Environment Is Maya Lin's Latest Muse

Architect, designer and environmental artist, Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

In 1981, at the age 21, Lin won a design competition for the memorial, and her entry produced the now famous polished black granite wall, with the names of 58,260 fallen soldiers carved into its face. As a Chinese American, she faced much opposition and criticism; letters were written protesting that a "gook" was chosen to create this iconic structure, recalled Lin in an interview with ABC.

When a reporter at the time asked Lin if it was ironic that someone of Asian heritage was selected, she said she was "happily naive to think that one shouldn't be judged by race" and dismissed the question. She conceded that "in hindsight, the reporter was right."

Decades have passed, and even the memorial's harshest critics now accept that this striking yet solemn monument honors the veterans of Vietnam.

Lin's Chinese heritage was by deliberate parental design not part of her childhood.

"My mother was smuggled out of China at the age of 20 and never saw her father again," said Lin.

"My parents left their homeland and brought very little with them," she reflected. "They made a conscious decision not to bring me up bilingual in order to assimilate. I grew up in Athens, Ohio, and we were the only Chinese family in the city. Everyone was Caucasian."

"When I looked in the mirror I thought I looked like everyone else," she said. Although Lin was instinctively drawn to "Asian aesthetic design," it was not until she participated in Bill Moyer's "Becoming American" 2003 PBS series that she became aware of her deep ignorance of Chinese American history.

"I didn't even know about the Exclusion Act!" she exclaimed, referring to the 1882 legislation that banned Chinese immigrants from entering the United States and excluded Chinese residents already here from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

"It is ironic. I grew up in Ohio as an American whose parents happened to be Chinese and now have come full circle," said Lin, who now fiercely embraces her heritage.

Lin joined the board of the Museum of Chinese in America, or MOCA, and designed the newly expanded museum, which recently opened in New York's Chinatown.

"It took 3½ years and was a labor of love," she said proudly.

The building, which was an early 1900 industrial machine repair shop, was converted into a 14,000 square-foot space dedicated to preserving and presenting the history and culture of Chinese Americans. In the lobby, visitors can see Lin's Journey Wall, which is a "fundraising wall and a real attempt to democratize the giving" by having donors names and locations inscribed on the wall.

MOCA's shop, according to Lin's video tour of the museum, is made of "formaldehyde-free medite and one of the greenest sources of timber so that we're not contributing to deforestation."

Lin's formative years were the 1960s, when she was influenced by the civil rights, women's and environmental movements. She has addressed and incorporated these issues in her memorials, not only the Vietnam Veterans Memorial but her Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., the Women's Table at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and the ongoing Confluence Project, a multi-sited installation that has brought significant ecological restoration to six state and national parks along the Columbia River Basin.

Her final public memorial focuses on extinct and vanishing species and is aptly titled "What Is Missing?"

"It is a multi-sited artwork dedicated to bringing awareness to the current crisis surrounding biodiversity and habitat loss," said Lin.

It comprises a permanent sculptural installation, "The Listening Cone," based at the California Academy of Sciences, a continually updated Web site, a book and a touring show called "The Dark Room" in which viewers can look at environmental video messages from floor projectors on portable glass screens.

"The Dark Room" can currently be seen in Manhattan at Salon 94, a private Upper East Side art gallery, which is also hosting Lin's show "Recycled Landscapes." According to Lin, this is her "first show of small-scaled works in a gallery," which is owned by her friend Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn.

"I got obsessed with garbage and started accumulating FedEx boxes," she explained, and her obsession resulted in FedEx World, one of her freestanding cardboard landscapes that are part of the exhibit.

The exhibition centers on eight "asteroids," as Lin calls them. Two are made from recycled tempered glass, three of recycled gumball containers, one of bottle caps and the last two are made of plastic toys. The smaller and mainly pink one is called "Toy Asteroid: Girl" and comprises the broken toys of Lin's two daughters, India and Rachel.

When it came time to make 'Toy Asteroid: Boy," Lin called her "mom friends including Jeanne" and asked for their sons' old toys.

"They have to be broken otherwise we would have donated them," emphasized Lin.

This call for toys led to many conversations with Jeanne about hosting an exhibit of Lin's small-scale sculptural work, which would focus on natural landscapes and environmental sustainability.

"We are burying ourselves in garbage. We should be buying only reclaimed paper for toilet paper. We should not cut down any old growth trees to make toilet paper. There is no excuse. One in four mammals is in danger of extinction because of habitat loss. We as individuals can make a huge difference. We can effect change," said Lin passionately.

As a result, Lin says 10 percent of the profits from the sales from "Recycled Landscapes" will be donated to her What is Missing Foundation.

"Recycled Landscapes" should be seen together with Lin's "Three Ways of looking at the Earth," which is the artist's first solo exhibition at PaceWildenstein gallery in New York. The latter is a large scale exhibit, which according to Lin, "developed from bringing my outdoors landscape works indoors."

It features three different topographies -- two real and one imagined. Her "2 x 4 Landscape" is a hill made of 50,000 vertical 2-by-4-inch pieces of Sustainable Forestry Initiative wood, which took one year to make.

"It takes one month to install and one month to deinstall," explained Lin, "so it can only be shown twice a year.

"Water Line" maps the ocean floor along the mid-Atlantic ridge as it ascends to Bouvet Island near Antarctica. "It's made of bent aluminum," said Lin and is suspended to allow visitors to walk underneath it.

"Blue Lake Pass" is a 3-D rendition of a mountainous terrain in Colorado, where Lin's family spends their summers.

"It's a perfect StairMaster hike 3 miles up a mountain to crystal clear lakes," she said. Composed of formaldehyde-free particle wood, Lin created 20 individual units that form narrow passageways through the mountain pass. "I wanted to pull apart the earth and allow people to walk through it," she explained.

Lin is going on sabbatical for a year and is taking her husband and two daughters for a trip around the world, part of which will include documenting raptor migration. "My kids will be out of school, but they'll have a tutor. I want to show them a lot of nature that I hope they, in turn, will be able to show their kids one day," said the dedicated environmentalist.

Maya Lin: Recycled Landscapes is at Salon 94 from Sept. 25- Nov. 13, 2009.

Maya Lin: Three Ways of Looking at the Earth is at PaceWildenstein from September 10 through October 24, 2009.

For more information on What is Missing? Click Here.