Artist, architect, and memorialist Maya Lin was born in 1959, into a family of artists. Her mother was a poet and literature professor and her father a ceramicist and the dean of Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts. Both of her parents fled China in 1948 in order to escape Communist rule. During her childhood, Lin already demonstrated a propensity for mathematics, ceramics, and a keen interest in nature—all of which have become central in her works. Though she was trained as an architect, she prefers to describe herself as a designer.
Lin has designed a range of works from public and private buildings, to memorials and landscapes. She is best known for her memorials that have a historic character—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that earned her success very early in life, winning the competition for her design at the age of 21. Remarkably, she had not even completed her undergraduate studies at Yale University when she won. She has also completed several large sculptural landscapes of note, such as Groundswell at Ohio State University, Wave Field at the University of Michigan, and Eleven Minute Line in Wanås, Sweden. Lin and her work have received many awards, including the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, both awarded to her by President Barack Obama.
Much of Lin’s work is concerned with the environment, as she is both inspired by the natural architecture found in landscapes and profoundly concerned about the human impact on climate. She creates work that focuses on the relationship between humans and their environment, stating: “I am very drawn to landscape, and my work is about finding a balance in the landscape, respecting nature not trying to dominate it.” Her sculptural landscapes and memorials are conceived of as being part of the very earth upon which they are built.
Although her work is known for its connection to art and nature, Lin’s most recent project to renovate the Neilson Library at Smith College held a deeper, more personal meaning. Smith College was where her mother was given a scholarship to study in the U.S. Without that scholarship and her mother’s resilience, we wouldn’t be sitting here today with the honor of witnessing Lin’s talent and courage. Sadly, during the renovations of the library, Lin’s husband tragically died of a sudden heart attack. After taking time away to spend with her daughters, she found the courage to see through for her mother what she had started. And the result, like always, was astounding.
Lin is especially important to the Clark family because of her role in designing the Ellen S. Clark Hope Plaza at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The plaza is a memorial to the life and spirit of Ellen Clark, who succumbed to a rare disease in 2010. Like all of Lin’s work, the plaza also pays homage to the environment, with sustainable design and the re-creation of the wild, self-sustaining habitat of a native Missouri woodland. Maya and Ellen worked together to create a place that would give a sense of tranquil hope to guests who are likely visiting due to difficult medical situations.
Maya’s talent for combining nature and architecture never ceased to amaze Ellen, and that’s why it was so important to have her as part of the project. The serene pond she designed in the center of the Ellen Clark Hope Plaza is a space to encourage reflection, provide a respite, and help people in moments of both grief and joy. At night, the fiber-optic lighting looks like twinkling stars in the night sky, and it’s an actual match to the star pattern of the constellation the evening Ellen was born on Christmas 1959. Maya thoughtfully executed each detail of this project, which means with no doubt she was the perfect person for creating something so meaningful in honor of Ellen.
We create the deepest connections to the projects that intertwine with our personal lives. They leave an unforgettable impression on us. In the world of design and architecture, Maya Lin is an inspiration and so is her story.