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Illustrator Paul S. Oles included himself and architect Maya Lin (at left) in this conceptual drawing of the Vietnam Memorial. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Lasting Magic of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

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Mari Nakahara, curator of Architecture, Design, and Engineering in the Prints & Photographs Division, chooses favorite collection items related to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This article appeared in slightly different form in the May-June issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

Architect and Artist Together

In 1981, Paul S. Oles, one of the world’s premier architectural illustrators, created a drawing to reveal Chinese American artist and architect Maya Lin’s design for the memorial in a realistic style. Lin shyly asked Oles to include her in the drawing; Oles agreed on one condition: She would appear on his arm. In the image at the top of this post, you can see them walking together along the top of the monument at the left.

Portrait of Maya Lin

Lin poses in front of her wax piece “Phases of the Moon” in this photograph by Nancy Lee Katz at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles in 1998.

Black and white photo of a white wall with large circles in rows. Lin is visible at bottom right, with just her head and shoulders in the frame. She is not smiling.
Detail from photo portrait of Maya Lin. Photo: Nancy Lee Katz. Prints and Photographs Division.

Vietnam Memorial Original Design

The Vietnam War resulted in over 58,000 U.S. military fatalities and divided the nation. Veteran Jan Scruggs proposed a memorial to help bring people together. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund received over 1,400 proposals for the design competition, held in 1981. Maya Lin, a 21-year-old student at the Yale School of Architecture, created the winning drawings, one of which is seen below. Lin situated the wall so that one invisible axis connects the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial and one of the black granite walls vanishes into the ground in the direction of the Washington Monument.

One of Lin’s original drawings, showing a front, slightly elevated view of the black granite wall of the memorial. Prints and Photographs Division.

A Living Memorial

Since its completion in 1982, the Vietnam Memorial has remained a popular site for visitors to Washington, D.C. Many leave personal mementos and letters commemorating lost family members or friends — the men and women whose names are inscribed on the walls. The National Park Service collects and archives these tributes.

Color photo of cards, letter and other items left in front of names of the the Vietnam Memorial. In center of photo is a pair of military boots with a rose laid across them.
Items left at the memorial. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division.

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Comments (6)

  1. The beauty of this design is that it forms a V-shape, like giant wings in flight, taking all to Heaven’s Light for Eternal Rest.

    Paul S. Oles’s drawing and (vision) of Chinese American artist and architect Maya Lin’s design is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to transcend earthly confinements, relying instead on spiritual collaboration where words have no voice but simple drawings inviting the consciousness to create from what it perceives.

    Maya Lin’s design and Paul S. Oles’s drawing coming together as one breath taken in remembrance of those whose service for this country will always be appreciated.

    The memorial is beautiful and fitting. I hope someday to visit it. And, I hope my words made sense.

    Thank you, Neely Tucker, for this wonderful article.

    Thank you, and I remain,
    Sincerely
    Norma Iris Montalvo (b. 1955)
    Gatesville, Texas

  2. Every time I visit The Wall, something changes in me. Maya Lin’s creative, simple design, as well as all who championed the memorial, brought healing to Vietnam Veterans and families of loved ones lost to war. My novel’s climax includes just a piece of that magic.

  3. Please change the descriptor ‘magic’. It is inappropriate.

  4. I’ve always seen this monument as a dynamic, kinetic sculpture. You start out with names below your ankles as you walk along, you’re up to your knees in names— wasn’t it time to stop and withdraw? But we didn’t ; soon the names are shoulder high and then they are higher than you with arms extended. The sheer number crushes you. Slowly, slowly you can walk out again, back to the very few— even these last few are too many. Every dot represents 10; our brothers, sisters, fathers— all gone for no good reason.

    There is a monument at Gettysburg honoring those from Pennsylvania who died in the civil war . The form of the monument is like a Greek temple— the whole is totally static. That’s what makes the Vietnam memorial so remarkable; it moves, not only emotionally but intellectually.

    • What a great observation! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I had the privilege of working closely with Lin’s drawings last year; they are simple yet breathtaking, and quite compelling to encounter in person.

    There’s a post about that experience over on the Preservation Directorate blog:
    https://blogs.loc.gov/preservation/2022/01/reflections-on-war/

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