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The Smithsonian shines a light on designer and sculptor Maya Lin

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery gives an exhibition on some famous person's life, it's usually a posthumous honor. That's how it was for Sylvia Plath, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. The museum's latest subject is alive to see it. NPR's Chloe Veltman explores the show on Maya Lin.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Maya Lin doesn't much like being under the spotlight.

MAYA LIN: I've always sort of felt my works are public, but I'm not.

VELTMAN: Her 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. Lin is 63 now, but her 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 more than 1,400 other submissions and sparked a pitiless backlash. Footage from a U.S. Fine Arts Commission meeting in 1981 shows Vietnam vet Tom Carhart sounding off from the podium.

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TOM CARHART: One needs no artistic education to see this memorial design for what it is - a black scar.

VELTMAN: When the camera pans to close-ups of Lin, you can see the then-21-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants trying to maintain a brave face.

LIN: Part of the controversy was my age, my race, my gender. It's like - it was really unpleasant.

VELTMAN: So it took quite a bit of persuading to get the artist to agree to this first-ever exhibition focusing on her life. Curator Dorothy Moss made the case.

DOROTHY MOSS: And 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. And so she agreed.

VELTMAN: The exhibition traces Lin's life from her idyllic 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.

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VELTMAN: It also offers visitors a glimpse into that private life. There's the gray brimmed wool hat Lin wore when she was going through the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial mess.

MOSS: And the reason why she liked to wear it around was to hide her eyes from the press.

VELTMAN: Then there's the glass case with a pair of tiny, frolicking deer crafted by the artist out of silver. They reflect her lifelong love of the natural world.

MOSS: They're so animated. She made these when she was a high school student.

VELTMAN: On a recent morning, students visiting the National Portrait Gallery's "One Life: Maya Lin" show jot down memories of favorite places now lost to environmental destruction. They attach them to a large vinyl map on the wall, which is part of "What Is Missing?," Lin's multifaceted climate change project

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In New Hampshire, there's a lake called Forest Lake. And currently, a major landfill company is trying to build a landfill right next to it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In my grandfather's town in Spain, there was a fire this summer that led to a lot of the wildlife and farms to be lost.

VELTMAN: Maya Lin says the best way to inspire people to action is through this kind of empathy.

LIN: We hear, we read, we understand - it's a little abstract. How do we make it personal? Because I think you have to, in the end, communicate not just the facts, but you have to get people to feel.

VELTMAN: Lin says she likes what the National Portrait Gallery has done with this biographical show, though she's still a bit squeamish about being the center of attention.

LIN: I was happy with the show. I mean, I was embarrassed. I mean, I was a little, like, mortified by it.

VELTMAN: Maya Lin might never get truly used to living in the public eye, but her works continue to grab the public's attention and, she hopes, the public's activism, too.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.