Photography by Ethan James Green for WSJ. Magazine


Maya Lin Named WSJ. Magazine Art Innovator 2021

Profiled in WSJ. Magazine

By Sarah Medford
Oct 31, 2021

Maya Lin, who is a recipient of a WSJ. Magazine 2021 Innovators Award, is the subject of a new profile in the publication. The long-form piece highlights Lin’s monumental achievements as both an artist and activist. It spotlights her environmentally engaged installation Ghost Forest, on view in Madison Square Park in New York through November 14, and other major projects from her storied career, including her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the digital platform and conceptual artwork What Is Missing?. “At this moment in my life, I want to give absolutely everything more purpose,” Lin said of her latest sculptures for a new research hospital at the University of Pennsylvania and a Norman Foster-designed building on Martha’s Vineyard.

"This is the squirrel condo,” Maya Lin says, pointing to an English elm tree pocked with holes, a ring of almond shells tossed like so many used takeout containers around its base. She’s standing in Madison Square Park, seven acres in Manhattan’s Flatiron District that encompass an oval lawn, a dog run, a Shake Shack and a reflecting pool lined with benches. Lin has a soft spot for squirrels, and she got to know this crew last spring while installing Ghost Forest, an art installation that ends its six-month run in mid-November.

Like many of Lin’s large outdoor sculptures, Ghost Forest is made in and of nature—in this case 49 Atlantic white cedars between 40 and 45 feet tall. Victims of extreme weather, including saltwater incursion, in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the trees are slowly dying, and she’s arranged them in a skeletal copse at the park’s center, a hollowed-out reminder of the disastrous effects of climate change.

Ghost Forest was meant to debut in June 2020. Its 11-month postponement due to the pandemic introduced a layer of poignancy that not even the artist could have predicted: Amid so much human loss, nature’s sacrifice seems hauntingly apropos.

“It is beautiful, and it is all the more resonant because not only does it talk about climate change quite directly and quite visibly, but it has been here during the pandemic,” says architect Deborah Berke, whose Fifth Avenue office has a bird’s-eye view of the park. Berke is dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a friend of Lin’s. “It is a magnetic piece—you want to go check it out,” Berke says, “but it is also profoundly melancholy.”

Layered responses like this are routine with Lin’s work. Best known as a memorialist, the 62-year-old artist and designer has created the conditions for mourning across America, from her 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., designed when she was still a Yale senior, to the 1989 Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; the 2000–2017 Confluence Project in Oregon and Washington state, a series of markers to westward expansion and its costs to native populations; and others. But Lin’s spaces also bring people together. While she was grouping Ghost Forest’s 49 cedars, she says, “I was thinking, This one’s good for two people, this one’s good for five people….” Months later, here they are, picnicking and taking selfies beneath the spectral trees. A few squirrels have climbed into the bare branches to sun themselves.

Lin watches from a park bench, dressed in spotless athleticwear and white sneakers. Though she’s been a public figure for four decades, the subject of two monographs, 15 children’s books and an Oscar-winning documentary (Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision, 1994) and the recipient of both a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she usually goes unrecognized, even in her home city. Her daughters, Rachel Wolf, 22, and India Wolf, 24, sometimes have to remind her to dress up before going out, brush her hair or spend a minute with the rare stranger who might pick her out in a crowd. Observing is more Lin’s thing. (This might explain her fraught relationship with driving: “I’m probably the worst driver in the world,” she says. “My husband once said, ‘You drive like you’re 1,000 years old.’ ”)

As a way of processing her observations, Lin writes before she draws. Her first book, Boundaries (2000), made it onto the reading list of John McPhee’s undergraduate writing seminar at Princeton in 2013. He invited her in to speak to the class, and she invited him to walk her through the New Jersey Pine Barrens, one of his favorite natural landscapes and a subject of his own writing. They were joined by the executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a conservation scientist and two Drexel University students, and the memorable day eventually found its way into Ghost Forest.

To continue reading, visit (opens in a new window) WSJ. Magazine.

  • Press — Maya Lin Profiled by WSJ. Magazine, Oct 31, 2021