What do Grand Rapids and Washington D.C. have in common? They are both home to outdoor sculptural works by world-renowned artist Maya Lin.
Lin was relatively unknown at the age of 21 when her design was chosen for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Since then, she has continued to create critically-acclaimed works around the world, including Ecliptic in Rosa Parks Circle, right in downtown Grand Rapids. Created in 2001, the landmark underwent construction and restoration in 2021-22 as part of a $3 million project to address the decades of wear and tear that have taken their toll on the art piece.
The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) honored the artist and her work in 2019 by hosting a large sculpture exhibit of Lin’s works titled Maya Lin: Flow, including two of Lin's works that were inspired by West Michigan’s landscape and were created expressly for the exhibit.
To help you learn more about this internationally known figure, here are five facts you might not know about this talented artist:
1. Lin's Midwestern Roots Inspired Her Work
Lin’s love of landscapes stretches back to her childhood where she enjoyed roaming in and around the woods and Native American burial mounds near her Ohio home. After spending a day outside, she would join her father and play with clay in his ceramic art studio, a precursor of what was to come.
For her work, Ecliptic, Lin deftly combined art and architecture.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids; Ecliptic, by Maya Lin
2. Rosa Parks Circle is Home to Lin’s Ecliptic
Commissioned in 2000, Ecliptic was the first time Lin combined art with architecture to create the design for Rosa Parks Circle. She designed the park, a bandstand, ice rink, and even a building to house the Zamboni!
Ecliptic was designed to represent water in its three different forms. The central ice skating rink is water in its solid form, the mist fountain represents water in its vapor form, and finally, the table-like fountain represents water in its liquid form.
Maya Lin in front of her work, Pin River — Grand River Watershed (detail).
Photo by Maya Lin. Photograph by Jesse Frohman, courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum
3. Lin Designed Two Pieces Specifically for a GRAM Exhibit
Flow, a seven-sculpture exhibit also inspired by water, was on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2019. Lin created new works, Pin River – Grand River Watershed and The Traces Left Behind (From the Great Bear Lake to the Great Lakes), expressly for the show, inspired by the landscape in West Michigan.
Pin River – Grand River Watershed is a visualization that includes the Grand River and its tributaries from just south of Lansing all the way to Lake Michigan. The fifteen-foot outline is comprised of tens of thousands of silver pins inserted into the wall that create this beautiful image.
The second new work titled The Traces Left Behind (From the Great Bear Lake to the Great Lakes) is a wall relief cast created from recycled silver. Through this piece, Lin charts the span of contemporary bodies of water from the Arctic to the Great Lakes that were formed by the melting of the Laurentide Ice Shelf.
Ron Platt, then-Chief Curator for the GRAM, said at the time that Lin is very savvy and insightful about materials. “In order to create bodies of water, she’s using other materials that have a liquid form such as wax and liquid that pours,” Platt says. “The sculptures have that quality of liquid. They pull you in and make you want to spend time observing them.”
Platt added that Grand Rapids has always been forward-looking with public sculpture and art, and choosing Lin to be a part of the transformative redesign in the city’s center is no exception.
Pin River - Grand River Watershed by Maya Lin, 2019 (detail), courtesy of GRAM
Photo by Installation view of Maya Lin: Flow. Courtesy Grand Rapids Art Museum.
4. Lin Is an Environmental Activist
Lin is very engaged in environmental issues. What she calls her "fifth and last memorial" is titled What is Missing?. This iconic piece dedicated to the environment is an ongoing project involving both physical sculptures and cyberspace.
She speaks often of how one goal of her work is to get people to look at the landscape in different ways and how the landscape relates to the health and vitality of environments today. Lin also encourages all to vote with their wallets by supporting green businesses.
The heart of the Ecliptic becomes an ice skating rink in the wintertime.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids; Ecliptic (detail), Maya Lin
5. Lin Is the First Woman to Design a Memorial on the National Mall
Lin submitted a design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as part of her undergraduate studies at Yale University. Her submission was chosen out of over 1,400 others, including her professor's! While she is reported to have received a B+ from her professor on her winning design, she did receive an A overall in the class.
To learn more about the exhibition Maya Lin: Flow at the GRAM, check out this video: