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If you like Maya Lin's story, you might also like:
J. Carter Brown,
Dale Chihuly,
Frank Gehry,
Philip Johnson,
James Rosenquist,
Fritz Scholder,
Vincent Scully,
Amy Tan and
Wayne Thiebaud

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Maya Lin in the Achievement Curriculum section:
A Passion For Music
Meet the Architects

Related Links:
Maya Lin Studio

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Maya Lin
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Maya Lin Interview (page: 5 / 8)

Artist and Architect

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  Maya Lin

What inspired the design for the Vietnam Memorial?

Maya Lin Interview Photo
Maya Lin Interview Photo

Maya Lin: Probably fundamentally -- a previous design had been a memorial to World War III. And I started studying what the nature of a monument is and what a monument should be. And I designed -- for the World War III memorial I designed a futile, almost terrifying passage that ends nowhere. And the professor of the class was extremely disturbed and comes up to me afterward and says, "If I had a brother that died in that war, I would never want to visit the memorial." And I looked at him and I said, "Andy, this is World War III, we're not going to be around. Don't you get it?" I mean he just didn't get it. So every memorial in its time has a different goal.

For me what the Vietnam memorial had to be was about honesty, about dealing up front with individual loss. You know, it turns out it was also a requirement by the veterans to list the 57,000 names. Now, you've got ask again, this is probably the first time where the group of veterans have requested it. We're reaching a time in -- it's almost a modern time -- that we'll acknowledge the individual in a war on a national level, rather than what has happened in previous wars throughout history was always a political statement by the winning leader about the victory. The foot soldier didn't count, except in World War I memorials which I had studied and realized -- The effect they had, they were so moving, was because they focused on individual loss. But I think that is the definition of a modern approach to war, the acknowledgement of individual lives lost.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Maya Lin Interview Photo

You didn't just sit down and have some vision spring forth from the inner recesses of your mind. How did you reach the point where you could start?

Maya Lin: In anything I've done, what I will do is resist picking up a pen, except to write, for as long as I can. And what I want to do is try to understand what I want to do as an idea. There's a book coming out in the fall, it's my first book where, again, it's as much a written book as an art book. And I say in there,

I try to think of a work as an idea without a shape. If I find the shape too soon -- especially for the memorials, which have a function -- then I might be predetermining a form and then stuffing the function into the form. Instead, what I try to do is -- for two to three months -- read, research, understand anything about the site. And I don't just mean the physical site. I mean the cultural site, the historical site, who's coming, what the needs are, what I think needs to be done.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

The most important thing I thought was the acknowledgement of a loss.

We have to face it. If we can't face death, then we'll never overcome it. So as opposed to pretending it never happened, you have to look it straight in the eye. Then you can turn around and walk back out into the light. So I wanted something that would be honest about the war, not say anything political. Now, I deliberately did not read anything about the Vietnam War because I made a judgment, which is very different from civil rights, because I read everything I could on the civil rights era. With the Vietnam War I really felt the politics of the war eclipsed what happened to the veterans. The politics were irrelevant to what this memorial was. That I had to make any political statement. I needed to, because there were people on that wall who were for it. There were people on that wall who were against it. I wanted to offend neither of them. That was a huge goal. So I deliberately did not want to know anything about the politics behind the war.

The use of the name and the chronology of the name all came--oh, what a way--going back to the question. So here's this two to three month verbal process. The earlier design for a World War III monument allowed me to research memorials, the history of memorials, what they should be. Then I visit the site. So you put all that analytic science away and allow the art side to come out. And yes, then I just "lay an egg" is the joke. Why an egg? Because an egg is an idea. It comes out fairly fully formed. I don't work it and work it and work it.

The idea is there. It happens overnight sometimes. It happens when I'm at a site sometimes. I know it right away. And I knew it when I saw the site. I wanted to cut it open and open up the earth and polish the earth's edges. Then came the embellishment of the names having to be chronological, which had to be key. And it turns out a lot of my works deal with a passage, which is about time. Because I don't see anything that I do as a static object in space. It has to exist as a journey in time. So time plays out in a lot of my works.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

That, in a nutshell, is that design.

It's notable for its simplicity. Is less more?

Maya Lin: In that case, yes. For the way I work, absolutely. My goal is to strip things down, not so that they become inhuman but so that you need just the right amount of words or shape to convey what you need to convey. I like editing. I like it very tight.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 10:38 EST
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