Lilian May Miller (July 20, 1895 - January 11, 1943) was an American painter, woodblock printmaker and poet born in Tokyo, Japan. In the world of art she marked her place with imagery, while she attended presentations in traditional kimonos, and signed her paintings with a monogram.
She practiced oil painting, watercolor painting, book illustrations, photography, and printing. Trained in Japan in traditional painting styles and techniques, Lilian May Miller created lyrical sketches, ink paintings and woodblock prints representing people and landscapes from Japan and Korea, the countries where she spent most of her life.
Lilian May Miller was born in Tōkyō, Japan, on July 20, 1895. Her father, Ransford Miller, was an American diplomat who had worked for the Y.M.C.A. in Tokyo from 1890 to 1894.From 1895 to 1909 he was a legation interpreter. In 1894 Ransford Miller married Lilly Murray, who had arrived in Japan in 1888 as a missionary and taught English at the Christian mission. She had a sister named Harriet, who her father called "Hal"; He called Lilian "Jack".
In 1904, at the suggestion of well known etcher and engraver Helen Hyde (1868–1919), Ransford Miller enrolled nine-year-old Lilian in the atelier of Kano Tomonobu (1843–1912), who was the 9th generation head of the famous Kanō school in Tōkyō. Three years later she and exhibited her first works. Her distinct gô (art name) that she used as her professional name was Gyokka which means jeweled flower.
When she was in her teens her father became head of the State Department's Far Eastern Department was transferred back to Washington, D.C. and for the first time she left Japan and went to the United States. Miller attended the Central High School in Washington, D.C. and at the age of 14 won first prize for a Washington Post art contest with Early Morning in Old Japan. She went to Vassar College in New York, attended the college during part of the time writer and professor Sophia Chen Zen studied there, and she was a classmate of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She graduated with honors in 1917.
Then she went to Seoul, Korea in 1918, where her father was now the American Consul General. She was a journalist and secretary at the State Department in Washington, D.C. before she lived with her parents in New York and worked at the Consular Service and was a clerk and confidential secretary at the American Embassy in 1920.
Miller fell seriously ill between 1923 and 1927, presumably because of beriberi, a vitamin-deficiency disease, and she spent three years recuperating in her parents’ home in Seoul. In 1930 Miller returned to Japan and moved to Kyōto. Her father returned to the U.S. and became head of the Far Eastern Department in the State Department, Washington. He died in 1932 and a ceremonial funeral was held in Tokyo in October 1932 when Lilian and her mother took his ashes to Yokohama Foreign Cemetery. From then on, Lilly Miller stayed with her daughter.
In 1935, Miller had surgery for a large cancerous tumor and a hysterectomy. In early 1936, after a political imbroglio in which Japanese radical officers assassinated several leading politicians, Miller and her mother left Japan and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. In the autumn of 1938 she moved to San Francisco and she began to include the massive redwoods and cedars of California in her work. In her personal life she hiked California's San Gabriel Mountains and wandered through Alaska. She supported herself solely through the sale of her art.
She lived a life of contradictions. Miller wore kimonos when she showed her work - which reflected her east Asian upbringing - but also wore men's clothes and called herself "Jack". The kimono represented the Japanese traditional culture in which she was raised, but she didn't follow the strict protocols for developing wood block printing, this was something that made her popular with Americans. Her parents were from the United States, but she lived most of her life in Asia. She is assumed to have been a lesbian and once said that she didn't have the ability to make herself fall in love with a man.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, she destroyed much of her woodprint works, having felt betrayed by Japan. She signed on with a Naval counter propaganda branch as a Japanese Censor and Research Analyst and lived in Hawaii from that point and until her death on January 11, 1943 of cancer.
In the 1930s, during The Great Depression, Miller evolved to a new style of popular watercolor painting - made with a flat Japanese brush, pigments and paper - which was influenced by Japanese shin hanga artists Yoshida Hiroshi and Kawase Hasui.
Later, when she was ill, Miller no longer had the strength for printmaking, and she returned to watercolors, usually working outdoors.
Miller made Shin-hanga woodblock prints, a 20th-century version of traditional Ukiyo-e prints, or pictures of the floating world, which were popular beginning in the 1700s. Because they were prints they were readily available and inexpensive artworks. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt created greater interest in Japanese work as an art form in the late 19th century, partly through Edmond's books Outamaro and Hokousai. They first identified the cultural movement of Japonisme. Of the western women who began making shin-hanga wood prints, or "creative prints", Miller was the only one born in the orient. The others, who had all lived in Japan, were Helen Hyde, who first made the Japanese prints in 1901, Elizabeth Keith and Bertha Lum. The shin-hanga prints included scenes from the contemporary world, like western dress and electricity.
Woodblock print production was traditionally a team effort, led by the artist's direction. Several woodblocks were cut from the artist's sketch and watercolor painting, each woodblock for a specific color. Then a printer would make prints by pressing the woodblock with its associated colored ink onto paper. Miller did the work herself, creating the initial image and woodcuts and making the prints.
In September 1920 she turned to woodblock printing, creating images of Korean people and countryside, which she sold in Tōkyō and the United States. She was living as the tenant of the artist and promoter Bertha B. Lum (1869–1954). Miller began to work with the block-carver Matsumoto, who had previously worked for Helen Hyde, and the printer Nishimura Kumakichi (1861 – ca. 1941), whom Bertha Lum relied on for her own print productions. Shortly thereafter there was a dramatic falling-out between the two artists. Miller also struggled with a relationship with Elizabeth Keith, who began as a friend but later developed into a rival.
By 1922, Lilian Miller is said to have produced more than 6,000 prints and holiday cards. Many Japanese and American newspapers ran articles and stories depicting her avant la lettre do-it-yourself devotion with artistic finesse.
On September 1923 Tōkyō was largely destroyed by the great Kanto Earthquake, while Lilian was in Seoul on a visit to her parents. Her entire studio was destroyed, including all her woodblocks.
Lilian May Miller, Rain Blossoms, color woodprint, 1928
Lilian made a six-month visit to the United States in 1929 and 1930 and gave woodblock printing demonstrations at galleries and museums in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco, and Pasadena. During her lectures, exhibitions and one-woman shows, she wore an elaborate kimono. Miller was admired for her ability to execute the entire woodblock printing process, including the block-cutting stage, by herself. Her works were then in the collections of the Chicago Art Institute and the British Museum.
In the 1937 exhibition of the Honolulu Print Makers, she exhibited a print depicting bamboo using a lithotint method, a kind of lithography, that achieved the effect of ink painting. It was entitled A Spray of Bamboo and won the sixth annual gift print prize.
Female patrons and collectors
Author Kendall H. Brown stresses the visual quality of many of the poems, and concludes that while "her poetry was often flat and contrived, her art was becoming increasingly radiant and natural." A number of the poems in the volume are ardent expressions of love addressed, it seems, to women, and Brown remarked: "The feminized Orient, alternately maternal and sexual, is easily linked to the desired lover who is at once the gentle teacher and the object of amorous desire. Thus, the Orient becomes the lover and the lover becomes the Orient, both ideal states of grace and sites of feminine creativity."