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MARY BLAIR

(1911-1978)

Watercolorist; Disney Conceptual Artist

By Anastasia Agapoff

Early Disney conceptual artist and fine arts watercolorist, Mary Blair studied at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles under the tutelage of American illustrator Pruett Carter. Blair worked as a conceptual artist on a number of Walt Disney projects, including Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Blair was also responsible for the creation of the It's A Small World attraction.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Mary Browne Robinson was born on Oct. 21, 1911 in McAlester, OK to an impoverished southern family. The Robinsons moved several times over the course of Mary’s childhood, from Oklahoma to Texas before settling in Morgan Hill, California in 1918. After graduating from Live Oak Union High School in 1929, Mary enrolled in San Jose State College as a Fine Arts major. It was here that she was given the opportunity to assist the famous Mexican Social Realist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) on a school mural. In 1931, the young artist received another honor in the form of a scholarship to the prestigious Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles. At Chouinard, Mary came under the tutelage of Pruett Carter (1891-1955), a popular American illustrator of the time.

Her time studying in Los Angeles proved to be extremely important, not only for her career, but for her personal life as well. On March 3, 1934 Mary married Lee Blair (1911-1995), a fellow student at Chouinard who shared her love for and aspiration to become a fine art watercolorist. Unfortunately for the two, trying to make a living as a fine artist during the Great Depression was not easy. After graduation, the Blairs were forced to focus on the commercial side of art to earn an income.

Both Lee and Mary got jobs at Ub Iwerk’s studio in Los Angeles, and later they worked for Harman Ising before finding work with Walt Disney. For a while, the couple worked their day jobs while pursuing their fine art on the weekends and evenings. However, this lifestyle proved to be too taxing, and their personal interests took a backseat to their flourishing commercial careers. Lee was hired full-time at Disney in 1938, and Mary later followed in 1940. In 1941, the Blairs were invited to go on a tour of South America under FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy with Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian. This was an eye opening experience for Mary as her artistic style grew wildly more colorful and eclectic under the influence of South and Latin American culture.

After spending several months abroad, the Blairs returned to many changes. Lee joined the military and was stationed on the east coast, while Mary continued to work for Disney in Los Angeles. It was during this time that her professional and commercial career began to take off. Mary had quickly become one of Walt Disney’s more favored employees and was commissioned as Art Supervisor for the animated films, Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), and Make Music Mine (1946).

By 1947, the Blairs had a new family member to their name when son Donovan was born on Feb. 12. Motherhood did not slow Mary's career down. In the years that followed, she was responsible for the color styling on projects such as, Melody Time (1948), Johnny Appleseed (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). Lee and Mary’s second son, Kevin was born on Aug. 15, 1950. That same year, Mary was also responsible for the color and styling of Walt Disney's major full-length feature, Cinderella. By 1953, Mary added Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) to her resume. She resigned from Disney shortly after the completion of Peter Pan. Lee had left Disney years earlier to start his own company Film/TV Graphics Inc., and in 1951, the family had moved their main place of residence to Great Neck, Long Island. Once in New York, Mary’s main focus lay in working as a freelance artist. She created successful ad campaigns for well-known companies such as Meadow Gold, Dutch Boy and Pall Mall.

By 1964, Mary was ready and willing when Disney approached her to work on a new project called It’s A Small World After All. Showcasing children and cultures from around the world in a colorful, vibrant, abstract way turned out to be the perfect project for Blair. Her uniquely stylized drawings of round faced children were one of Blair’s great trademarks, as were the colorful, flat geometric compositions that had previously had trouble translating to the big screen. It’s A Small World was first shown at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and soon after, became a staple of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, CA.

The years that followed It’s A Small World, provided some high profile commissions for Mary. She completed a mural for the children’s wing of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute in 1966, and the mural Adventures Through Innerspace in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. In 1967, she was also credited with color design for the musical, How to Succeed In Business With Out Really Trying. In 1970, the Blairs relocated to Soquel, a small town on California’s central coast. Sadly, Mary’s last years were marked with complications from a bout with alcoholism. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 26, 1978. In 1991, she was honored as a Disney Legend, and still has a large following of loyal fans today.

II. An Analysis of the Artist's Work

As a concept artist for Disney, Mary Blair’s work forced animation to go where it had never gone before. Her work as a fine arts watercolorist was equally compelling. Although she had become famous as an artist for Disney, these watercolors were her first true passion.

After graduating from Chouinard, Mary and Lee pursued their careers as artists. By 1938, Mary had shown her work in the Philip Isley and Tone Price Galleries in Los Angeles, as well as the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. Often dramatic, her early watercolors boasted darker tones and heavy shadows, yet Blair always managed to keep their appearance soft. Laundry Day, a watercolor from 1938, depicts a woman hanging laundry on a clothesline in the countryside. From the top of the painting down, the work starts with a deviously dark canopy of trees, disclosing only small portions of sky and a little town, moving to an opening at the trunks of the tree where the light is shining on the woman and her laundry. Blair’s brushstrokes are soft, but not blended, each object showing a strong contrast where the shadows lay. These works exhibit the great talent and diversity that Mary Blair had.

