: Yeah, between worlds, I think. It’s a funny place to be.
BILL MOYERS: But it’s also who you are.
MAYA LIN: Who I am, that makeup comes out in the work. My work is so much inspired as much by, I would say, an Eastern sensibility. And that’s coming from my father. Everything we lived with at home — he made most of the pots we ate off of. He made a lot of the furniture. He was a master craftsman. The joinery, the detailing, it was very clean. It was modern, so there’s the ’50s modernism. But it was also, I think, in its simplicity, in the shapes, in the colors — he was brought up in China, so that whole aesthetic. And I went to his childhood home in Fukien. And it was very Japanese-based. And I was sort of stunned, because I’ve always felt my aesthetic is almost at times closer to, say, the Japanese sensibility than the Chinese sensibility. Because at a certain point, say, the temple architecture in China — and I think this is more of the Baroque period — is very flourished. And I prefer this very minimal, simple look. And I just felt like, well, OK, so I’ve got this Eastern aesthetic, but it looks like it’s coming more out of Japan.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that?
MAYA LIN: I was like, my mouth, my jaw was open as I walked through my father’s house, the childhood home that he was brought up in, because it was laid out like a very traditional vernacular Japanese-, and I found out, Chinese-style house. It was a mix. Apparently, my grandmother, his mother, loved Japanese architecture. So you could say that whatever he brought with him and was making for us is how I began to see the world. And is that Eastern sensibility, is that a preference of taste for simplicity, for the natural, for connecting to the flow of the earth, the harmony of — I think so, and yet, the funny thing is I’ve never read about Taoist thought. I’ve never read about Zen. Again, it’s always like, I don’t want to make it conscious. It’s sort of like, I’m much more about sort of intuiting it, in that sense. I think there are two things going on. One, there’s the physicality of it. And yes, the simplicity, even down to, say, in a Japanese house. It’s a very simple form. And you’re walking through the landscape. It’s framing your view of the landscape at every single stance. There’s this connection, so you’re not treating the building as it’s own castle. Think about Western European tradition. It’s almost the fortress against nature. If you look at, say, a Japanese house, if you walk through the house, you are being given absolute glimpses of their nature. The only irony to this is it was a very controlled attitude about nature. We can improve upon nature.
BILL MOYERS: I see that in many of the houses you’ve designed here. There’s a very strong Japanese relationship, and the control of the environment.
MAYA LIN: Right, except the thing is, it’s also — to me, where I’m trying to question is the interface between inside and outside. I think it’s about, don’t create a building that shuts itself down. I want to building that almost is opening up, so you can’t tell where the house ends, in a way and where — it’s almost like I want to connect you back to the landscape. And actually, to me, it’s evolving into a pure landscape. It’s like if I — I’m working on a house right now that literally is going to be this very simple sliver of a wood box, gently stepped into the landscape. And nothing else will be touched. The funny thing is, I think the one thing that my parents did give me as far as an Eastern thought, and it’s the — again, never trained — but if you look at any of the works that I do very much against a didactic teaching method, where you come in and I tell you exactly what you should be getting out of this piece. Everything that I do will be about, I will put this out here and it’s up to you to come to your own conclusions.
BILL MOYERS: That’s very Taoist.
MAYA LIN: That’s so Taoist, never trained. And I think what’s so funny is I got into so much trouble. And I think the main flack with the Vietnam Memorial came after the Washington Post. Great headline — “An Asian Memorial for an Asian War.” It was written by a journalist who happened to really know Taoism. And he was going crazy. Because he was looking at this work and going, it is so Taoist. Talking to me, am I going, I don’t know anything about that. But of course, it’s all there. Because my parents, the way we lived — think about it. They never told us what to do. They never tried to ever say, you can’t do this. It was a very unusual upbringing.
BILL MOYERS: So even though they didn’t sit you down and talk about your Chinese heritage or Asian heritage, they lived their heritage in such a way that it was naturally imparted?
