The Lauded Designer of the Vietnam War Memorial Brings Her Art to the Valley

Maya Lin discusses her new installation at the Hudson River Museum, the Washington D.C. memorial, and environmental activism.


Artist and architect Maya Lin may be best known for her design for the Vietnam War Memorial, but her environmental activism comes to the fore in a new installation at the Hudson River Museum. A River is a Drawing presents a massive, site-specific piece mapping the Hudson River from mountain to sea, beginning outside with a growth of bamboo grass stalks forming the river basin, and continuing into the museum’s atrium as a webbing-wire map of the Hudson Canyon, where the river falls out into the Atlantic. Other galleries connect these pieces to Lin’s other artistic and environmental work, from her large-scale installations at places like Storm King Art Center and her What Is Missing? activist project. Hudson Valley Magazine interviewed the artist via email this summer, while she was working on the exhibit.


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When did you start doing work in and around the Hudson River? What drew you to this area and this ecosystem?

Maya Lin: In my artworks I am and have been interested in making us aware of our immediate environment, oftentimes focusing attention on what natural terrain or topography exists quite literally beneath us that we may not be aware of. Much of what I focus on is revealing the natural world through a lens of technology — whether it be sonar mappings of the ocean floor or aerial views of the earth. Since I live in New York City, the Hudson River and the nearby waterways and bays have been a major part of my focus in my body of work. 


This exhibition, with its use of the Hudson River bed, watershed, and canyon, focuses on geologic structure and time. How did you choose the features you wanted to highlight and map? What, with this use of massive systems and courses, were you trying to convey about the river itself?

ML: I think I like to ground the viewer in their natural surroundings: getting us to rethink what exactly our sense of place is in relation to the natural terrain, in relation to the planet. Riverways are seldom understood or seen in their entirety, so I have and continue to reveal them as complete wholes.

This exhibit will allow me to experiment with several material changes focused on the Hudson River and its watershed. Each one unique and scaled so that you will relate to each sculpture both three-dimensionally and linearly, as a drawing. The idea, to walk a simple line drawing and to explore the shape of this very familiar river with your entire body as you follow its form, is something that I have wanted to explore for quite some time.

As a sculptor I have wanted to create sculptural works that blur the boundaries between drawing and sculpture.

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Pin River – Hudson Watershed, Installation view / Photo by Kris Graves


Portions of this exhibition are highly interactive. Why? Is that particularly significant for an installation that explores the relationship of the viewer and their world?

ML: I think they are a way to create a walk along a river that is as much a mapping as it is a sculptural line that can be related to with your entire body as you walk along it — and where you can “cross” through it — which points will be exactly where bridges occur on the actual river. 

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How do you see this exhibition fitting alongside Wavefield, your piece at Storm King?

ML: I think these works represent the parallel path that I have taken in my smaller studio sculptures. They are mappings and studies of natural topographies that make you aware of where we are in the world.


Why did you decide to purchase the Yonkers City Jail? I know that you’re fabricating much of this upcoming installation there. Will having a large, readily-available fabrication space have an effect on the kind and scope of work you accept going forward?

ML: The Yonkers Jail is something my husband, Daniel Wolf, has purchased to store his art collections. I am staging many of my artworks there, but, due to the nature of my works, we will be building most of the works on site at the Museum. Only one work will be fabricated in advance (the wire landscape of the Hudson Canyon), which I will be creating at the jail and moving into the Museum. 


Pin River – Hudson Watershed, 2018 (detail), stainless steel pins, courtesy of Maya Lin / Photo by Kris Graves


My editor-in-chief saw you speak at the School of Visual Arts this year, where you talked about the ordeal of being nationally challenged after your Vietnam War Memorial design was released. How does the furor look to you now, this many years later? Do you think it has impacted your subsequent work at all?

ML: I think it was a rather difficult time that I have moved on from a very long time ago. I was trying to stress the sexism, racism, and ageism that I had to endure, and that we still all sadly face. I was trying to get this graduating class a sense of strength in believing as an artist in your vision, and that persevering and fighting for what you believe in is vital in making a work of art. 


Further, I was struck, watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novack’s Vietnam War series, by your description of the purpose of your memorial, as a series of interlocking planes that allow one to descend into a valley of death, where this life and the next might mingle. It is, in many ways, an avowedly apolitical description. But, like your installations here, the known context and the purpose of the work plant that seed of politics and activism in a visitor’s mind. Is this an intentional effect? Do you think a viewer could view your work without taking in the larger meaning implied in the design?

ML: I think all my work tries to reveal facts, whether it be historical facts (civil rights, Vietnam) or geologic facts.

My works will always be trying to reveal truths and facts about our world. The memorials specifically have been focused on getting us to remember accurately our past, in hopes that we can learn from history and shape a better future. In my art and in my life I have been a concerned environmentalist, and in choosing to focus attention on the natural world I am at times trying to get us to pay closer attention to the land, to rivers, to species.

The planet with climate change is facing a crisis — species are disappearing at a disastrous rate, and we, mankind, are to blame for this sixth mass extinction. In my art and in my foundation, The What is Missing? Foundation, I am trying to not just make us aware of this huge and dangerous shift in the planet, but also with What Is Missing? I am trying to make us aware of what we could all do to help reduce emissions and protect species. 

I think the history of mankind in relation to the great waterways we have chosen to live by, and to benefit from, somehow personifies our relationship to the natural world. We have manipulated, polluted, and altered our waterways so much, yet with awareness and protection many of our waterways are rebounding and they are cleaner and more biodiverse than they have been in the past 100 years. By showcasing and mapping these waterways through time, we can see how much we could restore them and protect them.

A River is a Drawing will be on display at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, October 14 – January 20.


Folding the Hudson, 2018 (detail), glass marbles, adhesive, courtesy of Maya Lin / Photo by Jason Green

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