Students install Maya Lin artwork

The radial arm saw whines over the thump of a half-dozen hammers. A small mountain of more than 50,000 wooden blocks, chopped down from construction-grade two-by-fours, rises 10 feet into the air, filling the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’ Alison and John Ferring Gallery.

Sam Fox students work to install Maya Lin’s ‘2 X 4 Landscape’ at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Pictured from left to right are second-year MFA candidates Tori Kaspareit, Ann-Maree Walker and Christine D’Epiro.

Welcome to “Contemporary Exhibitions Studies: Maya Lin’s Systematic Landscapes,” a special one-credit workshop sponsored by the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Over the last two-and-a-half weeks, 16 master’s candidates — seven from the Graduate School of Art and nine from the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design — have worked with museum staff to construct and install new sculptures, drawings and installations by Maya Lin, perhaps the most celebrated artist of her generation.

“Maya’s work occupies precisely that space between art and architecture,” said Peter MacKeith, associate dean of the Sam Fox School and associate professor of architecture, who conceived and leads the workshop. “It’s the same space that informs the founding, collaborative spirit of Sam Fox School — the space that we are most interested in identifying for our students.

“Maya’s projects are very tactile, very hands-on, and installing them is hard work,” said MacKeith, who has known Lin since the mid 1980s when the two studied together at the Yale School of Architecture. “There’s nailing, drilling, sawing, moving things around, stacking and lifting things up. Students really have to get in there and build.”

Lin first rose to prominence while an undergraduate at Yale, famously winning a national competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Completed in 1982, the dramatic wedge of black granite — cut into the earth and bearing the names of 58,249 servicemen killed in the war — redefined America’s ideas about the form and the function of public monuments.

“Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes,” which opens at the Contemporary Friday, Sept. 7, initially was organized by The Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle and curated by its director, Richard Andrews. Now making its second stop, “Systematic Landscapes” — the first major Lin show held in the St. Louis area — showcases a series of recent installations exploring how we come to see and understand our increasingly fragile natural world.

For example, “Water Line,” which either can be walked under or viewed from above, is a wire-frame topographic surface based on an undersea formation, while the “Bodies of Water” series represents the Caspian Sea, Red Sea and Black Sea in Baltic birch plywood. “Blue Lake Pass” translates an actual Colorado mountain range into stacked layers of particle board, through which viewers can wander.

The aforementioned “2 x 4 Landscape”resembles a hill from one angle and a wave from another.

“Maya has always been interested in topography,” said Paul Ha, director of the Contemporary Art Museum and another longtime acquaintance of Lin’s. He notes that the Contemporary’s iteration of “Systematic Landscapes” includes one new commission, “Pin River,” which depicts the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers just north of St. Louis.

“This is part of Maya’s ongoing Confluence Project, which documents points of contact between Native American tribes and the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” Ha said. “Students are creating the river by inserting 15,000 dressmaker’s pins into the wall of the museum’s entranceway.”

In addition to installing artwork, students have attended guest lectures by a variety of St. Louis arts professionals, with a particular focus on job opportunities in the museum field.

Speakers include Ha; Emily Blumenfeld, public arts programs organizer for Arts in Transit; Susan Cahan, the Des Lee Professor in Contemporary Art at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; Robin Clark, associate curator of contemporary art for the Saint Louis Art Museum; Kim Humphries, director of installations and collections management for Laumeier Sculpture Park; and Matthias Waschek, director of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Students also are spending several hours with Lin in the days before the opening, discussing her artistic process as well as the conception and execution of specific works.

Still, the heart of the course remains the experience of working directly with actual objects by one of today’s most ambitious and challenging creators.

“This is really an exciting opportunity,” said Yosafa Deutsch, a second-year MFA student whose work, like Lin’s, tends to cross disciplinary boundaries. “She’s both an artist and an architect; she doesn’t distinguish between the two practices.

“Parts of the installation are very specific and other parts a bit more improvised,” said Deutsch, who worked extensively on “2 x 4 Landscape.” For example, while every section of wood — which ranges from one inch to full 10-foot boards — was pre-assigned to a particular area within the piece, the exact placement largely was left to the installers.

“There’s supposed to be some randomness, some variation,” Deutsch said. “It’s a trial-and-error process.”

“Maya Lin: Systematic Landscapes remains on view through Dec. 30. The Contemporary Art Museum is located at 3750 Washington Blvd. For more information, call 535-4660 or visit

In addition to the exhibition, Lin will launch Washington University’s fall Assembly Series with a lecture, titled “Between Art and Architecture,” at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Graham Chapel.

Tickets to the lecture, which also is part of the Contemporary’s Susan Sherman Distinguished Speaker Series, are sold out, but tickets are not required for the remote simulcast in the Lab Sciences Auditorium.

For more information, visit