MAYA LIN: Absolutely. The fact that my brother’s a poet. My mother’s a writer. My dad’s an artist. I’m in art and architecture. It’s sort of funny, because — I think my brother and I had a really good giggle about 10 years ago. A poet and a sculptor — technically not great professions in which to feed yourself. And we were joking, gee, maybe Mom and Dad should have made us worry about the realities of life. But they were really firmly believing that we had to grow here. And that was what was really important. You had to had to pursue something that you really had a passion for, that you really, really loved. And I do believe my mother, especially, was very suspect of material things. And didn’t — the joke in our family is, I think if we had gone into law, they would have felt — or business — they might have felt less of us, like well, if you’re just going for the money. That would have been considered sort of selling out. So that’s unusual. I don’t know. Because it is that Asian? I don’t know. I know that they were sort of different.
BILL MOYERS: There’s this other side, which I think is the academic scholar side. You were good in science, you were good in math. I happen to know you were first in your class. You could have become anything. You chose to be an artist.
MAYA LIN: The funny thing is there were two sides growing up. There was the very academic. You have this love of academia. My parents had it, my mother more than my father. My mother was — books everywhere. She’s a professor, an English professor, Asian lit professor. And I think that was what we assumed — we’re going to study, study, study. Meanwhile, my brother and I go into my dad’s ceramic studio every day after school, throwing clay at the clock to cover it up. It drove my dad crazy. I took it for granted. Every day of my life, I was making something. And lot of times — another adage in art is, you have to kind of — you’re a child, and then you become an adult, and that you’re always trying to regain that pure, sort of almost empathetic response that you have when you’re a child. It doesn’t come with a lot of baggage. You’re not worried about, oh, what are you thinking here, here, here. You just respond in certain ways. And I think sometimes, can you think like a child? And we’re always trying to regain that. But I think I, in a way, sometimes think my work, I almost make things imagining a child will experience them. There are different levels of experiencing pieces. And I think one thing very valuable to me is the unlearned response. I talk about it a little. The unlearned response. The unlearned, or the — it’s sort of like as you get older and you have more experiences, you’re going to see something differently. But I still am as fascinated by that eight-year-old. How are they going to react to this?
BILL MOYERS: Somewhere I read that an idea comes to like an egg. Then the question is, where does it get hatched?
MAYA LIN: You know, I’ve never thought about that. It’s sort of the idea of being — I can work on a project for three years, but you’ll never see me working on it. I’ll be designing other things, doing other this. Generally, the first concept, the initial idea, I can just wake up one morning. After having not worked on it for a year, get up, do a sketch, make a model. And I know that’s what it is. Tell me about how writing fits into the hatching of the idea. I actually think I try to understand the why of a project before it’s a what. And this might be more pertinent to some of the projects where they’re the memorials. I think memorials are sort of a hybrid between art and architecture. Because they have a function, but their function isn’t like a physical function, like a house is to shelter you. It’s very conceptual, symbolic function. So then you have to say, what is it? What should that be? What do I want to do here? What would I like to accomplish? What are the goals? And I tend to almost sketch an idea sometimes with text. I’ll write. I’ll sit down and I’ll just write what I think I want, what I want to say here. What needs to be said, how to do it. I find it the most difficult thing for me to do, but when I’m done I am unbelievably just at peace. I would say sometimes if you think about art as being able to share your thoughts with another, it’s totally pure.
BILL MOYERS: Writing?
MAYA LIN: Writing, in a way.
BILL MOYERS: Is the purest of the arts?
MAYA LIN: Is one of the purest. Not to say that sculpture isn’t — but the medium has no weight. The medium is a word on a page. Because everything else sort of translates through medium. This one is just my thoughts to yours. As whether it’s the purest of the arts, I don’t think I’d say it that way. But it’s so direct. And it’s also so integral to how I make things. And I think I was kind of — my head has always been in two different worlds. And I’ve always existed with sort of, again, that left side, right side. And most people assume artists gravitate towards art because they don’t want the other side or whatever. I actually had to kill off the analytic, the kind of factual. I mean, the irony is, I remember nothing now. What did I use to do in high school and junior high? Memorize by rote, huge passages. You almost had to suppress that to allow the artistic side to have its free reign. There’s a battle going on, actually.
