Culture

Mary Blair: Unsung Disney Artist

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She developed the unique color palette for many of the iconic Disney films of the 1950s. She produced some of the most evocative artwork from the Disney Studio’s 1941 South America trip. She created the characters for a beloved classic Disney Parks attraction. She outshone the men she worked with – including her own husband. Yet for some reason, Mary Blair doesn’t have the household name she deserves except among Disney aficionados.

With his new book The Art And Flair Of Mary Blair: An Appreciation, animator and historian John Canemaker hopes to change that perception. (I’ve waited nearly two years for this book’s release, and it was worth the wait.) Canemaker explores a woman with priceless talent who led a difficult, sometimes tragic life – an artist who has gone woefully underappreciated. As Canemaker writes on one of the book’s final pages:

The general public’s knowledge of Mary Blair’s name and her art is limited. Only one of her children’s books is still in print, and the hundreds of conceptual paintings she made for animated films are stored at the Disney studio or are in private collections.

Mary Richardson was born in Oklahoma in 1911, but her family moved to Texas when she was a young girl. The daughter of an alcoholic, she asked for money from the family budget to purchase art supplies because she knew that her father couldn’t then spend it on drinking.

Her talent earned her a scholarship to the famed Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and there she met Lee Blair, whom she later married. The Blairs harbored dreams of becoming fine artists, but the obvious need for money led them first to Ub Iwerks’ studio, then to Harman-Ising/MGM.

A sample of Mary Blair's artwork from the South America trip

A sample of Mary Blair’s artwork from the South America trip

In 1940, Lee and Mary Blair went to work for Disney. Mary began working on a sequel to Fantasia that never got off the ground. Other projects she labored on either failed to make it out of the development stage or stalled for what would be years, and Mary quit in June 1941.

Two months later, Walt Disney lured her back into the fold, and she joined Walt, her husband, and a dozen others on a plane to South America. Mary’s drawings captured the irrepressible spirit of the trip better than anyone else’s, and the journey through the continent rekindled her love for Disney. As Lee went off to fight in World War II, Mary went on to leave her mark on the South American package features, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Mary’s success took its toll on her husband when he returned from the war effort.

Lee Blair declined Walt Disney’s offer of reemployment after his Navy discharge. The offer was not job specific, and Lee was leery of competing with his own wife at a place where she was so well regarded. “He was at Disney before Mary and did very well,” observed animator-designer Marc Davis. “When Mary came, she became terribly important to Walt, and Lee less so.”

Walt went on to add Mary’s touch to animated classics like Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland, along with animated shorts and live action features such as So Dear To My Heart and Song Of The South. He would refer to Mary as his favorite artist because she employed modern art techniques to the time honored medium of animation. He also appreciated how her work reflected his values.

Combined with Walt Disney’s paean to the nation’s heritage and values, her art became a reassuring expression of faith in, and hope for, America’s future.

[…]

Disney saw Cinderella, Alice, and Peter Pan as stories about the comfort and protectiveness of the family unit, traditional values…togetherness, love, and no-place-like-home sentiments. His films appealed to the dominant family-oriented postwar society, reassuring its sense of well-being in a post-Hiroshima, post-Holocaust world.

Mary Blair’s fluidly organic shapes – at once primitive and futuristic in colorful, attractive imagery – subconsciously reinforced Disney’s message, reaffirming life and its promise.


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Mary left Disney in 1953, spending the better part of a decade engaging in freelance work until Walt called her back to work on what would become her masterpiece: It’s A Small World. Working on the attraction for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair – and later Disneyland and Walt Disney World – challenged and excited her like no other project. Imagineer extraordinaire Rolly Crump, who also worked on It’s A Small World, agreed.

“I think it hit her at the right time,” says Crump. “It was about children, the freedom of color, and that Walt asked her to do it. Like she’d died and gone to heaven. Small World had to be the crescendo for her because I’ve never seen anything as powerful in her work. She just whipped this stuff out.”

The success of It’s A Small World led to more commissions from Walt – including murals in Tomorrowland at Disneyland and in the Grand Canyon Concourse of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. But Walt’s death devastated Mary, and when the projects he commissioned ended, her work dried up. Mary turned to alcohol to cope with losing her mentor as well as with her own family’s struggles. She painted infrequently until her death in 1978 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

The real tragedy of Mary Blair’s life is that, outside of Disney fandom and the circles of animation, not many people know who she was. Of course, even guests to the Disney theme parks and moviegoers who’ve never heard of her still see her influence on a regular basis. As Pixar’s Pete Docter put it in a quote from the book:

Her work is such a treasure trove of riches in terms of focusing the eye and drawing you in. She has a way of framing things, giving it a vignette sort of feel.

In every production, there’s a phase where we say, “Let’s look at Mary Blair stuff!”

My hope is that Canemaker’s book will help more people to look at Mary Blair’s stuff – and discover her joyous art and influence.