Architect and Artist Maya Lin

by Allison Bolam, History Collections Intern

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted many women the right to vote. Passage of the 19th Amendment has enabled women to pursue higher education, enter new professional fields, and influence politics, and women have continued to advocate for issues that affect their families, their communities, and the nation. As part of our continuing commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the Ohio History Connection is sharing stories of amazing Ohio women, past and present.

Maya Ying Lin was born in Athens, Ohio on October 5, 1959(1) to parents who fled China after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.(2) Her parents were both intellectuals and professors at Ohio University in Athens. Maya’s father was a ceramic artist and the dean of the Ohio University art school, while her mother was a poet and professor of Asian and English literature. In school, Lin excelled in both mathematics and art, and eventually she enrolled at Yale University. While at Yale, she studied both architecture and sculpture. Her professors encouraged her to pick just one field to study, but she ignored them. Refusing to place herself in just one category, she once said, “I consider myself both an artist and an architect.”(3)

In 1981 during Lin’s senior year at Yale, she entered a competition to create a design for a memorial to honor the U.S. service members who died in the Vietnam War. Twenty-one-year-old Maya Lin’s design was chosen by a panel of architects, artists, and designers as the winning entry.(4) The simple, award-winning design was a V-shaped, black granite wall that listed the names of the nearly 58,000 men and women who died or went missing in action during the Vietnam War. (5)

Portrait of Maya Lin

"Maya Lin 林瓔 - portrait 01" by 準建築人手札網站. Forgemind ArchiMedia is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Lin’s design for the memorial sparked controversy. It was different from the traditional heroic and masculine war monuments of the past. Whereas traditional memorials included figurative, heroic sculpture, Lin’s design did not.(6) Her simple black wall did not glorify heroes or attempt to justify the war as worthy. Critics of Lin’s design also argued that an Asian American woman was an inappropriate designer for a memorial dedicated to honoring veterans who fought in a war in Asia. As a result, Lin faced harsh debate about her design, and she endured racist and sexist remarks thrown her way. But the design struck a sentimental chord for loved ones of those who died in the war, and in subsequent years the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become the most visited monument in America. (7)

Maya Lin's earthwork art installation "11 Minute Line."

A shot of Maya Lin’s earthwork art installation “11 Minute Line” (Wanås Foundation, Wanås, Sweden, 2004). Lin was inspired by the burial and effigy mounds, especially Serpent Mound, from the time of the Adena, Hopewell, and Fort Ancient cultures in present-day Southeast Ohio. 

Boberger. Photo: Bengt Oberger, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is an aerial view of Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio.

This is an aerial view of Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio. Serpent Mound is an effigy mound built by the ancient American Indian cultures of Ohio, and it served as inspiration for Maya Lin’s earthwork “11 Minute Line.” The Serpent Mound is internationally known and is designated as a National Historic Landmark. To learn more about Serpent Mound, click here:

In 1986, Lin earned a master’s degree in architecture. Since then, she has gone on to complete both artistic and architectural projects. She continued to design other noteworthy memorials, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, the Women’s Table at Yale and most recently What is Missing? Her memorial What is Missing? is a cross-platform, global memorial dedicated to the planet which focuses on environmental issues. Lin has also taken on architectural projects for both public and private buildings. Some of these projects include the Museum for Chinese in America (2009) in New York City and the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (2015) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lin’s designs focus on the relationship between the landscape and built environment, and she is committed to creating environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions for her works. (8)

Maya Lin has been recognized in several solo exhibitions at museums and galleries across the world and has been featured in various journalistic profiles and documentaries. She wrote a book, Boundaries (2006), about her work and creative process. In 2009, Lin was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor for artistic excellence in the U.S. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Maya Lin continues today to design and create, her works merging the physical and psychological environment to present a new way to see the world around us.(9)



Works Cited

(1)The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Maya Lin,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, published October 21, 2019,

(2)Deborah G. Felder, "Maya Lin (1959–)," in The American Women's Almanac: 500 Years of Making History (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2020),

(3)Felder, “Maya Lin (1959-).”

(4) Felder, “Maya Lin (1959-).”

(5)Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Maya Lin.”

(6) Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Maya Lin.”

(7)Felder, “Maya Lin (1959-).”

(8)“About,” Maya Lin Studio, accessed September 30, 2020,

(9) “About,” Maya Lin Studio


Maya Lin Studio. “About.” Accessed September 30, 2020.

Felder, Deborah G. “Maya Lin (1959-).” In The American Women’s Almanac: 500 Years of Making History. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2020. ),

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Maya Lin.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Published October 21, 2019.

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