BILL MOYERS: If someone asked me now, what is Taoism, I would say it’s Maya Lin. You’re the embodiment of this duality.
MAYA LIN: And I’ve never read anything.
BILL MOYERS: And you’ve never read it. But it’s this harmony of the opposites.
MAYA LIN: Yeah, the yin yang.
BILL MOYERS: I brought this from Boundaries. Would you read this? Because it is wonderful writing. It’s so beautiful. And tell me about it. This is from?
MAYA LIN: This is from describing the design of the Vietnam Memorial. “I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth. I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure, flat surface. There was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember.”
BILL MOYERS: Where did that impulse to cut into the earth come from?
MAYA LIN: My process is that I’ll study something. And what I was studying for the three months leading up to the design of the memorial was this funereal architecture, or the architecture in relation to mortality. What is the nature of a memorial? And I studied World War I memorials. I went back to Trajan’s Column. So again, research. Studied something for a couple months, put it all away, went to visit the site. No thinking. Just had an impulse.
BILL MOYERS: It’s the egg. You just cut open the earth open it up. You didn’t think metaphorically about how the Vietnam War had cut a great gash in the psyche of this country?
MAYA LIN: No. And see, I’m so naive that way, that especially when — because I was like, oh yeah, it’s like cutting open the earth and opening it up. And everyone said, scar? And the minute you say scar in the media, it’s like, we don’t want a scar.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I agree. No one would want —
MAYA LIN: I didn’t say scar. I just said it’s a process piece. But I mean, the thing is loaded. So many people read into it. They read into it. The other thing they read into is that it’s a V for victory. And I kept going, well, if you tried to do that, as big as the memorial, you’d break your fingers. It’s really not that. And the third one was they read into the image, the color black, as being, again, a very negative statement. And then it took Colonel Price, who happens to be African American, getting up in front of one of the subcommittee hearings and going, I see nothing wrong with the color black. And then that quelled it politically, but it didn’t quell it in the fracas that was happening outside of the sub — you had to get the process. To get the memorial built, you had to go through five committees two or three times. And normally, what happens in Washington is the architecture gets chewed up in the committees. This time around, it was amazing. Everyone within the committees was very, very protective of the piece and of me. And what happened outside was this thing turned into this huge political thing.
BILL MOYERS: Well it was not only political, Maya Lin, it was personal. The most vicious and venomous things were said about you. You were called a gook. You were called — making a tribute to Jane Fonda. Henry Hyde, Congressman Hyde, intervened with the White House to try to get the president to stop the project. There were personal attacks on you. How did you cope with those? You were so young.
MAYA LIN: Well, because when you’re so young, what do you have going for you? Total belief in what you’ve done. There was no doubt. I think as you get older, we all begin to have doubts. I think when you’re 20 years old, you’re right. And I knew I was right, and once it was up, they would get it. How were you so sure of that? Because I just knew. If we all think back to when we’re that young, that’s one of the things we really have going for us.
BILL MOYERS: You’re sure of your ideals. You’re sure of your beliefs.
