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“The way Maya boldly and creatively brings attention to some of the nation’s and world’s most critical social and historical issues embodies all that is the indomitable American spirit.” So said documentary filmmaker Ken Burns of Maya Lin, the artist, designer, and environmentalist responsible for masterworks including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Lin was recently awarded the 2018 Ken Burns American Heritage Prize at a gala event held by the American Prairie Reserve. She is the second person to receive this award, which “recognizes individuals whose achievements have advanced our collective understanding of America’s heritage and the indomitable American spirit of our people.” The inaugural winner was Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough.
Related: Ken Burns Says Entrepreneurship Is at the Heart of the American Dream
Following Ken Burns’ presentation of the award and Lin’s moving speech about the power of art in the time of climate crisis, I was lucky enough to share a few moments with these two inspiring creators and get their thoughts on creativity and their drive to make a positive impact on the world.
Dan Bova: How do you manage the process of bringing an idea out of your head and getting it into the heads of other people you need to fulfill your vision?
Maya Lin: I do not have a staff of hundreds. I have a very tiny staff trained as artists and architects, and I only take on one building at any given time. I’m very protective of staying small. I make everything is a model before we start, and then I’m right there as we build. I am digging in the dirt. I’m working with bulldozer guys. I do not operate the machinery but I’m out there working with them sculpting the earth.
Do you go in with a singular vision or do you alter things?
ML: When designing a building, basically is everything’s drawn up and you don’t change the design too much. In art, I’m expecting to modify it as I’m out there in the field. And I’ll modify up until the end. During tonight’s presentation, you saw a photo of me pointing to my bulldozer operator, Frank. In that photo, we’re on the site of Storm King [an outdoor earthwork featuring wavelike formations that are several hundred feet long.] I’m telling Frank that we need to increase the height of all of the rows waves of dirt by six feet each. And he’s just smiling at me. This is what will happen on my builds. It is what I expect to happen and everyone I bring in expects to happen.
Why do you think art has such power to affect changes in the way people think?
Ken Burns: Both art and storytelling are in the place where one plus one equals three. In our political dynamic, one plus one only equals two, and it’s deficient. So when you are in a situation that feels beset by the obvious but rather boring calculus, art and storytelling have the possibility of replacing that with the improbable and yet essential calculus that 1 and 1 can equal 3.
ML: I think art can free us up and give us this imagined hope, but it’s plausible. And then we go for it!
Related: My Day With Ken Burns
So much of your art is about what is happening here on the ground. What do you think of people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos aiming for the stars?
KB: It’s been in great religious traditions all along. “As above, so below” The architecture of the atom is the architecture of the solar system. It’s just different dreams and different perceptions of possibility. And so it’s perfectly appropriate to have people like Musk trying to unite those two worlds just as it is perfectly appropriate as someone trying to save one of them.
ML: We spend more money exploring space and we know very little about our oceans. I think we should be spending as much money and effort on restoring the oceans because the death of coral reefs, acidification — it’s frightening what’s happening. We need to be thinking about nature-based solutions. You know, they’ve made efforts to grow seaweed in certain areas in Southeast Asia and the oceans have switched their ph balance back a little bit. Nature is credibly resilient and if you give it a chance it will come back. And that’s a key message that I think the Prairie foundation is talking about, and why I am so honored to be a part of their mission to preserve and restore what is vanishing.