‘One Life: Maya Lin’ intersects environmentalism and art to expose the intrinsic beauty of nature
The National Portrait Gallery gives a closer look at the life and influences of Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam War Memorial
The National Portrait Gallery’s biographical exhibition “One Life: Maya Lin” is an intimate portrait of the muses and artwork of Maya Lin, who is the first Asian-American to be featured in the “One Life” exhibition. Lin is a renowned architect best known for designing the Vietnam War Memorial and dedicating her career to exploring the relationship between nature and humans.
Growing up in the forests of Cable Lane, Ohio, Lin observed a sense of magic in nature.
“Behind our house were three ridges separated by streams. My entire childhood was spent playing in these woods and on these hills,” Lin wrote.
Lin also draws inspiration from her father Henry Huan Lin. He was a ceramicist who immigrated from China to the U.S. in the 1940s to pursue an art career and served as Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Ohio University.
“It wasn’t until after my father died that I realized the enormous impact he had on my work,” Lin wrote in a panel underneath her father’s work. “After school, my brother and I would walk over to our father’s studio and spend countless hours watching as our father kneaded the clay, pounding it, pushing it, cutting it through the wire.”
Lin seems to approach her work with humility and a sense of gratitude toward her family. Throughout her career she has earned numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 under the Obama administration, for her work related to human rights and environmentalism.
Lin has also advocated for protecting the environment, as shown by one of her most recent pieces, “Ghost Forest.” This piece is a reflection of her experience witnessing a sea of Atlantic white cedars in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
The shift in the Earth’s wellbeing is highlighted through Lin’s work; the audience follows the exhibit in chronological order, with her subject matter transitioning from the beauty of nature to show how that beauty is impermanent.
Next to “Ghost Forest” hangs a wall-length map of the world filled in with anecdotes from audience members who’ve attended the exhibit. In this multimedia project, titled “What is Missing?,” Lin prompts those who attend the exhibit to engage with how she perceives nature and share their personal experiences by writing down memories of natural wonders that were lost during their lifetime.
One person wrote, “No more need of a bridge to cross the glacier if there is no ice left;” while others reminisce on the loss of wildlife: “I remember petting bumblebees as a child. I almost never see them now,” and “I have not heard the Bob Whites call their name in the state of New York since the 1980s.”
In the project description, Lin calls this piece her “final memorial” and an “anti-monument,” attempting to break from one’s idea of a monument by allowing her piece to exist in a physical and virtual space.
This piece of the exhibit emphasizes Lin’s overarching pull towards reimagining grief and loss. After drawing inspiration from nature’s beauty and bountifulness her entire life, “What is Missing?” portrays a pensive and mournful exploration into how an artist copes with their muse dying.
Lin’s exhibit displays how her art uses contrasting ideas to create a space of exploration into people’s connection with nature and each other.
“I feel I exist on the boundaries somewhere between science and art, art and architecture, public and private, East and West,” Lin wrote. “I am always trying to find a balance between these opposing forces, the place where opposites meet.”
‘One Life: Maya Lin’ is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until April 16, 2023