A river runs through her

It is perhaps impossible to think of artist Maya Lin without thinking of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

She was but a 21-year-old Yale University undergraduate when she was selected in 1981 — out of 1,421 entries in a blind competition — to create the memorial, which quickly became controversial for its black granite wing shape and lack of figural accompaniment.

But yesterday’s controversy has a way of becoming today’s icon, and “The Wall” is now an integral part of American healing, as we saw recently when Cindy McCain placed a wreath there in memory of her late husband, Sen. John McCain. 

Lost perhaps in the controversy and time is how rooted that memorial is to the land, not as a gaping or closing wound but as the monument it is, beautiful in its groundedness.

“I think you’re reading it exactly as she intended,” says Miwako Tezuka, a modern and contemporary Asian art specialist who as a Japanese immigrant studying art at New York University in 1989 saw in Lin what she wanted to become — an Asian-American woman in the arts. “She gave me encouragement,” Tezuka says.

So it is not surprising to hear her say, almost 30 years later, that it was “truly my dream” to curate an exhibit of Lin’s work. The result is “Maya Lin: A River Is A Drawing” a multimedia exhibit opening this month at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers — not far from where Lin and her husband, photographer Daniel Wolf, have an art space — that offers a multifaceted approach not only to the River that Flows Both Ways, as native peoples called the Hudson, but to the museum itself.

“I have never explored the same river in varied mediums at one time the way I plan to at the Hudson River Museum,” Lin says in a statement. “From the bamboo garden stakes, which will create a drawing you physically interact with, to an interior flood of marbles of the very same river, to a smaller mapping of the entire Hudson River watershed — each one is a unique drawing, and each one offers a different way in which the body will interact with the form.”

Like many of us, perhaps, Tezuka says she thought of Lin first as an artist and only later as the environmentalist she also is. 

“Artists are often the first ones to organize for change,” Tezuka says. “(Maya) is leading artists’ concern about climate change and how to make habitats sustainable for all creatures.”

Indeed, part of the exhibit is “What Is Missing?” — an ongoing digital art project and environmental advocacy movement at whatismissing.net — that explores all we have lost and all that remains.

Lin talks about this in our email interview:

While your work has always had such an environmental quality, it is particularly concerned with water. Why the fascination with water and what is your earliest memory of it? 

“I think where I grew up in a small town (Athens) in Ohio. My house was surrounded by woods and there were three creeks that ran through the property. I probably spent much of my childhood playing out of doors and in the streams.

“Also being very concerned about the environment. So much of what is critical to improving the environment focuses on our rivers and the watersheds that feed them. And lastly, I think the physical character of water makes it one of the elements that exists in all three states (solid, liquid, gas), and that transmitting ability of water is of great interest to me.”

The exhibit uses many kinds of materials, including recycled marbles. Is that a tribute to the multifaceted nature of the river or is it more a statement about conservation?

“It is more the reflective quality of water that the glass captures.”

Why did you want to collaborate with the Hudson River Museum on this show?

“I think for both the collections at the museum, which contain so many of the Hudson River painters, and the fact that I have always felt much of my work is presenting and representing the natural world and specifically water but in a new way, in a decidedly three-dimensional and sculptural way.

“In this show, I am trying to consciously think of how a drawing for me is a three-dimensional sketch of sorts.”

You have spoken of yourself as a designer and not an architect, but is it possible you’re really a sculptor?

“I am technically not a licensed architect so I cannot refer to myself as one but I have and continue to create works of architecture. It is an equal commitment in my work that parallels my art career.”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so moving, a touchstone for its many visitors. Do you feel vindicated by that?

“I feel fortunate to have been able to create this work. I’m heartened that it has talked to and moved so many and I’m happy that I have been able to see a continuity with my later works while also being able to define my career. My works in both art and architecture are separate from the memorials.”

You come from an artistic family. What is your first memory of your own artistic passion?

“I cannot remember when I was not making artworks. Since my father was dean of fine arts (at Ohio University) and a ceramicist, my brother Tan and I would wait after grade school at the ceramic studio. So I played with the clay at the studio every day.”

How did you and your husband come to turn the former Yonkers City Jail into a studio?

“My husband is an avid collector of art. His art storage was in lower Manhattan in the basement and sub-basement. Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters came a block away, so he had to find a new place. The jail was a perfect place for him to create a private collections space that allows him to catalog and view these works.”

What’s next for you?

“I am currently working on art installations for Princeton University and MIT, as well as for a site in Denmark. In architecture, I am working on a library for Smith College and a museum in China.

“And I am also very committed to completing the last phase of “What Is Missing? Greenprint,” which will focus on envisioning macro thinking mappings that show possible ways in which we can both reduce emissions and protect species and biodiversity by protecting and restoring habitats as well as reforming agricultural, ranching and
forestry practices.”

“Maya Lin: A River Is A Drawing” is at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers Oct. 12 through Jan. 20. For more, visit hrm.org.

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