Sculptor, architect and designer Maya Lin catapulted to fame when, as a senior at Yale University, she was chosen to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Bill Moyers talks with her about her upbringing and multifaceted career as well as her most recent project, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
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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 … interiors ….buildings. Her designs blend the aesthetics of east and west into a reverence for nature and the evocation of our human relationship with our environment. Born in Athens, Ohio, Maya Lin was an undergraduate at Yale University in 1981 when she won the international competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The choice hurled her into the storm of controversy over the simplicity of her design and over her own ethnicity. Maya Lin weathered the vicious racist attacks and today her work stands as one of the great public monuments of America.
I met Maya Lin recently after reading her book “Boundaries” and asked her about how she came to design the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
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 — 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 how there was this part of American history that, say — and I know now it’s absolutely covered in textbooks.
But could I offer something out as an information table that would give people brief glimpse of that era the way I had been had 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 we — I can draw you in. I can make you think for 15 minutes, whatever, then I — it’s really about where you go after that.
It starts with 1954 Brown versus Board of Education. You walk around clockwise, it chronicles the history, people’s deaths, legislative events. It was a sort of cause and effect. Sometimes a person’s action led to better legislation, sometimes legislation led 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. ‘Cause I.. I think in the end, 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: The 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.
MAYA LIN: One of my favorite pieces is a piece called Wave Field. It’s on a well, 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.” Now, 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.” (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: Makes me want to lie down there.
MAYA LIN: And kids do —
BILL MOYERS: Really?
MAYA LIN: until the sprinklers come up.
BILL MOYERS: 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.”
MAYA LIN: Yeah. Definitely.
BILL MOYERS: Whether the land is a cemetery or a sports coliseum.
MAYA LIN: Right Or in the middle of nowhere.
BILL MOYERS: Where did this come from, this intrigue about the land?
MAYA LIN: Growing up Southeastern Ohio. It’s very hilly, very rural, beautiful. When I was growing up we were going through a very large campaign-I think 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 in to 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.
BILL MOYERS: 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: 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, you know, I think your personality comes out. There’s no way of really saying, “I.” It’s like, “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 hands to…whether it’s paint, sculpture, is… I mean, others outside the creative might say it’s intuited.
I mean, I think there’s reason to it. But could you extrapolate? Could you actually formulate a mathematical theorem? Absolutely not.
BILL MOYERS: You couldn’t put a pin on a map of an idea?
MAYA LIN: No. You could never do that, nor would you want to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Someone, somewhere I read that an idea comes to you like an egg?
MAYA LIN: Yeah. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: Then the question is, where does it get hatched?
MAYA LIN: I— you know, I’ve never thought about that. (Laughs) It’s sort of the idea of being — I will —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 things. Generally, the first concept, the — 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.
I’ll sit down and I’ll just write what I want to say here, what- what needs to be said, how to do it. And I try not to second-guess it by finding a form and then trying to apply meaning or- or- or function to the form. ‘Cause then, you’re trying to make- if you have the pre-conceived idea of what you think it looks like before you really shape it verbally, then you’re trying to stuff function into a pre-existing form. So, I think what I love doing in a lot of my works is, I like to write about it because you can get a conceptual sketch of what you think you want without any form. And then usually, the form finds me.
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- the when the harbor was being bombed.
BILL MOYERS: That was 1949?
MAYA LIN: 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, you know, 30, 40, you know, 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 you know I think- late 30’s, decided to study ceramics. Goes to University of Washington. Takes up pottery. My father was brought up fairly strictly, you know. He wasn’t allowed to go into art in China. And there he was, finally being able to get to do what he wanted to do in…in America, um … But I think- again the side of the Chinese American experience which is arts-based, scholar-based, education-based is almost the- it’s- it’s a different side. And I think-
BILL MOYERS: To the science and the engineering?
MAYA LIN: Exactly. And I think with it came this unusual psyche that we’re not going to force Ton or Maya to do anything they don’t want to do.
BILL MOYERS: What were your parents’ expectations of you?
MAYA LIN: Education was key. You had to study. But again we were never forced to study. We sort of did it on our own. I think there was always an assumption that our education was what mattered.
BILL MOYERS: You could have done science, you, you were good in science, you were good in math, you- 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 a very academic — this love of academia. I mean, books everywhere, just my mother was a professor, 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 at the clock to cover it up. Drove my dad crazy. I took it for granted. Every day of my life, I was making something. I never thought I would be an artist because in a weird way oh, I was going to I had to get my doctorate, you know. Everyone we go- we’ve got to get our PhDs, I mean that was sort of what- I assumed would happen. And- so it’s almost like, oh, the bookish side was technically supposed to win out, right? But ironically you know, I… I chose architecture in a way because I bought it was this perfect combination of science, math and art. But the weird thing is even though I love building, I’m an artist. I’ve been an artist for from probably the first time I stepped into my dad’s ceramics studio.
BILL MOYERS: Your home was full of ideas. It was full of art and full of living.
