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When she was only 21 years old, Maya Lin won the competition to design a Vietnam Veterans Memorial for Washington, D.C. Out of 1,400 designs by professional architects, designers, and artists, Lin's design was chosen, and she was still in college at the time. Amidst controversy and instant fame, she has continued on to design other memorials, buildings, sculptures, and furniture, always showing her creative and original side.
Maya Lin was born in 1959 in Athens, Ohio, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who met in the United States. Both parents were professors, her father a professor of ceramics, and her mother a professor of literature. A passion for art ran in Maya Lin's family, with her brother Tan becoming a poet and professor.
Lin decided to pursue an education in both art and architecture, combining the two fields along with history and the environment. While studying architecture at Yale University, Maya Lin and her classmates heard about the contest to design a memorial in honor of United States Vietnam Veterans. Maya decided that the memorial should not overwhelm the land allotted, but instead become part of it.
Maya Lin pictured a wall in a V-shape, made of polished black granite, listing the names of the 58,000 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War. She envisioned the names in chronological order, with the dates of the death or disappearance of each person listed along with their name. Maya Lin wanted the memorial to be both visual and tangible to be a reminder of those who were lost.
Instead of a political statement, Maya Lin simply wanted to create a memorial and reminder of an era and of 58,000 people lost. She did not want to create more controversy over the Vietnam war, as the United states had been deeply divided over the war, with veterans of the war experiencing taunts and sometimes violence when they returned home.
Some people were concerned about a young female student of Asian descent designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Others were concerned about Maya Lin's design, especially as it resembled a scar or deep gash in the earth. Lin stuck to her design, believing that it was important to include all names in order to show the depth of American losses. She also saw the design as being critical, symbolizing a wound that would heal but would always leave a scar in the nation's history.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, D.C. in 1982, and is visited by millions each year. Maya Lin earned a master's degree in architecture, opened an art studio, and started a family. In 1989, she designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama: a circle of black granite with the names of Americans killed in the Civil Rights movement along with important events of the era, covered by flowing water. Lin also designed the Langston Hughes Library in Tennessee and the Women's Table at Yale University.