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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

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Maya Lin Studio

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Maya Lin Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Artist and Architect

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  Maya Lin

So your design for the Vietnam War Memorial was accepted, and then all hell broke loose?

Maya Lin: Not right away. It took nine months. Hell was breaking loose; I just wasn't aware it was breaking. It didn't even occur to me that it was a big deal. I had studied how competitions are handled in Washington. For the most part things never get built the way they were drawn. It is a small miracle that the memorial looks exactly the way it was designed.

Maya Lin Interview Photo
You have to go through five governmental agencies two times for review. That's normally where architectural projects get extremely modified, to put it kindly. I was amazed. Kent Cooper (of Cooper, Lecky, the architects of record) came up to me before my first meeting and he said, "Now be prepared. These people are going to be pretty tough on you." I get in there and right away this tough architect on the Fine Arts Commission leans over and says, "Maya, is this what you want? Are you sure this is what you want? They haven't done anything to change it." These people are so nice! Everyone was so nice within these five legal correct channels. In fact, technically, if you look at it, there should have been no problem. The controversy was completely extra. President Reagan, Secretary of the Interior Watt, H. Ross Perot, all kind of got together and decided the design wasn't right.

Secretary Watt withheld ground breaking until a technical compromise was met. By that time the Secretary of Interior was only supposed to check to see if the funding was in place, which it was. But Washington is political and full of compromises. So it was decided the three statues would be what was necessary. Now you have to understand, the walls are only 10 feet high, and they were proposing 14 foot-high statues that would go right at the apex. So we fought like hell, and the Fine Arts Commission was instrumental. We all knew a compromise had to be meted out. But exactly where was that compromise?

How difficult was it for you? You were only 21.

Maya Lin: It was difficult.

Suddenly all of this controversy was stirred up. They don't even mention your name at the dedication ceremony. What hurt you most about that experience and the veterans' reaction to the memorial?

Maya Lin: I completely understood why there was such a strong opposition to it. What a lot of people didn't realize was that there was a requirement that all the names be listed. Ironically, that was something the veterans chose.

Now politically, deep down under you have two camps. And basically in American memorial art/architecture, the camp has always been the latter. It's a little bit of denial: "I don't want to see the dead. I don't want to acknowledge that, because it's too painful. I want the parade. I want the happy. I want the exalted." And I think it was a very modern notion in a national capital to list all the names. That's what was very controversial. Okay, it was black, it was below grade, I was female, Asian American, young, too young to have served. Or even the way I would talk, "Oh, I didn't know much about the war. " It was sort of like, "You have to be that person in order to understand those needs." And I think none of the opposition in that sense hurt me.

There were a couple of things that did hurt. I think the artist who did the three statues... as an artist to another artist, I didn't understand that.

What did you take away from that experience? What did you learn from it?

Maya Lin Interview Photo
Maya Lin: I probably went in there with more of an egomaniacal young artist confidence. And I actually became a little mellower. When you're young you're so idealistic and you're so headstrong, or at least I was. I probably decided, "People are going to think I'm so egomaniacal because of the Vietnam Memorial," that I tried to be a little bit more humble. My friends say I'm not at all more humble, so I don't know.

As far as what I took away from it, at a certain point nobody would touch me with a ten foot pole. There were my lawyers, and there was one writer, a person who used to own The New Republic, who came to my support at one of the Senate hearings. No one else would touch me. I tried Yale connections.

I tried anything to try to protect the design. The AIA was wonderful, you know, the arts groups were. But you know, I was sort of like untouchable because everyone didn't quite know how people would react to it. And then, a year later, when like the millionth visitor came to it, everybody wanted to say hello, that sort of thing. And I was a little jaded. My attitude is: I'm glad it's a success. I'm glad people really are moved by it, that was its goal. But you do these things because you personally believe in it. And it was lonely. I mean, it was lonely being in this one testifying room where everyone else was on the other side looking at me like I was trying to deliberately hurt them.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

It requires a certain amount of conviction.

Maya Lin: When you're young, maybe that's all you have. You have conviction. That's valuable. Then you get experience and then you have less conviction. Maybe there's a balance going on.

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