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Maya Lin: the intersection of art, architecture and the environment

The Frey Visiting Professor, best known for designing Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, gave a photographic journey of her work, detailing her creative process and inspiration.

Maya Lin talking as a presentation.
(Photo by Donn Young)

Artist Maya Lin described her approach to art, architecture and design, and her desire to make audiences consider climate change during the 2022 Frey Lecture on April 12 at Carolina’s FedEx Global Education Center.

The Frey Foundation Distinguished Visiting Professorship is one of the highest honors bestowed by the College of Arts & Sciences to distinguished public leaders. Established in 1989, this free public lecture brings to campus renowned speakers from a variety of fields, including government, public policy, international affairs and the arts and sciences.

Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz introduced Lin, best known for winning the 1982 design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., while still an undergraduate at Yale. Her simple design of black granite panels, rising from the ground in a V-shape, contains the name of every American service member who died in the war. Since then, she has designed other prominent memorials, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Lin’s artwork has been featured in solo exhibitions at museums and galleries around the world, with works in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others. She is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In opening a 50-minute photographic tour of some of her creations, Lin said she views her work as a tripod: art, architecture and the memorials. “I will always talk about all three,” she said.

Bodies of water and waveforms have often occupied her, resulting in museum pieces and site-specific installations, including three “wave fields.”

Lin told the story of how she built the wave fields and how each one got larger. For the first of these, a project at the University of Michigan, she was inspired by a photo of “a naturally occurring repetitive waterway” called a Stokes wave, she said. “I saw this, and I went, ‘I have to make a piece about this,’” she said. The result became “The Wave Field,” a 10,000-square-foot patch of grassy waves, each 3-to-5-feet tall. “You could … curl up in a wave and read a book until the sprinklers pop up,” she said.

Even after that project was finished in 1995, she remained preoccupied with the form. “As an artist, I work in series,” she said. Maybe it’s because I range a bit in my medium. … An iteration, a series, allows me to explore an idea and change scale, change subtle ideas about it, and then go on because I’m very site-specific. I’m also relating to the site.”

For a 2005 commission outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Miami, she wanted to continue experimenting with waveforms. “They were very concerned about snipers,” she said, so she made the waves in the resulting work, called “Flutter,” only about 2-feet high, to evoke “how water, before it hits the shore, creates ripples within the sand.” Its waves are smaller, but its footprint is triple the size of the Michigan piece.

Her wave work crested in 2009 with the final work in the series, which covers four acres of a former gravel pit at the Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York. The waves in “Storm King Wavefield” are 12-to-18-feet high. “The idea was, what happens if I could make a wave field where you would get lost, in a way,” she said. “Because in the end, I am very site-specific, and I had to create a dialogue with the faraway hills. Anything else looked miniature and didn’t really relate to the landscape it was in.”

Her three-wave fields offer insight into her artistic process. She interviews many people, often having to assure them that their answers might not end up in the artwork. “I call it a fishing expedition,” she said. “Because the site isn’t just a physical site. It’s a cultural context. So what’s going on in the buildings? Who’s there? Who’s going to use it? And how can I reflect that within the work itself?”

Other aspects of nature and the environment have also inspired Lin. She has done a series of “Earth drawings” in Sweden, Kentucky and New Jersey, among other places. In 2021, she installed 49 dead Atlantic cedar trees in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park for a piece called “Ghost Forest” intended to highlight the effects of climate change.

She is working on what she says is her last memorial, “What is Missing?,” a cross-platform, global memorial to the planet. Located in select scientific institutions, online and in a book, the work calls attention to the crisis surrounding biodiversity and habitat loss.

“Maybe as an artist, I can get you to rethink what the problem is or put it in a way that you’re not expecting,” she said.

The Frey Foundation was established in 1974 by Edward J. and Frances Frey of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their son, alumnus David Gardner Frey ’64, ’67 (JD), is the former chairman of the foundation and a longtime supporter of the College of Arts & Sciences.

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