Since 1923 the Walt Disney Company has gifted the world of pop culture with iconic creations across amusement parks, television, publishing, films, music, video games, broadcasting, radio, web portals and so much more. A prominent member of this family of companies, whose artistic contributions remain widely celebrated and valuable among collectors is Mary Blair.
Born Mary Browne Robinson on October 21, 1911, the artist graduated from San Jose State University before earning a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Shortly after graduating, she married fellow artist Lee Everett Blair and the pair became members of the California School of Watercolor. As Blair’s reputation as an imaginative colorist and designer began to grow, she accepted an animator position with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She later briefly joined her husband at the Ub Iwerks studio before transitioning to Disney, albeit a little reluctantly. During her early years with the The Walt Disney Company, Blair worked on art for Dumbo, an early version of Lady and the Tramp, and a second version of Fantasia entitled “Baby Ballet.”
After taking a brief hiatus from the studio, Blair travelled to various countries across South America with Walt Disney, his wife Lillian and other artists as part of a research tour. Her watercolors impressed Disney so much that he appointed her as an art supervisor for the animated features Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. In 1943, Blair began animation and color design on major films and would continue to work on animated films for Disney for the next 10 years. She also worked on several package films and on two partially animated features – Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. The early 1950s were a particularly busy time for Blair with the Disney studio dropping a new animated feature nearly every year.
The artistic influence of her concept art is strongly felt in such films as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Along with color styling on these films, Blair also designed several animated shorts, including Susie the Little Blue Coupe and The Little House. Following the completion of Peter Pan, Blair resigned from Disney and started working as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. During this time she created ad campaigns for such companies as Nabisco, Pepsodent, Maxwell House, and Beatrice Foods. She also illustrated several Little Golden Books for Simon & Schuster, many of which remain in print today, and designed Christmas and Easter sets for Radio City Music Hall.
Later, at the behest of Walt Disney, Blair returned to Disney to assist with the latest attraction, It’s a Small World. Originally on display at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the attraction was later moved to Disneyland in California before being replicated in Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Honk Kong Disneyland. Blair is responsible for the enduring attraction’s whimsical design and color styling. Blair was then tasked with creating pained and tile murals to be showcased in Disney parks, hotels and other Disney attractions. Perhaps her best known example is seen in the enormous 90-foot-high mosaic inside the Contemporary Resort in Florida, which has remained since the resort’s opening in 1971.
In her later years, Blair created sets of Walt Disney note cards for Hallmark and is credited as color designer on the film version of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. In 1991, Mary was posthumously honored as a Disney Legend in recognition of her extraordinary and integral contributions to the Walt Disney Company. Also posthumously, Blair was awarded the Winsor McCay Award from ASIFA-Hollywood alongside two other Disney animators.
“Although much of her art veers away from naturalism toward abstraction, she was one of Walt Disney’s favorite artists. He personally responded to her use of color, naïve graphics, and the storytelling aspect in her pictures, especially the underlying emotions palpable in much of her art,” once noted author of The Art and Flair of Mary Blair: An Appreciation, John Canemaker.
Not only does Blair’s bold color design continue to inspire many of today’s contemporary designers and animators, but her artistic contributions are credited for introducing modernist art styles to Walt Disney and his studio that endure to this day.