EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on Nov. 12, 2020 by the Ohio History Connection. Knox Pages has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.
Maya Ying Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, on October 5, 1959 to parents who fled China after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. Her parents were both intellectuals and professors at Ohio University in Athens.
Maya’s father was a ceramic artist and the dean of the Ohio University art school, while her mother was a poet and professor of Asian and English literature. In school, Lin excelled in both mathematics and art, and eventually she enrolled at Yale University.
While at Yale, she studied both architecture and sculpture. Her professors encouraged her to pick just one field to study, but she ignored them. Refusing to place herself in just one category, she once said, “I consider myself both an artist and an architect.”
In 1981 during Lin’s senior year at Yale, she entered a competition to create a design for a memorial to honor the U.S. service members who died in the Vietnam War. Twenty-one-year-old Maya Lin’s design was chosen by a panel of architects, artists, and designers as the winning entry.
The simple, award-winning design was a V-shaped, black granite wall that listed the names of the nearly 58,000 men and women who died or went missing in action during the Vietnam War.
Lin’s design for the memorial sparked controversy. It was different from the traditional heroic and masculine war monuments of the past. Whereas traditional memorials included figurative, heroic sculpture, Lin’s design did not. Her simple black wall did not glorify heroes or attempt to justify the war as worthy.
Critics of Lin’s design also argued that an Asian American woman was an inappropriate designer for a memorial dedicated to honoring veterans who fought in a war in Asia.
As a result, Lin faced harsh debate about her design, and she endured racist and sexist remarks thrown her way. But the design struck a sentimental chord for loved ones of those who died in the war, and in subsequent years the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become the most visited monument in America.
In 1986, Lin earned a master’s degree in architecture. Since then, she has gone on to complete both artistic and architectural projects. She continued to design other noteworthy memorials, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, the Women’s Table at Yale, and most recently What is Missing? Her memorial What is Missing? is a cross-platform, global memorial dedicated to the planet which focuses on environmental issues.
Lin has also taken on architectural projects for both public and private buildings. Some of these projects include the Museum for Chinese in America (2009) in New York City and the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (2015) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Lin’s designs focus on the relationship between the landscape and built environment, and she is committed to creating environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions for her works.
Maya Lin has been recognized in several solo exhibitions at museums and galleries across the world and has been featured in various journalistic profiles and documentaries. She wrote a book, Boundaries (2006), about her work and creative process.
In 2009, Lin was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor for artistic excellence in the U.S. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Maya Lin continues today to design and create, her works merging the physical and psychological environment to present a new way to see the world around us.