It’s the birthday of sculptor and architect Maya Ying Lin, born in Athens, Ohio (1959). Her parents both grew up in affluent, professional households, but they fled China in 1948, just before the Communist takeover. Her father had been an academic administrator, but took up ceramics and became a professor of art. Her mother had received a scholarship to Smith, and was smuggled out of Shanghai in a boat as the harbor was being bombed. She had 50 dollars and a suitcase. Both of Lin’s parents eventually took positions as professors at Ohio University, and Lin could have gone to college there for free, but they were so excited when she got into Yale that there was never a question of her going anywhere else.
Lin was studying architecture and sculpture during her senior year at Yale when she heard about a national competition to design a monument to honor Vietnam War veterans. She decided to enter and designed a sleek, black granite wall that would be inscribed with the names of 58,000 American soldiers who were killed or missing in action in Vietnam. It was dramatically different from a typical war memorial, and when Lin’s entry won the contest, a group of Vietnam veterans objected to it. Eventually a compromise was reached, with a more realistic sculpture of soldiers nearby. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lies in the northwest corner of the National Mall in Washington, was opened to the public on November 11, 1982.
Lin founded her own studio in 1986, and has gone on to design several more installations, including a monument to the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama (1989). She began reading up on the movement and was shocked at how much had been left out of her childhood education. She knew she would incorporate water into the memorial when she read a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” She said, “What bothered me about going down thinking about the past in this one is that it’s not done. It’s not a closed timeline. It’s ongoing. What the Southern Poverty Law Center is struggling with is the ongoing, is the future. So I needed something to connect the past, which would be the history, which became the water table, with the talk about the future which is the quote … then the water pulls them together symbolically.”