MAYA LIN: Yeah, and I know, that’s the other side of the Chinese culture.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MAYA LIN: It was always, “As long as you’re happy.” It wasn’t like, “In order for you to be happy, you should do this, this and this.”
BILL MOYERS: You don’t have to be a scientist. That flies in the face of the cliché about-
MAYA LIN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -about Americans of Chinese decent, because we’re told over and over again, “My mother and father said I had to be a scientist.” “I had to-”
MAYA LIN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -“become a doctor. I had to go to graduate school.”
MAYA LIN: I think my brother and I had a really good giggle about, you know, ten years ago, you know, 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, you know, the realities of life.” But they were really firmly believing that we had to kind of grow here.
And that was what was really important. You had to- you had to pursue something that you really had a passion for
BILL MOYERS: Did you fit in in Athens? Did anybody ever make you feel uncomfortable there?
MAYA LIN: 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: I was really out of place. And didn’t understand why was out of place. I mean, it seems so obvious. But if you’re going through it you don’t have a clue. I was- you know, I was, you know, if I look back I was probably an incredible you know, misfit. I had friends but it was it wasn’t like I belonged. And I didn’t —I didn’t want to date. I didn’t- I just wanted to study. I loved to study. I think I had a really hard time with my identity. And I think.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
MAYA LIN: – 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 like I was try- you know, 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 is and 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- and I remember just politely declining becoming part of- of ASA at the time. And it’s taken me my next 20 years to really understand. And what is ironic is my work is so much inspired as much by I would say an eastern sensibility and that’s coming from my father and probably my mother. My mother was a writer.
BILL MOYERS: So, even though they didn’t set 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. I think. I mean, that’s the only thing- way I can reason it.
BILL MOYERS: Was- was there a moment of awareness, a moment when you had to claim your Chineseness?
MAYA LIN: I think technically not until my late 20s did I really begin to see as my body of work began to grow how my voice is a voice that is very much coming out of a bicultural experience. And- I think it’s my art that kind of guided me to see it. It was never like 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 then I look back and I go, oh, I get it.
BILL MOYERS: And is that eastern sensibility-is that a preference, a taste for simplicity, for the natural, for connecting to the flow of the earth, the harmony- ?
MAYA LIN: 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- I don’t want to make it conscious. If you look at any of the works that I do I’m very much against sort of 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. And-
BILL MOYERS: That’s very Taoist.
MAYA LIN: And 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 and I’m like going, “I —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, like, ever say, “you can’t do this.” I mean, it was a very unusual upbringing.
BILL MOYERS: Would- would you read this? This is from …
MAYA LIN: This is from describing the design of the Vietnam Memorial.
MAYA LIN: “I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth. I imagine taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up and initial violence and pain that in tune 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. It would be an interface between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond.”
BILL MOYERS: Where did that impulse to cut into the earth come from?
MAYA LIN: What I was studying for the three months leading up to the design of the memorial was this funereal class. One of the problems was design a memorial to World War III, one was design like a funeral — like a cemetery cherub or something. And so I had been thinking about, when I was designing a memorial to World War III, 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: 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 the- 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,” 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.
BILL MOYERS: Well, it was not only political, Maya Lin, it was- it was personal. I mean, the most vicious and venomous things were said about you. You were called a gook and you were called—you know making a tribute to Jane Fonda.
MAYA LIN: I had no idea that there was a problem with my race. And I was so naive that I remember at the very first press conference some reporter said, “Don’t you think it’s ironic that the memorial is the Vietnam memorial and you’re of Asian descent?” And I looked at him, and I was like, “Well, that’s irrelevant. You know, this is America. That’s irrelevant.” (LAUGH)
‘Cause I was brought up in a very rarified 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. And I knew I was right and once it was up, they would get it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, how were you so sure of that?
MAYA LIN: ‘Cause I just knew. When you’re so young, what do you have going for you? Total belief in what you’ve done. (LAUGH) There was no doubt. I think as you get older, we— we all begin to have doubts. I think when you’re 20 years old, you… you’re right. What fascinates me is how I was never afraid that it wouldn’t work. Whereas I think now, absolutely, you’d be terrified. You’d be thinking, “Oh my God, what if they’re right and I’m wrong?” You don’t have that when you’re that age.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, but here they were calling — one of your competitors called it an open urinal.
MAYA LIN: (LAUGH) That I didn’t see.
BILL MOYERS: -When your — you didn’t see that? Right winger called it an Orwellian glop.
MAYA LIN: Glop. (LAUGH) I-I love-
BILL MOYERS: You read that. (LAUGH)
MAYA LIN: -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, ’cause I remember that one, actually wrote a letter to apologize.
BILL MOYERS: ‘Course the the- the bigotry and the hatred and the racism did not have the last word. The monument is the last word.
MAYA LIN: Yeah. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: It is. 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 is passing by deeply moved. Why do you think they are 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.
BILL MOYERS: 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.
MAYA LIN: And there’s something very quiet and very intimate.
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t grasp to p- why it was so powerful to be there until I actually read the 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 it’s a world we can’t enter because we can’t pass through those names. And it’s painful. But again, I mean- 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 turn around and 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 April 1, 2015.