another way of knowing

by Elizabeth de Barros

I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth.

-Maya Lin


WITH NO PARAMETERS but her own sensibilities, Maya Lin’s work is born of an internal permission to use elusive, massive things — the curvature of the earth, ocean tides, and horizon lines put to scale. If lines don’t exist, she creates them. If they do, she moves them. The medium is her servile student while she works from a place somewhere deep within. Operating on the subliminal, she intuits by assigning the work as her muse.

She is artist, consultant, middleman, and architect.  Staying true to her vision, her greatest feat.

Whether it be made of water, wood, paper, wire, glass, metal, granite, or the earth itself, she creates forms that would defy all practicality if they were not so stark in beauty and understatement. As a child, she roamed and played for hours in the great outdoors, and her work, as she puts it, is the response to the beauty of the natural world. In all her works, simplicity evokes a certain silence that forces us to look hard and listen.

About herself she once said, “I feel I exist on the boundaries.”

As a Yale undergraduate student of architecture, at 21 she won the competition for the design that is her most famous: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Though aware that winning meant obtaining further approvals at different phases of development, she stepped onto fresh battlegrounds over every decision made about the funded installment. When The Washington Post referred to it as an “Asian Memorial for an Asian War,” a bomb went off between veterans and artist.  Unprepared for the level of politics to which the controversy had soared, she was brought before a Congressional panel where a firestorm broke out against her for having a vision she was unwilling to change. They felt they had a right to control it, make it their own. A flag, combat boot, statue of a soldier- these were acceptable icons. But that is not what the artist envisioned. She could not repent of what was not sin.

Her art was the offering.

The young Chinese-American held to her vision, and on May 15, 1982 took a nation to the boundaries as two polished dark gabbro walls were received into the earth to be read as an intimate book of  58,195 names; a public place of refuge where people could remember a most private grief.

“The price of human life in war should always be clearly remembered.”

Her only goal.


The purpose of art is manifold.  It soothes. It lifts. It confronts. It informs. And it tests the minds of the reasonable and disarms the proud. CIVA curator James Stambaugh once said:

“Art will always be another way of knowing and that makes it one of the last frontiers of human exploration.”

One way or another, artists suffer for their art. They are often misunderstood. Genuine artists don’t create for fame, money, or to please others. They’re not concerned about acquiring real estate on some gallery wall. They create to prevent a form of internal combustion if they don’t. Art is something they must do.

So I listen to artists who have suffered. I listen to their reasons and discoveries. So often, they are the unsung heroes of another language altogether.

Art will always be another way of knowing.

Making the Memorial, Maya Lin

USA Today article, November 8, 2012 

Maya Lin’s Systematic Landscapes

Maya Lin’s more recent work