Be The Artist: Maya Lin

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Make little “stone” carvings with polymer clay that become part of their surroundings. Photo by Lisa Kay Tate.

The Artist: Maya Lin

Maya Lin is an American-born artist, architect and memorial designer. Her parents came to the United States from China ten years before her birth, to flee Mao Tse-tung’s rule.

As an active environmentalist, many of her works make use of the surrounding landscape. She has been known to use recycled materials, natural mediums such as marble and granite, and even the land itself.

One of Lin’s most visited creations it the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or “The Wall,” in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Gardens. She designed the memorial in 1982 while she was still an undergraduate at Yale University. Her design beat out more than 1,400 other design entries for the honor.

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Maya Lin’s memorials encourage visitors to get closer including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Civil Rights Memorial, and Women’s Table. Images via Wikicommons.

This memorial is more than 246 feet long and made up of 70 inscribed black granite panels bearing the names of all those in the military who died or who remain missing in the Vietnam War. There are currently 58,272 names on the wall, each placed there by a computerized photo stenciling method called “gritblasting.”

Her idea of the Wall was to create a “park within a park,” creating a quiet and protected space. The polished granite surface was meant to be mirror-like to reflect the current day surroundings while people looked over, remembered, and touched the names on the wall.

Other memorials include the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and The Women’s Table, in honor of the Women at Yale, on the campus of her alma mater. Both of these works feature a thin layer of water running over a flat surface, encouraging people to place their hands along the smooth top.

Her current projects include what will be her final memorial, entitled “What it Missing?” The multi-sited project focusing on the awareness of habitat loss and biodiversity, debuted in 2009, with an installation at California Academy of Sciences.

 The Project: Mini Quote “Stone” Carvings

Two of the most beautiful characteristics of Lin’s work are the way they becomes part of the landscape or setting, and their overwhelming invitation to be touched. Rather than just stand starkly and impersonally amid a field on the middle of a plaza, Lin’s work utilizes its surrounding to bring it to life.

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Polymer clay and a favorite quote are all that is needed to make these “stone” pieces, by shaping them to fit a specific space and using a toothpick to carve the quote. Photos by Lisa Kay Tate.

This project takes only bakeable polymer clay, a favorite inspirational (or humorous) quote, and a specific space you want this little “monument” to go.

Choose polymer colors that most resemble granite or marble, or mix two or three together to get a marbled effect. Most brands of this clay come in 2-oz packages, and one of these (if just using one color) should be enough to make a nice little monument.

Think about what this is sculpture is going to be. Is this a motivational piece for a shelf corner or a work desk edge, an inspiring quote for a backyard, or something to simply evoke smiles and happy thoughts on a window garden?

Figure out how you want the shape to fit into its in environment. Will it be flat like a stepping stone or tucked into a corner like a triangle or brick? Try a wedge, if you want to burrow it the landscape, similar to Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Use your hands or a rolling pin to smooth the surface that will contain the phrase. You can also flatten it by softly “smashing” it against a smooth, flat surface. The more you work with it, the easier the clay will be to shape.

Next, think about a simple, brief quote that would suit the space best. Think of a favorite movie, television show, or book quote, a line of poetry or favorite personal phrase. Using a toothpick or large yarn needle, gently write the phrase on the clay by lightly making little punctures in the clay. This makes it easier to rub over and correct mistakes, plus it won’t warp or “drag” the surface as much.

When you get the phrase the way you want it, go back and slowly make the letters a little deeper. Younger artists can use clay letter stamps, usually found near the clay packages at craft stores. Bake the little sculptures at 275° for 30 minutes to harden them.

Once these are done, they will look like little oddly shaped stones. Not really exciting in themselves, to be honest. When they become part of their intended environment, however, they can be seen and enjoyed from an entirely new perspective.

Invite people to run their fingers over the phrase, or feel the smooth surface of the clay. Get up close, look at the piece from different angles and really explore it. After all, this is what Lin often invites visitors to her memorials to do.

“I try to give people a different way of looking at their surroundings,” Lin says of her work. “That’s art to me.”

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This project only really comes to life when it’s settled into its intended environment, like the corner shelf piece (top), and window garden decoration (bottom). Photos by Lisa Kay Tate.

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Lisa Kay Tate is a veteran feature writer with 20 years experience in newspaper, magazine and freelance writing. In addition to serving as Associate Editor for her local arts and entertainment guide, El Paso Scene, she has been a regular contributor to the site ihogeek.com and maintains her own blogsite at lisathegeekmom.wordpress.com. She and her husband, writer/photographer Rick, live on the edge of "New Texico" where they keep busy raising their two geeklings and sharing space with their dog, Sirius Black, and cat, Loki.