The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on November 3, 1996 · Page 44
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 44

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Salina, Kansas
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Sunday, November 3, 1996
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Page 44
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MAYA LIN: Making art that heals Since the Vietnam memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day 1982, Maya Lin has let her work speak for itself. Now, in a rare interview, she sheds light on the impact of her larger-than-life art. By Jim Sexton M Inset; Lin, then 23, at the opening ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial aya Lin has just flown back from visiting her mother in Ohio, and arrives in her Manhattan studio a few minutes late and out of breath. "I'm not awake yet," she announces, and promptly sets about making tea. Lin wears no makeup and looks great. Today she's dressed casually in brown work boots and black jeans. She's ready to dive into a new project. Lin is best known as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. She created both memorials — known for their stunning power to evoke deep emotion — at a young age, but has refused to be stereotyped as a memorial-maker. At 37, Lin has built houses, sculpted the earth and created the kind of large-scale, powerful art that marks her as one of the most important public artists of the century, with 14 major works. Yet Lin avoids celebrity as if it were a bad rash. "I'm not in entertainment," she says, frowning. "My name is less known than the works I do, which I'm happy for. I hope I don't get recognized much." That shouldn't be a problem. With no agent or publicity machine, she's hard to find. (The backers of the Civil Rights Memorial called all the Lins in the New York telephone book to find her; the number is now unlisted.) She won't talk about her personal life — although her relationship with her boyfriend seems solid — and continues to live in a run-down building in Chinatown. Indeed, if she wanted to, Lin could easily become a highly paid celebrity designer with a bevy of staffers. Instead, she works with one assistant in a fifth-floor walk-up loft that is also her apartment. She takes on only projects that fire her imagination, and professes not to care about a legacy. Even with those requirements, Lin || has enough work on her platter to last for two years. Lin was a student at Yale when she designed the Viet- Lin'S favorite Spot at the W/all: "I go to the top of the wall, right at the apex, where the grass is. Lie down there and you can sight perfectly to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, because that's how we did it. If you put your eye right to the wall on top, you can see the Washington reflected in half and the Lincoln reflected in the other half. I just love it from up there; it's really about connecting (the Vietnam memorial] to history. I usually go up there and the park service people don't know who I am. They're going to shoo me off, then they sort of notice, 'Oh — we know her.' Then they let me do it. I don't do that very often, but it's how I sighted the piece. So that's very special." (The spot is not open to the public.) nam memorial as a class project. Her idea beat those of 1,420 other entrants in the nation's largest-ever design competition. Today she only reluctantly talks about the trauma that followed. "I had no idea who these people were that were attacking me. ... I was clueless, literally. Even though I'd gone to college, I was still in a way that country girl from Athens, Ohio." P art of Lin's strength and creativity comes from those roots, at once deeply American but also influenced by diverse cultural patterns. Her parents fled China just before the Communist takeover in 1949, eventually settling in Athens, where both became professors at Ohio University. Her mother wrote poetry and taught literature; her lather, a noted potter, became the dean of fine arts. Older brother Tan now teaches English at the University of Virginia and just published his first book of poetry. In this environment, Lin spent much of her free time alone, hiking in the woods, bird-watching, reading, and making pottery in her father's studio. Following her parents' training, Lin often looks at her work through the eyes ofa teacher. "If you tell the truth, people will react to it," she says. No surprise, then, that her Vietnam and Civil Rights memorials use names and timelines as teaching tools. "I want a little kid to go to the place and question what this history was about, understand a little bit more, maybe read more. I'm not trying to dictate what people think; I'm just trying to present some facts and allow you to think." Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a radical notion for the National Mall, one of the world's most famous landscapes: a wall cut into the earth, etched with the names of more than 58,000 dead soldiers. It ignited a firestorm of opposition when it was announced in 1981. "It wasn't a statue of a guy on a horse, so people 4 USA WEEKEND • Am. l-.l. IW6 COVER I'HOTOCiRAPHS (CLOCKWISE I-KOM TOP LEFT) BY ROGER HOLEY, FOLIO: TIM THAYUR: JOE STEWAKDSON; OARRYL ESTRINE KOR USA WEEKEND Above, in her loft studio in New York. Left, Eclipsed rims (1993), her ceiling-mounted clock at the city's Penn Station; ft uses i| an eclipse |g motion to mark the hours. couldn't understand it," says Jan Scruggs, the Vietnam veteran who spearheaded the effort to get the wall built. "People started reading all kinds of hidden meaning into it." In fact, her goal was simple and straightforward. "The memorial goes back to a very simple notion of understanding, really, that we have to accept death as part of our life," Lin says. "We can't just hide it away. That's something American culture tries to do. "With most public art, the lettering is enormous. A crowd can read it en masse. Well, what if you throw a book out into the public domain and ask people to read it? What's a book about? It's about intimacy, privacy and this one-on-one connection. So to switch that, and make a monument feel