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"Becoming American" Interview with Maya Lin
BILL MOYERS: My favorite line from your book comes very close to the end where you write, "I do not think you can find a reason for everything you make." Talk to me about that.
MAYA LIN: Everything you make is being made by every single experience you've ever had in your whole life, and on top of that, things you were born with. I think your personality comes out.
There's no way of really saying: "If A, then B, or A plus B equals C in creativity." The true strength of the creative arts is that you allow yourself to think about something. Then how it finds its way in your mind to the surface through your hands to-- whether it's paint or sculpture-- is intuited. I think there's reason to it. But could you extrapolate? Could you actually formulate a mathematical theorem? Absolutely not.
BILL MOYERS: You couldn't put a pin on a map of (UNINTEL)?
MAYA LIN: No. You could never do that, nor would you want to do that. I split my time between art and architecture. And in art, that's truly the case. I think in architecture, a lot of it is fairly reasoned.
There is a lot of problem-solving going about. But still, the underlying threat, again, will be something that I would hope you can't quite put your finger on why you exactly did what you did.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever experience an idea physically before you see it? Do you feel it in your body before your eye beholds it?
MAYA LIN: Absolutely. I would say you'd get a sense. I would feel it in my fingertips sometimes. I just have a sense for what I would like to be in or see or sense. Sometimes you're basically imagining an emotion.
I wanna feel like this. Another adage in art is: you're a child and then you become an adult. You're always trying to regain that pure, almost empathetic response that you have when you're a child. It doesn't come with a lot of baggage. You're not worried about, "Oh, what are you thinking here, here, here?" You just respond in certain ways.
I think sometimes: Can you think like a child? We're always trying to regain that. I almost make things imagining a child will experience them.
There are different levels of experiencing pieces. One thing that is very valuable to me is the unlearned response.
BILL MOYERS: The unlearned response?
MAYA LIN: As you get older and you have more experiences, you're gonna see something differently. But I still am as fascinated by that eight-year-old. How are they gonna react to this?
BILL MOYERS: I read somewhere that an idea comes to you like an egg?
MAYA LIN: Yeah. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: Then the question is, where does it get hatched?
MAYA LIN: I've never thought about that. (LAUGHS) It's sort of the idea of being. I can work on a project for three years.
But you'll never see me working on it. I'll be designing other things. Generally, the first concept, the initial idea, I can just wake up one morning after having not worked on it for a year, get up, do a sketch, make a model, and I know that's what it is.
Now, your great fear in art is that it's never guaranteed you're going to get that next idea. And there's always the fear that the idea you just made that you really, really love, you'll never be able to do it again.
(LAUGHS) And so for all your past and all your background, sometimes you go through periods where you don't have an idea. And you just have to believe you're gonna break through that.
BILL MOYERS: Writing is important to you, isn't it?
MAYA LIN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: I actually read every word of the proposal for the [Vietnam Veterans] Memorial. It was beautifully written, not only in terms of its ideas, but in handwriting. Your handwriting is quite unusual.
MAYA LIN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about how writing fits into the hatching of the idea.
MAYA LIN: I try to understand the "why" of a project before it's a "what." And this might be more pertinent to some of my memorial projects. Memorials are a hybrid between art and architecture because they have a function.
But their function isn't like a physical function, like a house is to shelter you. It's a very conceptual, symbolic function. Whether it's the Civil Rights Memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or even the Women's Table. There is a definite need for something. So, then you have to say, "What is it? What should that be? What do I wanna do here? What would I like to accomplish? What are the goals?" I tend to almost sketch an idea sometimes with text.
I'll write. I'll sit down and I'll just write what I think I wanna say here, what needs to be said, how to do it. I try not to second-guess it by finding a form and then trying to apply meaning or function to the form.
If you have the pre-conceived idea of what you think it looks like before you really shape it verbally, then you're trying to stuff function into a pre-existing form. What I love doing in a lot of my works is to write about it because you can get a conceptual sketch of what you think you want without any form. And then usually, the form finds me.
