Lin’s work is self-consciously beautiful, because she is obsessed with harmony—how we fit into the world and how the world shapes us. “Site-specificity” is a cliché in contemporary art and architecture, but, if it is an instinctive mode for any artist, it is for Lin. Her impulse is not to impose form; it is to evoke form out of what is given—the landscape, the building, the light, the natural materials at hand. This impulse expresses itself in work that is simple, graceful, and, in its detachment, a little Zen.
But Lin is not a Zen-like person. She is a worrier. She worries that people think she’s abrasive, and she worries that she comes across as someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing. She thinks that she is too self-absorbed (“People would be amazed at how part of me has lived like the ostrich, with its head in the sand,” she said to me once, when I asked about her life outside work), but distractions make her nervous. The polished, stripped-down, carefully sit-uated work that she creates is the product of a permanently anxious sensibility. If you saw that a smear on your hand was ash, you would probably take note of it, but you would not be spooked by it. Lin was spooked by it, because the other side of her aesthetic is an apprehension of disaster. Her work is about order, harmony, and serenity, but it is also about what order and harmony are created to defy— waste, damage, loss, solitude, death. Her inability to speak of her work in those terms is probably a condition of her compulsion to make it.
If you ask Maya Lin what type of artist she is, one of the things she will say is “Midwestern.” She was born in Athens, Ohio, twenty miles from West Virginia, on the fringes of the Appalachians. Al¬though her architecture shows Scandinavian and Asian influences (she studied in Denmark and Japan), almost all the rest of her work—the memorials, the sculpture, the landscape art, the installations—takes its inspiration from the hills, stones, and streams of southeastern Ohio.
Athens is the home of Ohio University, where Lin’s mother (who still lives there) taught English and Asian literature, and where Lin’s father (who died in 1989) was the dean of the college of fine arts. Through sixth grade, Lin went to the university’s laboratory school, Putnam—a place where, in the progressive tradition of university laboratory schools, the children were encouraged to pursue their own interests. “By second or third grade, I was doing my own thing,” she says. “I still resent being told what to do in any way, shape, or form. I’m sure it’s clinical.” After Putnam, she went to public school, where she was first in her class.
Athens, she says, was idyllic. Still, she felt out of place. There are two forms of adolescent alienation: the kind where you reject your family and embrace your peers, and the kind where the senti¬ments run the other way. Lin’s was the second type. She never had a close friend after sixth grade; she didn’t wear makeup or go to the prom. “I was pretty much isolated by the time I got to high school,” she told me one day when we were sitting in the back of her studio, in a space she reserves for her art projects. There was a model be¬hind her for what will eventually be a room-sized sculpture based on the contours of the ocean floor (which look a lot like the hills of southeastern Ohio). “I didn’t get it. I never listened to, like, the Beatles. I was sort of in my own little world, and didn’t realize there was any other world.
“1 think some kids are just that way,” she said. “I think it was also the way my parents felt in Athens.” Lin is descended from two highly accomplished Chinese families. Her paternal grandfather, Lin Changmin, was a scholar, poet, and diplomat whose daughter Lin Huiyin, Maya Lin’s aunt, married Liang Sicheng, the son of the prominent political reform leader Liang Qichao. The couple were educated at the University of Pennsylvania, in the 1920s, and when they returned to China they dedicated themselves to recording and preserving China’s architectural heritage. Liang and Lin were also designers of some eminence. Liang was involved in planning the United Nations headquarters, in New York, in 1947. After the Com¬munists took over, he and Lin helped to design the new national flag and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, in the center of Tiananmen Square. Maya Lin’s mother, Ming-Hui, known as Julia, is the daughter of a prominent Shanghai eye specialist who received his medical education at Penn. Both of Julia’s grandmothers were doc¬tors; one of them was trained at Johns Hopkins.
Lin’s parents left China as the Communists were coming to power. Her father, Huan, called Henry, got out fairly easily. He had been an administrator at Fuzhou Christian University, and he left in 1948 for the University of Washington, on a scholarship to study ed¬ucation. Julia, though, had an odyssey. Her father used his American connections to get her admitted, as a junior, to Smith College, but the telegram informing her that she had been offered a scholar¬ship arrived the day the Communists marched into Shanghai, in May of 1949. She was smuggled out of Shanghai on a junk used to transport dried fish; her passport, visa, letter of acceptance, and ten dollars were sewn into the collar of her dress and her slippers. It took her a month to get to Hong Kong; she didn’t make it to Smith until October. She met Henry Lin at the University of Washington, where she went for graduate work, in 1951. Her father lost his prac¬tice in the Cultural Revolution, and he died in 1975. She never saw him again.