Nearly all of the people who have received biographical exhibitions at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery — Sylvia Plath, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Junior, to name a few — are long dead.
But the museum's latest subject, Maya Lin, is still very much alive and at the height of her powers as an architect, designer, visual artist and environmental activist.
Lin's works include the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, the Langston Hughes Library in Tennessee and What Is Missing? — the massive, ongoing, environmental activism project she launched in 2009 — and of course the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. that launched her career 40 years ago.
But despite all the attention paid to her work, Lin herself is someone who has eschewed the limelight for decades.
"I've always sort of felt my works are public, but I'm not," she said.
Under the glare of the spotlight
At 63, Lin's desire to keep her private life to herself dates back at least to her early 20s.
She was still an undergraduate at Yale in 1981 when her sleek, understated design in black granite for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial beat out the other 1400-plus submissions and sparked a pitiless backlash.
"One needs no artistic education to see this memorial for what it is: a black scar," said Vietnam veteran Tom Carhart at a U.S. Fine Arts Commission meeting.
To this day, the artist said she doesn't like talking about that period of her life.
"Part of the controversy was my age, my race, my gender," Lin said. "It was really unpleasant."
So even though Lin allowed the National Portrait Gallery to commission a portrait of her in 2014 — the work is included in the show One Life: Maya Lin — the gallery's curator of painting and sculpture, Dorothy Moss, said it took quite a bit of persuading to get the artist to agree to this first-ever exhibition focusing on her life.
"I said, 'This is the Smithsonian. We have a lot of school groups who come through. And the story of your persistence and resilience is one that would inspire young people,'" Moss said. "And so she agreed."
Connecting Lin's inner and outer life
The exhibition traces Lin's life from her Ohio childhood, through her work on the many buildings and public art projects she's designed all over the world, to accolades like earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
It also offers visitors insights into Lin's vivid inner life.
Her sketchbooks buzz with energy, revealing an effervescent mind. There's the gray-brimmed, wool hat Lin wore to help her hide from the media when she was going through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial debacle. Then there's the glass case with a pair of tiny, frolicking deer crafted by the artist out of silver when she was a high schooler. The animated creations reflect Lin's lifelong love of the natural world.
The exhibition touches on this passion through an interactive installation, where visitors can jot down memories of favorite places now lost to environmental destruction and attach them to a large, vinyl map. The installation is part of What Is Missing?, Lin's multi-faceted climate change project.
The map is covered with reminiscences about everything from a once pristine, now landfill-polluted lake in New Hampshire to a wildfire that ravaged wildlife and farms near a visitor's grandfather's town in Spain.
"We hear, we read, we understand it's a little abstract," said Lin of the limitations of the usual messaging around climate change. "But how do we make it personal? Because I think you have to, in the end, communicate not just the facts. You have to get people to feel."
Lin said the best way to inspire people to action is through generating empathy. For example, her What Is Missing?-related 2021 public art installation, Ghost Forest, transported a grove of Atlantic white cedar trees killed by a salt-water flood to Madison Square Park in New York. The effect of walking through all of those displaced trees in the middle of a bustling city was both sublime and discombobulating.
Lin's works continue to grab the public's attention — and, she also hopes, the public's activism. But she might never get truly used to living in the public eye.
"I was happy with the show," Lin said, as she reflected about being the subject of an exhibition. "I mean, I was embarrassed. I mean, I was a little, like, mortified by it."