WOOLWICH — A few years ago, Martha Miller visited with the artist Ashley Bryan at his studio on Little Cranberry Island. He was showing her some paintings in progress, including one that began as a drawing during Bryan’s service in World War II. During the war, Bryan sketched on anything he could find, including scraps of toilet paper that he stored in his helmet.

For decades, the sketches lay latent. And then nearly 70 years after drawing them, when he was in his 90s, Bryan revisited the sketches and began making paintings.

Miller asked, “What prompted you to do these paintings after all these years?”

“I didn’t think I was ready to do them until now,” he answered.

Bryan’s answer stuck with Miller and eventually inspired her to tackle her own long-latent project about her daughter, Lisbeth, now 36, who suffered a brain injury when she was a little girl and never recovered. A portrait artist, Miller has been thinking about these paintings for decades. She tried to tackle them once before, only to put them away unfinished.

She just wasn’t ready. She is now.

In January, Miller and her husband, Garry, solved what had been a crisis in Lisbeth’s housing situation, and that resolution brought relief and release. Since then, Miller has fully and aggressively immersed herself in her Lisbeth Series, committing to canvas more than three decades of emotions – love, anger, hope, desperation – that have gripped her family since Lis was 6 and became sick.

“The Golden Cord/Saved from Drowning,” mixed media on raw canvas, 5 feet by 3 feet. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

These paintings, made with ink, acrylic paint, pastel and charcoal on canvas, are deep and layered and chilling. They offer hints of Lisbeth’s life and some of the fear and anguish she and her family have been through, particularly in the moments before, during and after Lis experiences gripping seizures. At once, these paintings are beautiful and loving, haunting and scary. They are biographical and autobiographical, as Miller incorporates her daughter’s drawings into these paintings, conveying a narrative that includes moments of grief and joy and all that lies between.

“It all goes back to Ashley Bryan,” she said in an interview in her studio, where these canvases are tacked on the wall and hung on a rack. “I’m not 90, but I’m finally ready emotionally to do this series. Lis’s situation has tied me down in so many ways for so many years, but with this series, she has set me free as an artist. I am in uncharted waters. This stuff is just coming out of me, and I am feeling no hesitation. I can finally tell her story.”

“Red Lisbeth,” mixed media on red canvas broadcloth, 5 feet by 5 feet, 10 inches.

Miller tells her daughter’s story mostly through her active, animated eyes. There are a few restful portraits where Lis is seen with sleeping eyes, content and peaceful. In most, her eyes are open, penetrating and attentive. We see her pain, panic and confusion, and perhaps some heartache in what Miller calls her daughter’s “ghost eyeballs.” When she is having a seizure, her eyes often roll back in her head. When she is recovering, her eyes might be cloudy, blank and empty.

These are the eyes of the “Lisbeth Series,’ and they’re unforgettable.

In “Bubble Bath,” we see Lis’s blank stare, her dark eyes vacant. She looks exhausted and disoriented, perhaps recovering from a seizure. In muted tones, Miller includes a half-dozen other figures in the painting’s background, based on images that Lis has drawn over the years. They are childlike figures, some with smiling faces, others gripped with fear and confusion. Nearby is Lis’s loyal white cat, Milk Weed, who shows up in many of these paintings and is never far from Lis – in life and on canvas. Miller calls Milk Weed, who is 16, her daughter’s guardian angel. “They’re a good match,” she said.

In “Red Lisbeth,” she looks angry. In another, she looks like an empress – clear-eyed, resolute and focused.

In one, we see her head bandaged from surgery. In another, her head is bandaged because of a fall.

There are happy eyes too, and some smiles. “She’s a funny kid,” her mother says. “She has a sense of humor.”

“Sighted,” mixed media on raw canvas, 3 by 5 feet.

She also has memory. Her short-term memory is spotty, but Lis remembers her life before she got sick, her mother said, and a lot of her sadness and anger stems from those memories. “She was old enough when she got sick that she remembers being well,” Miller said. “She’s constantly talking about her life before she became ill.”

Lis suffered a traumatic brain injury caused by a viral illness in 1988. Since then, she has struggled with uncontrolled seizures, verbal skills, short-term memory loss, developmental delay, depression, anxiety and severe behavioral disturbances.

Lisbeth lives with supervised care in Topsham. Last summer, her care providers told the Millers they could no longer safely care for her, and recommended that she be moved to an institutional setting. Miller and her husband did not agree with that assessment, and they wanted the least-restrictive residential setting for their daughter. They fought and lost, and were told that Lis had to move out by the end of last year.

Instead, the Millers negotiated to buy the house where she was living, and contracted with a different agency to care for her. A crowd-sourced fundraising campaign helped raise money for the down payment and closing costs, enabling Lis to stay in her home where she was most comfortable and content.

Last year, when Lis’s long-term care was in doubt, Miller spent considerable time caring for her daughter, and connected with her in ways she hadn’t in a long time. She often helped her daughter bathe, and took modest photographs during the process. Those photos became the base around which Miller began building her portraits. “I was just so moved caring for this young woman again,” her mother said. “I just knew I had to do more drawings about Lis. It had to come out. But there has always been this, ‘How do I tell this story?’ It’s so complex.”

“The Green Smile/Dream Catcher,” mixed media on green canvas broadcloth, 3 feet by 5 feet.

Miller went through her daughter’s scrapbooks and found examples of drawings and cut-outs that Lis has made over the years. Painting in layers, Miller reproduces some of those images in these new canvases, which are large and full of detail. Miller calls these her daughter’s “seizure drawings” because in them Lis is trying to describe what’s going on her scrambled brain. Her daughter drew after experiencing seizures, to express herself and what she was feeling. Her drawings include images of human figures with malformed heads, heads with eyes out of place and faces without mouths. There are drawings of homes with open windows and drawings of homes consumed by flames. Miller incorporates those motifs, and many more, into these paintings.

Jo Trafford is a retired special education teacher who taught Lis for six years at Brunswick High School. She has known the family for years, and said Miller’s portraits tell a harrowing story of the life of Lis. “When you see these images of Lis, you see the person she is now, the person she was when she was getting ill and the images that surround both. They illustrate a journey through Lis’s brain as seen through Martha’s eyes,” Trafford said, calling portions of that journey “hellish and traumatic” and the paintings “extraordinary and amazing.”

Another friend, the artist Rachel Eastman, met Miller when they showed their work together more than a decade ago at the former Aucocisco Galleries in Portland. She has modeled for Miller’s figure-drawing class, and sat for a portrait. She was stunned when she saw the picture that Miller made of her, and she recognized her friend’s ability to capture something in her that was unseen by most people.

“She caught something that I was trying to hide. She caught the vulnerabilities I felt and the tears in my eyes just before they fell,” Eastman said. “She’s an emotional spelunker. She goes down into the cave of who you are through your skin.”

She does no less with her own daughter, capturing Lis’s essence, including her grief and numbing sadness, Eastman said. “Just try not to feel something standing in front of that work,” she said. “That’s her open journal. My god, I want to sip from a cup of her courage.”

Miller has held this work inside for three decades. She is eager to get it out in the world. She wants to make a book of these portraits, and she wants to show them in museums in Maine and beyond.

She refers to her daughter as “Lis the teacher” because Lisbeth is always teaching her mother something new. She has taught her about neurology. She has taught her about advocacy and taught her about patience. But mostly, she has taught her mother a lesson in accepting what she cannot control.

“I’ve had to learn to accept this painful thing that happened to my child,” Miller said. “I have learned just to accept what is.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes