When Martha Miller saw Amanda Gorman reading a poem, wearing a brilliant yellow dress, at President Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration, she understood what was coming next.
“I knew I had to draw her portrait,” Miller said. “She was just so cool looking, so beautiful, almost like a ballet dancer with her hands.”
That irresistible urge was not surprising coming from Miller, a prolific Maine artist known for her larger-than-life, vivid charcoal, pastel and gouache portraits.
In the two months after the inauguration, Miller finished 48 more portraits, each one depicting an influential woman of color, from activists to artists to school girls. Though she usually works from life, drawing people she knows, she based this series on images gleaned from the internet. It was during a period of pandemic isolation, and most of Miller’s eventual subjects were either far from Maine or dead.
“I realized I could bring these people back to life,” she said.
The nearly 50-picture collection, called the “Women of Color Portrait Project,” is on exhibit through the end of the month at the tiny Gallery Camee Davidson in Readfield. Miller printed a glossy companion catalog and hopes to show the work as a traveling exhibition in the future.
At first, Miller said, each portrait flowed to the next. After Gorman came Kamala Harris, the country’s first female, and person of color, to serve as vice president. A few more politicians soon followed.
Then Miller started to get suggestions from her son, Eben Miller, a history professor at Southern Maine Community College.
“His specialty is African American history,” Martha MIller said.
Eben Miller suggested his mother draw a portrait of pioneering Black journalist Ida B. Wells.
“He just started naming a whole list of iconic women of color that have passed on and are part of history,” Martha Miller said. “And, once I started looking up all these different women online, more women would pop out. It was like they were almost asking me to draw them.”
Martha Miller’s eventual subjects included former first lady Michelle Obama, singer Billie Holiday, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and television and cultural icon Oprah Winfrey.
In addition to those familiar names and faces, the artist drew many lesser-known, but just as inspiring, women of color such as Nannie Helen Burroughs, an early 20th century educator who opened a school to educate working-class African American women.
Martha Miller drew Zitkala-Sa, a Yankton Dakota writer, editor and translator, also known by her anglicized name, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Her books were the first to tell traditional Native American stories to a widespread, white, English-speaking audience.
A portrait of actress Nichelle Nichols, pictured in her red “Star Trek” costume, gets a lot of attention and comments, Martha Miller said. Nichols played communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original 1960s “Star Trek” television show.
Given that both Nichols and her alter ego Uhura are both Black American icons, the single picture is really a clever combination of two people, at once.
“That was a fun one to do,” Martha Miller said. “It gets a lot of attention.”
Early in the project, after posting some images and an artist’s statement on Instagram, Martha Miller said she was contacted by a Black woman who told her the portrait series was the wrong way to go about celebrating women of color.
“She told me all I had to do was shut up and pay reparations,” Martha Miller said.
While the comment hasn’t stopped the artist from showing the work, the criticism did make Martha Miller rethink her artist’s statement.
“I had, in my artist statement, how I felt like this was something I wanted to do after the death of George Floyd, and I took all that out,” she said. “And in my catalog, I thought I’d just keep me out of it as much as possible.”
Instead of a long, personal statement, Miller’s exhibition catalog contains short biographies and quotes from each subject, along with their portrait. She is donating 20 percent of what she makes on catalog sales to the Maine NAACP.
“Some of these people dedicated their entire lives to civil rights,” Martha Miller said. “And I’m a privileged middle-aged white woman, after all.”
The artist hopes everyone can receive her portrait project with the spirit that inspired it. That is, the awe and admiration Martha Miller felt for Amanda Gorman back in 2021.
“I really did feel like I was in the service of telling these women’s stories when I was working on them,” Miller said. “It was like, wow, listen to this person.”
The Gallery Camee Davidson is open 10 a.m. until 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday and anytime by appointment.