Women is...: Maya Lin, Monumental Artist

Maya Lin, Monumental Artist

profession: Renowned architect and artist, best known for her design for the U.S. Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

the basic story: At the tender age of 21, in 1981, Lin won an open competition for the design of the proposed Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her idea, now realized in the Washington Mall in D.C., was to incorporate two simple black granite walls bearing the names of the 57,661 Americans who died in Vietnam. Today, she runs her own design studio in New York.

born: Oct. 10, 1959, in Athens, Ohio.

education: BA, Architecture, Yale College, 1981. Master's of Architecture from Yale, 1986. Honorary doctorates from Yale, Williams and Smith. starting out: "I was lucky. There was never any pressure from my parents to become anything I didn't want," says Lin, who as a kid hung out in the artists' studios at the Ohio University in Athens, where her father was an art prof.

on her early rocky success: When Lin's stark design was selected for the Vietnam Memorial, every veterans' group, many special interests and politicians of all stripes wanted a say about it, but Lin wouldn't flinch from her original idea.

Critics cast aspersions on her vision, her ability, her talent, her age and her gender. Her piece was attacked as "dishonorable" and "a scar." "I believed that this was going to help people," she says. "The only thing that really hurt me was when people said it was my ego getting in the way of letting anything change the design."

other notable works: Her civil rights memorial, in Montgomery, Ala., consists of a sheet of water running over a granite table bearing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The Women's Table, commissioned by Yale University, is a granite table with an ever-widening spiral of zeros for each year that Yale was single-sex. Get it? There were zero women. (Other #s start appearing in 1969, the year the school went co-ed.)beyond monuments: Lin stopped doing monuments in 1989, because she didn't want to be typecast and she wanted to focus on other media, such as sculpture and architectural pieces.

projects: She worked on a downtown rejuvenation project in Grand Rapids, Mich.; several private residences; an installation piece for the Cleveland Public Library and a sculpture for NYC's Rockefeller Foundation.

artist or architect?: "When I was 21 years old I was labeled 'architect' because I was an architecture student when I did the Vietnam Memorial," she says. "I want to be more of an artist who happens to build architecture. I'm not even licensed to be an architect," she laughs.

describing her own work: "I would hesitate to call myself a political artist. If anything, I prefer 'apolitical.' I don't choose to overlay personal commentary upon historical facts. I'm less interested in presenting my opinion than in presenting factual information allowing the viewer the chance to come into his or her own conclusions.
"how she gets ideas: "The creative process isn't about sitting at a desk and waiting for an idea to hit you. Sometimes an idea will come to you after eight months of stewing over it -- it's suddenly there. Artwork is very much research, reading and then letting it sift through your head."

on being Asian-American: "My parents brought up my brother and me to assimilate. And it wasn't until my 20s that I discovered this idea of bi-culturalism in myself. Obviously, it's always been there in my work, but I didn't see it. The last 10 years have been a wonderful discovery of both sides of my heritage -- a real balance between East and West."

tech-savviness: "I'm online, and I use email," she says. But she largely avoids using high technology for her work, although her assistants may use some programs for drafting. "What's wild is that in high school I taught myself Fortran and Cobol. There were no classes -- we're talking ancient, card-punching days -- but I was fascinated with it. Then I was in college, and the next time I looked around the whole world had changed, and I haven't been so involved in it."