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Artist Maya Lin Honors Explorers Lewis and Clark


The artist Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, is creating another work of art in the northwestern United States to honor two 19th century explorers. The artwork will pay respects to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to the Native Americans they encountered and the lands they explored.

Consisting of seven installations along the Columbia River and its tributaries, the work was commissioned for the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1803, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson selected the army officers to explore the Louisiana Territory, newly purchased from France, along the Missouri River and on to the Pacific. The explorers and their team left the following year, and their 2.5-year trek sparked the imagination of restless Americans.

Maya Lin gained international fame when, as a student at Yale University, she submitted the winning design proposal for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her concept of a black V-shaped wall was selected in 1980 to honor the 58,000 U.S. service men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.

Six years ago, a Washington-state coalition of civic groups, political leaders and Native American tribes chose the Chinese-American artist to honor the explorers.

"They all decided I would be the artist who would best be able to somehow take a look at the history of Lewis and Clark maybe from a different angle," she said.

The artist has dealt with historical themes before, for example, in a monument in Montgomery, Alabama, for the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King. The project took its theme from King's I Have a Dream speech, in which he quoted the Bible in saying those who seek equality will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." The monument is inscribed with that quotation, covered with running water.

Lin tells VOA she brought a similar approach, blending history and nature, to the Lewis and Clark project.

"I'm a very committed environmentalist," she added. "I want to reflect back on Lewis and Clark not just from a cultural history of the Native American tribes, but also from the great ecological, environmental changes that have shifted in the last 200 years."

Located along the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition in Washington State and Oregon, the art project will offer lessons in history, celebrate native cultures, and rehabilitate some parts of the natural environment. The first installation was recently unveiled at a place called Cape Disappointment, now a state park. It was so named because the waters were treacherous for sailors.

"We're restoring much of the water's edge at this park," she noted. "We've removed parking lots. We've put in place native grasses, native plantings. Ecologically, we're designed these areas to they drain better, sustainably, so everything we've done throughout will end up involving thousands of acres of restored lands back to a much more pristine condition."

The installations will feature selections from the text of the Lewis and Clark journals to get a glimpse of what these places were like 200 years ago.

"Sometimes I choose passages of Lewis and Clark that focus on the interaction between the Native American tribes," she explained. "Other texts are used, say, to bring out one day's simple canoe portage."

The long journey by water and land would open up the country, and strengthen the US claim to disputed territories also claimed by Britain.

Along their way, the explorers recorded what they saw.

"So at one site, I'm taking all their botanical discoveries, laying them out on a walk, framed in by two quotes that describe the area they were passing through," she said.

Another site will list all the animals that the explorers observed, and note their current status. Some are now endangered.

The artist says her project reflects a very modern awareness that the actions of history do not occur in a vacuum. She says the story of Lewis and Clark is also a story about these lands and the people, plants and animals that live there.

Maya Lin has been designing this artwork for five years. The major part of the project will be completed by 2008, but some of the installations may take longer.

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