M is for Maya Lin, (1959-still living!) an American installation artist, architectural designer, and author.
As a child, Maya was a homebody with few friends. She had a close-knit family (dad, mom, and one brother), and she loved school, studying, and doing creative things. Since she didn’t have many playmates, Maya made up her own world with art.
Maya’s parents raised her and her brother without gender differentiation. Her mother told her that she could aspire to any passion she had, as long as it was wholesome and not centered around money. Art was Maya’s passion from childhood, but she did not realize it at first. In college, she initially majored in pre-med zoology and wanted to work with animals. After the university’s advisor told her that her coursework would include dissecting live animals, Maya realized that she no longer wanted to study zoology. She switched her major and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in architecture.
When she was 21 years old and still in college, Maya entered a national contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Maya’s design (Entry #1026) won out of 1,421 submissions. Her design was a granite, V-shaped black wall with the names of slain or missing soldiers from the Vietnam War carved into its surface. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is in Washington D.C., and there are 58,272 names carved into the wall.
Maya received controversy for winning the contest. Among Vietnam veteran survivors, politicians, and other critics, Maya was deemed too young and inexperienced to know enough about the war to design the memorial. Along with age discrimination, she faced racial discrimination as well, when former presidential candidate Ross Perot called her an “eggroll” once he learned that the winner of the contest was Asian-American. To this day, Maya believes that she would have lost the contest if submissions had to include the designer’s name and not just an entry number.
Recalling this experience, Maya felt like the most hurtful thing was not the discrimination; what hurt her most was that her design had to be compromised. Maya wished for the memorial to pay tribute to the lives of the veterans with no regard to the political issues of the war. She knew that some of the families of fallen soldiers were against the war, and some supported the war. She wanted to design a memorial that would be sensitive to both sides by being apolitical and simply acknowledging the lives lost. Still, two traditional statues and the American flag were added to the memorial. When the wall was dedicated in 1982, Maya received no recognition. But as time passed, her memorial design proved its effect on people. The memorial is visited by as many as four million people every year.
When the families of veterans come to visit this memorial, they touch the names and are able to see their reflections on the wall. The experience is said to allow visitors to feel as if they are part of the fallen soldier whose name is being touched.
In 1988, Maya also designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery Alabama. This memorial pays tribute to lives lost in the Civil Rights movement.
Maya went on to design many more sites. Her accomplishments have made her the feature of an Academy Award-winning documentary titled Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. She also wrote a book titled Boundaries. In 2003, Maya served as a judge for the World Trade Center Memorial Competition. In 2005, she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Maya received the National Medal of Arts award in 2009.
If you ask Maya what inspires her art, she will tell you:
“My work originates from a simple desire to make people aware of their surroundings and this can include not just the physical but the psychological world that we live in.”
How do you feel about Maya's story? Have you visited any of the sites she designed? What are your thoughts on age discrimination?