Lost and Found


Maya Lin offers solutions and encouragement for us to all “act together”

Maya Lin, Disappearing Bodies of Water: Arctic Ice (Detail), 2013. Vermont Danby marble on granite base (AP 1/1) 48 x 46 x 52 in. (121.92 x 116.84 x 132.08 cm) The Lunder Collection. © Maya Lin, courtesy Pace Gallery.
By Claire Sykes
May 7, 2021

What do art, nature, and history have in common? Maya Lin. The artist, designer, and environmentalist best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., (1982) discussed her multi-site and multimedia environmental project, “What Is Missing?”, as part of the Lunder Institute Talks Series, May 6, 2021.

The in-person and live-Zoom panel, “Memorializing the Natural Environment: Maya Lin in Conversation with Jessamine Batario, Danae Jacobson, and Chris Walker,” was hosted by Colby College’s Lunder Institute for American Art. Lin, one of the institute’s senior fellows for the 2020-21 academic year, spoke virtually, shelves of books behind her. Batario, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for Artistic and Scholarly Engagement and Programs at the Lunder Institute, moderated.

What Is Missing?”, begun in 2007, is the fifth and final project of Lin’s Memory Works series. These environmental and architectural artworks, spanning four decades, speak of the crucial social and environmental issues that Lin said shaped her growing up in the 1970s in Ohio. A “global memorial to the planet,” the mainly virtual “What Is Missing?” aims to raise awareness of the extinction of species and places, past and present—and future, if we don’t act now.

As Lin put it, “How can we protect it if we don’t even realize it’s missing?” Her project focuses “not just on what we’re losing, . . . but also gives solutions. . . . This isn’t hopeless. All of us acting together could make a difference.”

Award-winning artist, designer, and environmentalist Maya Lin. Photo by Jesse Frohman.
Award-winning artist, designer, and environmentalist Maya Lin. Photo by Jesse Frohman.

For “What Is Missing?” Lin invites additions to its in-depth timelines of the ecologic history of species, habitats, and cities. The website also features personal accounts from anyone interested, of changes in the natural places they, their parents, and grandparents have known. Along with local K-12 classes, Lin collaborated with Walker, assistant professor of English, and his environmental humanities seminar students. They and Jacobson, visiting assistant professor in history, and her environmental history students contributed to the site’s timelines. So did interns Cal Waichler ’21 and Helen Bennett ’22 in researching Maine’s ecological history and extinct and endangered species.

On the world map on the “What Is Missing?” website, click on one of the dozens of dots and a timeline for that locale pops up, some going back centuries. Videos open with bird calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and feature at-risk species and habitats of all kinds. Share a Memory tells those personal natural-world stories. Greenprint™ poses what-if possibilities for positive change. And so far, Lin offers 11 things people can do, right now, from “eat less meat” to “conserve water.”

This fall brings the site’s new, interactive Mapping the Future. Lin said, “[It] will show how we can transition from where we are today to, say, 2100—we’re renewable-energy dominant, net-zero emissions, regenerative land use, widespread habitat-species protection. . . . The main driver[s] of habitat loss, of species loss, and 50 percent of all emissions [are] land-use changes and degradation. So by protecting habitats, we can both reduce emissions significantly and save biodiversity. . . . We can save two birds with one tree.”

Then there are the 49 trees. When asked about her next project, Lin told how the Atlantic white cedars, all dead, will stand in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park (May 10 through November 14, 2021). Lin’s “Ghost Forest” grieves the New Jersey Pine Barrens conifers killed off by beetles now able to survive climate change’s warmer winters.

While Lin’s most recent art emphasizes species other than humans, she said, “you cannot talk about ecology today without really talking about . . . how much we are continuing to put at-risk populations of lower economic situations [in] the most toxic areas [and] shipping our toxins abroad.” Social justice and equity issues must become part of the solution, she urged.

Meanwhile, Lin’s art inspires us forward. Walker said the big takeaway of “What Is Missing?” is “the power of art to indicate to us that the future is an open space on which we can imprint ourselves . . . and so we can actually shape the future to look more hopeful, to be a world that’s different than the world we were born into.”