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Maya Lin doesn't like the spotlight — but the Smithsonian is shining a light on her

Maya Lin examining inverted water table being fabricated for the Civil Rights Memorial she designed to be installed in Montgomery, Alabama. She is pictured here at the granite fabricator in Barre, Vermont in 1988.
Maya Lin examining inverted water table being fabricated for the Civil Rights Memorial she designed to be installed in Montgomery, Alabama. She is pictured here at the granite fabricator in Barre, Vermont in 1988.
https://ondemand.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/wesat/2022/11/20221112_wesat_maya_lin_doesnt_like_the_spotlight_but_the_smithsonian_is_shining_a_light_on_her_.mp3?orgId=1&topicId=1008&d=262&p=7&story=1135533418&ft=nprml&f=1001

Nearly all of the people who have received biographical exhibitions at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery — Sylvia Plath, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Junior, to name a few — are long dead.

But the museum's latest subject, Maya Lin, is still very much alive and at the height of her powers as an architect, designer, visual artist and environmental activist.

Lin's works include the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, the Langston Hughes Library in Tennessee and What Is Missing? the massive, ongoing, environmental activism project she launched in 2009 and of course the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. that launched her career 40 years ago.

But despite all the attention paid to her work, Lin herself is someone who has eschewed the limelight for decades.

"I've always sort of felt my works are public, but I'm not," she said.

Under the glare of the spotlight

At 63, Lin's desire to keep her private life to herself dates back at least to her early 20s.

She was still an undergraduate at Yale in 1981 when her sleek, understated design in black granite for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial beat out the other 1400-plus submissions and sparked a pitiless backlash.

"One needs no artistic education to see this memorial for what it is: a black scar," said Vietnam veteran Tom Carhart at a U.S. Fine Arts Commission meeting.

To this day, the artist said she doesn't like talking about that period of her life.

"Part of the controversy was my age, my race, my gender," Lin said. "It was really unpleasant."

So even though Lin allowed the National Portrait Gallery to commission a portrait of her in 2014 — the work is included in the show One Life: Maya Lin — the gallery's curator of painting and sculpture, Dorothy Moss, said it took quite a bit of persuading to get the artist to agree to this first-ever exhibition focusing on her life.

"I said, 'This is the Smithsonian. We have a lot of school groups who come through. And the story of your persistence and resilience is one that would inspire young people,'" Moss said. "And so she agreed."

Connecting Lin's inner and outer life

The exhibition traces Lin's life from her Ohio childhood, through her work on the many buildings and public art projects she's designed all over the world, to accolades like earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

It also offers visitors insights into Lin's vivid inner life.

Her sketchbooks buzz with energy, revealing an effervescent mind. There's the gray-brimmed, wool hat Lin wore to help her hide from the media when she was going through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial debacle. Then there's the glass case with a pair of tiny, frolicking deer crafted by the artist out of silver when she was a high schooler. The animated creations reflect Lin's lifelong love of the natural world.

The exhibition touches on this passion through an interactive installation, where visitors can jot down memories of favorite places now lost to environmental destruction and attach them to a large, vinyl map. The installation is part of What Is Missing?, Lin's multi-faceted climate change project.

The map is covered with reminiscences about everything from a once pristine, now landfill-polluted lake in New Hampshire to a wildfire that ravaged wildlife and farms near a visitor's grandfather's town in Spain.

"We hear, we read, we understand it's a little abstract," said Lin of the limitations of the usual messaging around climate change. "But how do we make it personal? Because I think you have to, in the end, communicate not just the facts. You have to get people to feel."

Lin said the best way to inspire people to action is through generating empathy. For example, her What Is Missing?-related 2021 public art installation, Ghost Forest, transported a grove of Atlantic white cedar trees killed by a salt-water flood to Madison Square Park in New York. The effect of walking through all of those displaced trees in the middle of a bustling city was both sublime and discombobulating.

Lin's works continue to grab the public's attention — and, she also hopes, the public's activism. But she might never get truly used to living in the public eye.

"I was happy with the show," Lin said, as she reflected about being the subject of an exhibition. "I mean, I was embarrassed. I mean, I was a little, like, mortified by it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the dedication at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C., the work that began designer Maya Lin's career. She is also the subject of an exhibition currently underway at the National Portrait Gallery. NPR's Chloe Veltman explores how the show reflects the life of one of the world's greatest living artist-architects.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Maya Lin doesn't much like being under the spotlight.

MAYA LIN: I've always sort of felt my works are public, but I'm not.

VELTMAN: Her works include the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, the Langston Hughes Library in Tennessee, and "What Is Missing?," the massive ongoing environmental activism project she launched in 2009. Lin is 63 now, but her desire to keep her private life to herself dates back at least to her early 20s. She was still an undergraduate at Yale in 1981 when her sleek, understated design in black granite for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial beat out more than 1,400 other submissions and sparked a pitiless backlash. Footage from a U.S. Fine Arts Commission meeting in 1981 shows Vietnam vet Tom Carhart sounding off from the podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM CARHART: One needs no artistic education to see this memorial design for what it is - a black scar.

VELTMAN: When the camera pans to close-ups of Lin, you can see the then 21-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants trying to maintain a brave face. To this day, the artist says she doesn't like talking about that period of her life.

LIN: Part of the controversy was my age, my race, my gender. It's like - it was really unpleasant.

VELTMAN: So it took quite a bit of persuading to get the artist to agree to this first-ever exhibition focusing on her life. Curator Dorothy Moss made the case.

DOROTHY MOSS: And I said, this is the Smithsonian. We have a lot of school groups who come through. And the story of your persistence and resilience is one that would inspire young people. And so she agreed.

VELTMAN: The exhibition traces Lin's life from her idyllic Ohio childhood through her work on the many buildings and public art projects she's designed all over the world to accolades like earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

VELTMAN: It also offers visitors a glimpse into that private life. Curator Dorothy Moss points out Lin's busy sketchbooks.

MOSS: I love showing these pages because you see how energized her line is and how fast her writing is.

VELTMAN: There's the gray brimmed wool hat Lin wore when she was going through the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial mess.

MOSS: And the reason why she liked to wear it around was to hide her eyes from the press.

VELTMAN: Then there's the glass case with a pair of tiny frolicking deer crafted by the artist out of silver. They reflect her lifelong love of the natural world.

MOSS: They're so animated. And she made these when she was a high school student.

VELTMAN: On a recent morning, students from a Washington, D.C., high school visiting the National Portrait Gallery's "One Life: Maya Lin" show jot down memories of favorite places now lost to environmental destruction. They attach them to a large vinyl map on the wall, which is part of "What Is Missing?," Lin's multifaceted climate change project.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: In New Hampshire, there's a lake called Forest Lake, and currently a major landfill company is trying to build a landfill right next to it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: In my grandfather's town in Spain, there was a fire this summer that led to a lot of the wildlife and farms to be lost. And when I visited the town, it was very sad to see how it had differed from my memories.

VELTMAN: Maya Lin says the best way to inspire people to action is through this kind of empathy.

LIN: We hear, we read, we understand - it's a little abstract. How do we make it personal? Because I think you have to, in the end, communicate not just the facts, but you have to get people to feel.

VELTMAN: Lin says she likes what the National Portrait Gallery has done with this biographical show, though she's still a bit squeamish about being the center of attention.

LIN: I was happy with the show. I mean, I was embarrassed. I mean, I was a little, like, mortified by it.

VELTMAN: Maya Lin might never get truly used to living in the public eye. But her works continue to grab the public's attention, and, she hopes, the public's activism, too. Chloe Veltman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.