Monday, May 7, 2018

“Thinking with her hands”


Maya Lin has built monuments in clay, granite, water, earth, glass and wood. Her most famous monument is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, an opportunity she won in a contest she entered anonymously as a college student.  It was controversial from the beginning.  Critics wondered why a person of Asian heritage should design a monument to veterans of a war fought against Asians. Others criticized what appeared to them as a black scar in the earth. But now this monument in Washington, D.C., is visited by more than three million people every year.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial/Creative Commons photo
Susan Goldman Rubin’s new and highly acclaimed biography of Maya Lin – Maya Lin: thinking with her hands - includes photos of the many more monuments and sculptures she has designed, along with her struggles about whether and how to design each one. 

                                    
“I try to understand the ‘why’ of a project before it’s a ‘what.’”

She used the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, to “give people an understanding of what that time period was about.”  She literally sculpted the earth to create a grassy Wave Field at the University of Michigan’s aerospace engineering building. She redesigned an old barn for a retreat center in Tennessee for the Children’s Defense Fund. 

Not only is Maya Lin: Thinking with her hands a thought-provoking story of how an artist works, it can spur conversations and writing as well.  It could be a perfect way to open a discussion of national and local monuments – including the many that are controversial right now - but you could also have students : 

·       Write about a monument or statue in your town. What does it mean to you? Why is it important for that statue to be in your town?
·       Do you think there are other monuments that could be added or removed from your town? Write a persuasive essay explaining your reasons.
·       If your school is named for a person, what sort of monument would you create to honor that person? This could be a class project, especially for younger children. (My own children’s elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, was always known just as “Barnsley.” Turns out it was the first Montgomery County school named for a woman. Lucy V. Barnsley not only taught for 35 years, but also donated books to start the first library in Rockville and started the Retired Teachers Association in the county.)
·       Design a monument to any person or event that is important to you and write an artist’s statement about your monument.  Maya Lin’s essay about her Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition entry is included in the book, but may also be read here.

Maya Lin expects her last commission to be a project called “What is Missing?” at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. This ecological history of the planet invites scientists, conservationists and everyone to find ways to “learn enough from the past to rethink a different and better future.” And that can spark many many more writing ideas.



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