BILL MOYERS: Does the form emerge in your head as you're writing?
MAYA LIN: Not necessarily.
BILL MOYERS: Or are you writing about a form you've already seen?
MAYA LIN: Sometimes I write about me. It's almost like what I would like to accomplish with it. It might take me a month or two before I start. Then I'll make a model of the actual site.
And then I'll absolutely physically respond to the site. In my subconscious has been this underlying current of what I wanted to do there.
BILL MOYERS: The narrative?
MAYA LIN: Yeah, the narrative.
MAYA LIN: I don't do a narrative and then try to make a form articulate that narrative. I think it can fall flat on its face as well. The two are working simultaneously and then they come together at some point.
BILL MOYERS: The writing is not a blueprint?
MAYA LIN: No. The writing isn't a blueprint. It's sort of like when an artist makes a sketch and only that artist can know what that feeling is. My text can be the same way. It can be very much about feelings and emotions.
BILL MOYERS: Let me take just a few of your works and you describe as simply as you can the idea and the emotion that led to that. One of my favorites of course, as it is with many, is the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Now, just tell me about that.
MAYA LIN: I got a phone call from the Southern Poverty Law Center. They had to track me down. I was out of graduate school. I was doing an internship. I was unlisted, as always, in New York City. I was home sick with the flu. Eddie Ashworth gets on the phone and says, "You know, would you be interested in designing a civil rights memorial?"
And I thought well, isn't there one already? And he said, "No, there isn't. There's one for Martin Luther King. But actually, no one has really tackled the civil rights memorial as a piece. Would you be interested?"
I had two feelings at the time. One, I really did not wanna be typecast as a memorial designer. Two, I could not believe that there hadn't been a national civil rights memorial. I asked them to send me materials. And I got everything from "Eyes on the Prize," -- that was a documentary as well as a book, to many, many books on--
BILL MOYERS: It was a multi-part series Henry Hampton did--
MAYA LIN: Right.
I was stunned at what I began to read. I had no idea that, in 1963, which was when I was a child, that a boy was murdered for talking to a white woman.
BILL MOYERS: Emmett Till?
MAYA LIN: Emmett Till. Actually, that was earlier. I think in '63, Samuel Younge Jr. was killed for using a "whites-only" bathroom.
BILL MOYERS: Oh yes, that's right.
You weren't aware of the Civil Rights--
MAYA LIN: As a child, you're not very news-conscious. The Vietnam War was much more in the main news. I think the rioting was. But I think a lot of the facts hadn't been written into the textbooks because it was current news. From a child's point of view, you're not focusing on the daily news the same way. Anyway, I was stunned at how there was this part of American history. I know now it's absolutely covered in textbooks.
But could I offer something out as an information table that would give people a brief glimpse of that era the way I had been, after having looked at this material, been given a glimpse? And of course, the idea is, you look at this. You'll want to study it more. Because the one thing about sculptures, the one thing about memorials is: I can draw you in. I can make you think for 15 minutes, whatever, then it's really about where you go after that.
Are you gonna be so shocked? I think the Southern Poverty Law Center thought, "We'll get a table of martyrs," 'cause it's in the Vietnam memorial, names will do. I was very focused on how it was teaching people about the history 'cause I think in the end, a lot of my works deal with history and teaching. It's not so much about death. It's really about sharing a history so that we don't forget it, so we can improve upon it.
BILL MOYERS: Where did the water come from, the idea of the water?
MAYA LIN: The water was literally on my first plane ride down to see the site. So now, if you think back to the narrative, I have been reading about the Civil Rights history for the last couple months. Then I go visit the site.
Ironically, on the way down, I'm on the airplane. And I do a lot of sketching or thinking about things in midair. I came across Martin Luther King's quote from the Book of Amos in his "I Have a Dream" speech. "We are not satisfied. We shall not be satisfied until justice--rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Again, intuition. I knew right then and there before the plane even landed, the piece was going to be about water.
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. And that's the two [elements] and then the water pulls them together symbolically.
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