Lilian May Miller Biography

Lilian May Miller





Painter, printmaker, and poet Lillian May Miller was born in Tokyo, Japan on July 20th, 1895. The daughter of an American diplomat and an English teacher, Lillian and her sister Harriet were immersed in the traditional Japanese arts culture sought by government-employed Americans at the beginning of Japan-American relations in the late 1890s. Her printmaking education began at the atelier of Kano Tomonobu (1843 - 1912) at the suggestion of family friend, artist Helen Hyde. Though she learned the traditional process of shin-hanga woodblock printing, in which a team of artisans executes the carving and printing once the artist has created the image, she preferred to do all of the steps herself, much like her Western teachers. By age twelve she had held her first exhibition of woodcuts.


When her father was transferred back to Washington D.C., Lillian and her sister traveled to the United States for the first time. She was enrolled at the Central High School and won first prize for poetry at age 14 in the Washington Post, for a piece titled "Early Morning in Old Japan". She attended Vassar College in New York, studying writing under Sophia Chen Zen and graduating in 1917. She then returned to Japan foe one year to study under Shimada Bokusen, earning an award at the Japanese Imperial Salon for her brush painting, "In a Korean Palace Garden".


For much of her life, printmaking was secondary to her career as a journalist and as a secretary and clerk for the State Department and the American Embassy. However, she continued to travel to Asia, first to Korea when her father was transferred there as American Consul General, and then to Japan, and she continued to make and sell woodblock prints and paintings as she went. When she exhibited her work, no matter which country she currently lived in, she always wore kimonos as she had done since she was a child. When she was not exhibiting, Miller wore men's suits, and went by the pet name her father gave her as a child, "Jack".

The great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 sent her into financial ruin when most of her work was lost, and she relocated to Korea once more to live with her parents. There she fell ill, and during the long period of recuperation she continued to make prints.


She moved to Kyoto in 1930, hoping to remain there permanently. However, political unrest, becoming more serious as much of the world headed toward war, led to the assassinations of several foreign political figures in Japan. By this time, Miller's father had died and, feeling unsafe, she moved with her mother to Honolulu, Hawaii in 1936. In 1938 she relocated to San Francisco, where much of her work began to include hallmarks of the California landscape: redwoods, cedars, and views of the sea. Always active, despite recurring illness, she traveled on her own through Alaska and hiked the San Gabriel Mountains.


When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it heralded the end of her printmaking career, as she felt betrayed by the country she still called home. She destroyed most of her prints and blocks and took up a position in the Naval counter-propaganda branch, working as a Japanese Censor and Research Analyst. In December of 1942, she had surgery to remove a large malignant tumor; on January 11 of 1943, she died of abdominal cancer.