Widely recognized for her trend-setting collaborations with industry pioneer Walt Disney, concept artist Mary Blair forever altered the landscape of American animation with her innovative and uncompromising artistic vision.
To many, Blair was the antithesis to Disney’s “illusion of life,” a successful conceptual and visual formula created with early films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and Pinocchio from 1940. However, as John Canemaker addresses in the introduction to his wonderful book The Art and Flair of Mary Blair (Disney Enterprises, 2003), Disney was, in actuality, most receptive to new technical advances as well as artistic innovations. Early on Walt Disney had looked to realists like Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton and Gustaf Tenneggren for inspiration, while Blair’s conceptual paintings “evoked the soft abstraction of Milton Avery and Marguerite Zorach.” Despite their apparent differences in style and influence, Mary Blair represented a modernism which Disney could appreciate and utilize. Her artistic input for and the commercial success of such feature length films as Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953), paved the way for future major achievements in the worlds of advertising, illustration and architectural decor.
Born Mary Browne Robinson on October 21, 1911 in McAlester, Oklahoma, she displayed great artistic ability as a child. At the age of twenty she won a scholarship to the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, where she studied under demanding instructor Pruett Carter. While at Chouinard she met future husband Lee Blair, brother to famous animator Preston Blair, author of the acclaimed Walter Foster “How To Draw” books and creator of legendary Tex Avery character “Red Hot Riding Hood.” After marrying in 1934, the Blair’s exhibited regionally as members of the influential California Watercolor Society, while working for several Hollywood animation studios to make ends meet.
Working for Ub Iwerk’s animation studio and then at Harman-Ising in the late 1930’s, Mary finally landed at Walt Disney Studios in April of 1940. Her first job at Disney was as a sketch artist for what would later become Lady and the Tramp (1955). She produced concept art for various projects, which were never finished, before quitting in 1941. She soon rejoined Walt Disney, along with husband Lee and several other studio artists, on his U.S. State Department-sponsored South American Good Neighbor Policy tour, where she immersed herself in the vibrancy and color of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico. During these three months, Blair’s prolific output would form the foundation for Disney shorts Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1945).
Over the next several years Blair would produce an avalanche of small acrylic and gouache paintings for Disney, “suggesting possibilities for staging actions, the mood and emotional content of scenes, [as well as] color and design ideas for characters, props, costumes and backgrounds.” In this way, she provided invaluable art direction for essentially every Disney film from this era. Make Mine Music (1946), Song of the South (1946), Melody Time (1948), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), So Dear To My Heart (1949) all bear Blair’s indelible mark. As mentioned previously, she would also create color concepts for the animated fairy tales Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) during this time. However, these three feature-length films did not feature Blair’s singular character as successfully. Even though Blair provided color and staging direction for nearly ever scene, translating her flat, unconventional designs to the screen proved difficult. The term is often overused but Mary Blair was ahead of her time. By the end of the 1950’s, traditional-style animation was effectively dead and the modern design, color and composition Blair had channelled for over a decade was now mainstream.
In 1953, Mary Blair left Walt Disney Studios. The reason behind her departure was not well-known but many assumed she wished to spend more time with her family. Perhaps she was simply tired. Regardless of her purpose, Blair embarked upon a new career in graphic design and illustration, freelancing for a diverse set of clients like Nabiso, Pepsodent, Maxwell House Coffee and illustrating several Golden Books for Simon & Schuster.
Walt Disney would again call upon Ms. Blair, enlisting her services for the 1964 New York World’s Fair pavilion It’s A Small World. This endeavor would prove to be the apex of her career. As designer Wally Crump remembered, “I think it hit her at the right time. It was a powerful package for her…It was about children, the freedom of color, and that Walt asked her to do it. [It was] like she’d died and gone to heaven.” In 1966, the pavilion moved to Disneyland and again to Walt Disney World in 1971. With each move, the ever prolific Blair would create new designs for complimentary exteriors and scenes. She continued to design large-scale murals for Disney’s Tomorrowland and UCLA’s Stein Eye Institute before passing away on July 26, 1978.
From John Canemaker’s introduction to The Art and Flair of Mary Blair:
In her prime, she was an amazingly prolific American artist who enlivened and influenced the not-so-small worlds of film, print, theme parks, architectural decor, and advertising. At its core, her art represents joyful creativity and communicates pure pleasure to the viewer. Her exuberant fantasies brim with beauty, charm, and wit, melding a child’s fresh eye with adult experience. Blair’s personal flair was one with the imagery that flowed effortlessly and continually for more than half a century from her brush. Emulated by many, she remains inimitable: a dazzling sorceress of design and color.
Illostribute salutes Disney legend Mary Blair–
Thanks contributors! And here are some links I used for writing this article. Purchase John Canemaker’s book here, view a large collection of images and read some bio here or visit Michael Sporn’s wonderful animation blog here.