Matilija Press
Book Titles

Published Article
by Patricia Fry

2000 — Pages

Maya Lin’s Boundaries

explores this artist/architect’s blueprint for achieving balance despite the opposing forces she faces in her work—in life.

Maya Lin was a 21-year-old student at Yale when, as a class project, she designed a memorial honoring Vietnam veterans. When a competition for such a monument was announced, she submitted her design and stunned the world when it was selected as the winner from among 1400 entrants.

With the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Lin’s career path had been charted. She would pursue her art and architecture simultaneously and produce one famous creation after another from her small studio in New York. Nearly twenty years later, Lin has added another creative element to her professional portfolio—that of author.

Being a high profile person who is admittedly shy, she has resisted going public with a book until now. When asked, “Why now?” She says, “I’ve been seen through a lot of interviews and then a documentary by someone else (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision). I completely respected the filmmaker. I saw it as ‘her art.’ But it made me feel like, as an artist, I needed to shape a book that would be really encompassing of what my work is.”

She also has an audience in mind. “I deliberately went with Simon and Schuster because I almost wanted to walk out of the art/architectural monotype world. I wanted to have a dialogue with a larger public.”

In Boundaries, Lin has documented eighteen of her works through sketches, photographs and her original notes relating to each project. She artistically weaves her lecture notes and personal essays through the pages of this attractive coffee table book. Describing her book, Lin says, “I guess it’s autobiographical, but it’s really about an artist’s process. It’s not a literal self-portrait, it’s an abstract.” The book, she says, describes one artist’s very specific approach to her work.

Ask Lin “Who are you?” “How do you want to present yourself?” and she will

reply, “I’m an artist! I see myself as an artist who happens to love buildings.” While she considers architecture an art form, too, she says, “I tend to think of it as designing around someone else. I’m making it for other people. When you make art, you basically can do whatever you want, which is actually harder for me. Art is about who you are and what you want to do. I think when there are no rules or limitations, it’s actually more difficult.”

Lin is also a professional who resists the big business scene. She explains, “I don’t want to spend my life running a huge firm. That means I’ve had to turn down interesting architectural projects because I can only work on one or two at a given time.”

But the projects Maya Lin does take on are prominent, indeed. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial classified her as an expert designer of monuments even before she graduated. In 1988, she agreed to design the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. And three years later, she created the concept for the Women’s Table to commemorate women students at Yale. In 1991, Lin decided that she did not want to be typecast as a builder of memorials and she has turned down all further such requests.

Despite the fact that she has designed two major American monuments, Lin says, “I am not a political artist.” Her pieces definitely provoke thought, but Lin endeavors to create places in which to think without trying to dictate what to think. “I like to present factual information and allow each viewer to come away with their own conclusions.” She uses the Women’s Table as an example. “Obviously, nothing can be completely non-biased or without a point, but with the Women’s Table, I’m just presenting numbers of women enrolled in Yale. It starts with zeros, because there was a time when women weren’t allowed at Yale. Little by little you see the numbers go from single digits to double digits to triple digits. You begin to see the emergence of women, not just physically at Yale, but in a way, in society.”

She continues, “The Vietnam Memorial is the same way. It’s chronological with names and then it’s basically up to you to come to your own conclusion—to come to your own peace. You should not come to the apex of that piece and find a really strong statement of what you should have to think.”

Lin does see herself an environmentalist, however. She says, “I try to use natural and recycled materials in my artworks.” She also considers the natural backdrop in her designs. “I think part of my philosophy is that whether it’s an art or architecture, I’m trying to make us very aware of the beauty of the natural world in hopes that we will value it and take care of it in a way better than we have.”

An important part of Lin’s book is her description of the magic that happens during the process of the design. She explains that she doesn’t just ponder the physical site, when contemplating a project, but the cultural site, as well. She uses the Wave Field at the FXB Aerospace Engineering Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as an example. She says, “I began reading about fluid dynamics and flight turbulence and I talked to the professors of the aerospace engineering department there, just trying to get an idea of what went on in the building. And then, boom! One day I just opened a book, saw this image of a stokes water wave—a natural occurring wave—and knew that was what the piece was going to be about. You can only do so much analytic research and then I shut that side of me down and flip it and allow the true intuitive side to take over. You have to have faith in the magic. You cannot find a reason for everything you make, but that doesn’t make it less thoughtful. It’s very complex how we think. I like that. I like the mystery of creativity.”

People wonder how an artist who freely uses words like magic and intuition to describe her creative process would choose what seems like a restrictive, limiting word for her book title. She explains, “Boundaries is about opposites. It’s a contradiction. Everyone looks at boundaries as a division and what I’m after is the boundary line—the space between two things. I see myself existing on the boundary line and it’s that line that begins to take on dimensionality. I feel I exist on the boundaries somewhere between science and art, art and architecture, public and private, east and west. I’m always trying to find a balance between these opposing forces.”

While Lin writes detailed descriptions of her work as part of the design process, she has never before written for the public. She says, “This is my first book of projects and I wanted that first book to also involve my writing because it is so much an integral part of how I make my work. Writing helps clarify what I’m going to do.” But it doesn’t always come easy for her.

According to Lin, “Writing this book was hard—probably harder than anything I’ve done. I’m in love with writing. It’s very critical to me in my process. I think my design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was chosen because of my descriptive narrative, but it took me longer to write the essay than it did to create the design.”

Boundaries introduces Maya Lin the woman beyond the monuments that have brought her so much acclaim. Herein, you will get to know Lin, the Chinese-American woman, the daughter, the environmentalist as well as the architect and the artist.

What is on the horizon for Lin? “I want to make a few more buildings that are good, make a few more sculptures that I think are good, raise my family and just maintain. But my absolute dream is to do more for the environment—to see this little pet dream of mine on extinction and bio-diversity come into being.”

She ends the book with her ideas about her last memorial. She writes, “I retired from the monument business after the Women’s Table, not wanting to be typecast, but there is one last memorial I would like to create. This memorial would focus on the most important issue for me while growing up and to this day: the environment and man’s relationship to it.”

Lin’s dream of a final monument would actually involve six physical sites designed to monitor the health of the planet as well as a satellite link. She envisions markers at Yellowstone, Antarctica, Tibet, Africa, the Amazon and one that monitors the ocean floor. A mighty dream, indeed. But as Lin says, “The environment is really a part of my life and my work. I think that everyone in a little way can help out and that we all should.”

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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