more intimate, like a book, is automatically going to ask for a quieter, more personal, individual response." Thus, the lettering on the Vietnam wall is small. You need to get close to read it. Or touch it. "1 truly believed that it would help people, and once it was up, they would understand." Eventually Lin and her design prevailed. The memorial was built very close to its original design, with the addition of a statue of three soldiers near the entrance. Yet feelings remained so charged at the ded- ication of the memorial in 1982 that Lin's name was not mentioned. "My only regret," she says now, "is staying so naive about the politics of the Vietnam War that I didn't really realize that we were sending into war 18-year- olds and that when they came back, people spat on them. Do you know what that does to you? "All I could think at the time was: [All this anger] is not about the art. This is about the country coming to terms with something. I happily blanked out from what went on until I saw the movie." She's referring to Freida Lee Mock's Academy Award-winning 1995 documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, which PBS will air Nov. 27 as part of its P.O. V. series. It appears to have had a cathartic effect on Lin. She coped with the painful experiences of 1981-82 by returning to Yale as a graduate student and trying to ignore the whole episode. "The only way I could get over it was to deny it, but in denying it, people really never understood what it cost me. And it cost me a lot. I had a lot of anger for years, and 1 don't think I really realized it. If anyone tried to ask me about it, I would go away." When Lin discovered that Mock planned to include some of the most emotionally charged anti-memorial scenes in her documentary, "1 was very upset. I was like, 'Let's not show this film. Let's put it away.' Again, it was my automatic desire to just not deal with it." But Lin resisted that urge, and in some way the documentary seems to have freed her to talk about the ordeal, and allowed her to make peace with her own Vietnam demons. "She suffered a lot," says Vincent Scully, a legendary Yale art history professor who taught Lin. The day she stood up and defended her design in front of an angry crowd of veterans, he recalls, she gained inspiration by wearing a hat similar to ones Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, used to favor. Later, a cartoon of her wearing the hat referred to her as "Mama San." Now, though, the controversy has subsided, except for an occasional effort to plant a flag at the apex or otherwise turn the wall into a more traditional memorial. The wall evokes silence, contemplation, regret Statue limitations? This sculpture by Glenna Goodacre commemorating the role of Vietnam War nurses was added to the memorial site in 1993, Lin describes the decision to add the statue as "misguided in its attempt ...to cover all grounds. It's sad that (critics of the wall] felt that was what they needed. It's very badly thought out." On the wall controversy: 'I had a lot of anger for years, and I don't think I realized it. If anyone tried to ask me about it, I would go away.' and, say those who visit, a kind of healing. Survivors leave mementos at the wall; veterans maintain a round-the-clock vigil. Tour buses, many of them filled with schoolchildren, regularly stop. "All I can think about," Lin says, "is about one person experiencing the work." Of the wall, she says, "I designed it so that a child a hundred years from now will still be able to go to that piece and have a sober understanding about a high price of the war. "I was there one day — I don't go there that often — and a noisy, noisy group of schoolchildren gets off a bus, goes in. Teacher says nothing. They hit the beginning. Silence. No one said anything. No adults said anything; they just knew. "I felt so good right then. I just sort of smiled." Pi erhaps to avoid being typecast as a memorial-maker — for a time, she says, every disaster was followed by an invitation to create a monument to it — Lin broadened her palate. Her recent public works include TOPO, a playful 1,600-foot-long landscaped approach to the Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum (1991); Croundswell, Zen-like "glass gardens" located in light wells and roofs of the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio (1993); and Wave Field, an undulating quadrangle of thick grass planted on wavy mounds in front of the University of Michigan aerodynamics complex (1995). Wave Field (pictured on the cover) illustrates Lin's methods. Her works are always different, she says, "but there's always a similar process. I do a lot of research ... usually two or three months of just reading here and there." Because the Michigan complex was devoted to flight, she met with scientists, got books on flight, and finally came across "these incredible images of turbulence and wave patterns" in a book on fluid motion. "To fly, we have to have resistance. It's all about turbulence. I hit this one wave pattern, which I just knew was it." Though Lin has never gotten an architect's license, she has begun to do more work in the area for which she was formally trained. She designed the interior spaces for New York's Museum for African Art, and has designed several houses. After completing the Civil Rights Memorial in 1989, Lin said she had retired from designing memorials. But today that attitude may have softened. "My pet dream is the environmental issue," she says. "I like to do things in trilogies. I would love to explore one last memorial. This one might deal with extinction. It will deal with the environment." In the meantime, she is working on a sculpture for the Cleveland Public Library, designing a recycling plant in the South Bronx section of New York City, and is in the final drawing stage on a house in Connecticut. "I'm very lucky. I get to do whatever my imagination wants me to do, and people want to support that. I'm just following my muse." C3 Jim Sexton last wrote for USA WEEKEND about David Kessler, head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. USA WUUKUNU • Nuv. l-.t. IW6 5

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