Lilian Miller (1895-1945)

Of all the Western artists who lived in Japan, Lilian Miller was the only one born there. She was schooled under prestigious Japanese masters until her father accepted a position with the State Department in 1909. She graduated from Vassar College and shortly thereafter returned to Japan to study. Her father was now the Consul General in Seoul. By 1919, she was one of 5 artists winning a competition of 500 paintings. She turned to woodblock prints the following year. By 1922, she is said to have produced more than 6,000 prints and holiday cards. Miller's knowledge of Japanese and its art world, her connections to the diplomatic community and her freedom in Japan from American traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood all contributed to her artistic success.

Miller next published Grass Blades, a self illustrated book on poetry. Many poems are declarations or mediations of love for the Orient. She met Grace Nicholson, who dealt in oriental antiquities and this friendship enabled Miller to meet and make use of many important art contacts on her 1929 American trip. She had many exhibitions and was frequently profiled in the newspaper. Miller was admired for doing the entire process of woodblock printing herself including block cutting and printing. During the Depression, Miller evolved to a new style of watercolor that sold well. They were made with a flat japanese brush with japanese pigments and paper. Her father had died and Miller was taking care of her mother, so these funds were important.

Internationalism marked Miller's life and art in the early 1930's. As a respected member of the American expatriate community with native knowledge of Japan, she was much in demand socially. In 1935, Miller had surgery for a large cancerous tumor including a hysterectomy. In 1936, after Japanese radical officers assassinated several leading politicians, Miller and her mother moved to Honolulu. Miller returned to watercolors, usually working outdoors. Another relocation to San Francisco may been due to larger access to commercial markets. The massive redwoods and cedars reminded her of growing up in Nikko.

The attack on Pearl Harbor mobilized Miller to store her brushes and find a way that her knowledge of Japan and Japanese could be of service to her country. She signed on with a Naval counter propaganda branch as a Japanese Censor and Research Analyst. In 1942 another cancerous tumor was discovered. Lilian Miller died in 1943 at age 47.

Abstracted from Between Two Worlds: The Life and Art of Lilian May Miller, Kendall H. Brown, 1999


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