Maya Lin didn't say, "Hi, nice to meet you." She pushed out the door of the Henry Art Gallery offices and headed toward the gallery, hair disheveled and one hand in the pocket of her fleece vest. She mumbled something about 4:00 a.m., performed a limp handshake on her 4:00 p.m. appointment, and walked toward her art. The only thing to do was follow.

I liked her instantly, and was grateful not to be working for her. "I just hit the wall," she announced. Then she spent 70 minutes striding through her half-installed exhibition, Systematic Landscapes, which opens Saturday, April 22, talking nonstop until the museum director called her into a meeting.

Her story is legend: Yale senior dreams up Vietnam Veterans Memorial, sculpts it in dining-hall mashed potatoes, beats prestigious firms to win name-blind competition, fights governmental and private Goliaths to see it built, and her mirrored black chevron scar in the earth is an instant masterpiece.

Since then, the Athens, Ohio, native—descended from Chinese doctors, designers, and artists—has often had too much work. She tells me exasperatedly that working simultaneously in art, architecture, and design means she moves slowly in each realm. Her last museum exhibition of studio sculpture was eight years ago. It was called Topologies. Critic Eleanor Heartney said it sought "the soul of nature."

Lin's buildings, sculptures, and even furniture show the restraint and calm of Scandinavian and Asian influences, but people think of her whenever disaster hits. They ask her to respond. Since making several monuments, she says she's retired from them, except for a final hurrah, a multi-sited series on extinction. For that, she has a commission from the California Academy of Sciences. "It has to be up by '08," she says. What has to be up? She jabs my notebook twice with her finger, as if I should write this down. "Don't know yet," she says, and walks to the next thing she wants to show me. She speaks about icebergs and rivers and hills.

All of her art is land art. Wave Field is lumps in a grassy knoll that provide "natural" seats for students at the University of Michigan. Her renovation of Cape Disappointment State Park in Ilwaco, Washington, which also opens Saturday, is an eco-cultural intervention. It is the first completed portion of the Confluence Project, in which she interprets and improves Lewis and Clark Trail sites along the Columbia River Basin.

Museum Director Richard Andrews invited her to the Henry. Two weeks ago, she was still refining and renaming the three big installations that are the bulk of the show. Unlike the beeswax moons, particleboard waves, and broken-glass mountain she made in Topologies, the Systematic Landscapes can be entered, explored. There's a wavy crest you walk on, a mountain range you walk through, and an underwater mountain you walk inside of. "My whole goal was to take what I do outside and bring it inside," she said. Wear comfortable shoes.

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jgraves@thestranger.com