MAYA LIN: I knew that would help people. And I think back, and there is no way if I won that competition today, I don’t think I could have weathered the storm. Back then, there was nothing to weather. I totally understood that people would think it was all — if I was a Vietnam veteran and someone said, you’re getting a ditch, a black ditch. I think the quote was “a black ditch of shame and sorrow.” If that’s what I read, I wouldn’t want it either. I could understand. I could understand people not getting what it would be. I had huge debates with the architect of record that was selected to work with me to realize it. Because he could not understand why I didn’t want to create massive stone walls. I, in the end, wanted this stone surface to get so thin, it was paper thin. Now from an architect’s point of view, that’s a veneer. That’s cheap. This is a memorial. We should make this massive and big. But think about the difference. If you put something with weight, then you’ve actually inserted an object. You’ve dropped a physical thing into the earth. All I wanted to do was cut the earth and polish the earth’s edge. I didn’t want weight. Now, I didn’t know that at the time, in a way. I couldn’t explain it. But I just kept going, thinner, thinner. If you look at the top, if you go up on top, you’ll see it was actually a very tricky detail, because you wanted the grass to literally grow right up to the stone. So the top of the memorial is only two inches thick. Then it chamfers down and drops. And everyone was shocked at the size of the text. And they argued, you can’t do that. Because a text in public spaces should be large. Well, and again, I equate it to when you read a billboard, yes, you read it en masse. But it’s more of a personal connection if you read a book because you’re just so connected to it. So can you put a book out in the public realm? Can we make it that personal and still be in a very large public space? And I think that intimacy, which is so important, I think, to any of the work that I do — and people don’t think of that as — there’s more of bravado and a largesse. And I always joke that I don’t make monuments. I make anti-monuments.
BILL MOYERS: One of your competitors called it an open urinal.
MAYA LIN: That I didn’t see.
BILL MOYERS: You didn’t see that?
MAYA LIN: No.
BILL MOYERS: Right-wingers called it an Orwellian glop.
MAYA LIN: Glop. I love that one. I think that critic, actually–what I thought was fascinating is, after it was built, the letters I got from, I think the critic of Orwellian glop — because I remember that one — actually wrote a letter to apologize. Obviously, it was very traumatic and upsetting, but personally, I didn’t take it personally. I felt everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And I actually think veterans, Vietnam veterans reading in the paper that this is an Asian memorial for an Asian war — it wasn’t even about racism. It was like, this is hard for them to swallow. The Vietnam Veterans Fund buffered me. I had no idea that there was a problem with my race. And I was so naive that I remember the very first press conference, some reporter said, don’t you think it’s ironic that the memorial’s the Vietnam Memorial and you’re of Asian descent? And I looked at him, and I was like, well, that’s irrelevant. This is America. That’s irrelevant. Because I was brought up in a very rarefied world, where what mattered was what you thought. It’s academia. It’s what you’re thinking. And your gender didn’t matter, your age didn’t matter, your race didn’t matter. So I actually was so happily naive, I didn’t realize that people would have a problem.
BILL MOYERS: Of course, the bigotry and the hatred and the racism did not have the last word. The monument is last word. And people who visit it are visibly moved. I go there many times, and I never go there without being moved myself, and without seeing everyone who’s passing by deeply moved. Why do you think they’re so moved by it?
MAYA LIN: I think because it’s tapping into some very important — I would say ancient — needs. I think fundamentally, when I was designing it, I thought about the nature of death and acknowledging death. And I think in many, many cultures, dying and the acknowledgement of the death is so much a part of the living. It’s a ritual. And there are big rituals around it. I think America is a very young country. And we’re afraid of growing old, because we’re really young. As a country, we’re afraid of dying. So what do we do? We pretend it doesn’t exist. We do not make huge emotional acknowledgements of that type of a pain. We tend to try to forget about it, which is probably the worst thing you can do. So I think the piece, in being kind of primal, it’s tapping into something that is fundamentally very human. It’s extraordinary to watch people touch the names. It’s as if something were passing back and forth between the name and the touch. And there’s something very quiet and very intimate.
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t grasp why it was so powerful to be there until I actually read this sentence from your essay where you say, looking at that black marble, “It would be an interface between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond.”
MAYA LIN: Right. And that’s a world we can’t enter, because we can’t pass through those names. And it’s painful. But again — and I had not known anyone who had died. I just had a feeling that it’s got to be the most painful experience that you will ever go through. But what you have is the memory. And you have to accept it. And then you have to turnaround walk back into the light. But if you don’t accept it, you’ll never get over it.
BILL MOYERS: Maya Lin, thank you very much.
MAYA LIN: Oh, you’re welcome.
This transcript was entered on June 25, 2015.