Although she had often used some sort of brightly colored object as point of focus in her works, the artist’s wildly vivid color palette did not come into play until her trip with her husband and the Disney’s to South America in 1941. Inspired by Latin culture, Blair’s works during this time began to take on a very eclectic feel. Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944) are two works that showcase the influence this trip had on her artistic style. By 1950, Blair was commissioned to work on the color & styling of Cinderella (1950). During the next three years, Mary would also contribute to the creation of Alice In Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). One of Blair’s greatest professional achievements came in 1964, with the popularity of the UNICEF project, It’s a Small World, that was displayed at the New York World’s Fair and eventually led to its permanent installation at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1911 Mary Browne Robinson born in McAlester, OK
  • 1913 Robinson family moves to Texas
  • 1918 Robinson family moves to Morgan Hill, CA
  • 1925 Graduates from Morgan Hill Elementary
  • 1929 Graduated from Live Oak Union High School
  • 1929-31 Attends San Jose State College, major in Fine Arts
  • 1931 Chosen to assist Siqueiros for assistance w/ school mural
  • 1931-32 Receives scholarship and attends the Chouinard School of Art
  • 1933 Mary and Lee graduate from Chouinard School of Art
  • 1934 Mary and Lee get married, Los Altos CA. They work at Ub Iwerks studio in Los Angeles
  • 1938-40 Mary given Lee’s job as Color Director for Harman Ising, when Lee is hired at Disney
  • 1940 Hired at Disney
  • 1941 Travels to South America w/Disney as researchers fro FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy
  • 1942 Worked on Saludos Amigos as the Art Supervisor
  • 1943 Paints mural for St. Joseph's Hospital Nursery, Burbank CA
  • 1944 Begins research for Song of the South. Works on The Three Caballeros as the Art Supervisor
  • 1946 Works on Make Music Mine as the Art Supervisor. Blairs move to New York City.
  • 1947 Son Donovan is born
  • 1948 Works on the color and styling for Melody Time and Johnny Appleseed
  • 1949 Works on the cartoon art treatment for So Dear to My Heartand the color and styling for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
  • 1950 Son Kevin is born. Works on the color and styling for Cinderella
  • 1951 Blairs move to Great Neck, Long Island. Works on the color and styling for Alice in Wonderland
  • 1953 Works on the color and styling for Peter Pan. Resigns from Disney.
  • 1953-63 Illustrates and designs advertisements
  • 1955 Works on Lake Titicaca
  • 1958 Works on the color and styling for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
  • 1964 Designed UNICEF project for 1964 New York World’s Fair, resulting in It’s a Small World theme park ride
  • 1966 Creates mural for children's wing of Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA
  • 1967 Works as Color Designer for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Creates Tomorrowland’s Adventure Thru InnerSpace mural (renovated over in 1987, 1998)
  • 1970 Blairs move to Soquel, CA
  • 1971 Creates 90 ft. mural for Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Disney World
  • 1978 Artist died in Soquel, CA from cerebral hemorrhage
  • 1991 Named a Disney Legend
  • IV. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1931 7th Annual Convention of the Pacific Art Association, Fresno CA
  • 1934 8th Annual Southern California Art Exhibition, San Diego, CA
  • 1934 Philip Isley Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 1936 Texas Centennial, Dallas Museum of Fine Art
  • 1938 Tone Price Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 1970 Three Dimensions, 3rd Annual Disney Artists for Cal Arts Benefit
  • V. AWARDS

  • 1932 Wins $100 prize, Cannon Mills Inc. National Competition
  • 1938 Elected exhibiting member of Foundation of Western Art
  • 1991 Disney Legend Award
  • 1996 ASIFA-Hollywood Winsor McCay Award
  • 2003 National Fantasy Fan Club's Disney Legend Award
  • VI. Bibliography

    1. 1. Anderson, Susan M. “The American Scene: Regionalist Painters of California 1930-1960,”www.tfaoi.com/newsm1/n1m523. accessed 7/10/07.
    2. 2. “ASIFA-Hollywood Cartoon Hall of Fame: Blair,Mary,” www.animationarchive.org 7/10/07.
    3. 3. Canemaker, John. The Art and Flair of Mary Blair. Disney Enterprises Inc., New York, 2003.
    4. 4. “Cartoon Modern: Mary Blair,” cartoonmodern.blogsome.com 7/11/07.
    5. 5. “Disney Concept Art by Mary Blair,” www.cuckoo.com 7/10/07.
    6. 6. “Disney Legends-Mary Blair,”legends.Disney.go.com 7/11/07.
    7. Gentry, Travis “Mary Blair and Her Influences of the Pixar Style,”www.travisgentry.com 7/11/07.
    8. 7. “Mary Blair,” www.bobstaake.com/artists/maryblair 7/10/07.
    9. 8. “Mary Blair,” www.imdb.com 7/10/07.
    10. 9. “Mary Blair,” www.mercurynews.com 7/11/2007.
    11. 10. “Mary Blair,” www.wikipedia.org 7/10/07.
    12. 11. “Mary Blair Mural at UCLA,”www.tikiroom.com 7/11/2007.
    13. 12. “Mary Blair Tile Murals,” www.yesterland.com/maryblair 7/11/07.
    14. 13. “Memories of Mary Blair,” www.fredcline.blogspot.com 7/10/07.
    15. 14. “Windows on Main Street,” www.disneylandtoday.com/legends/mblair 7/10/07

    VII. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST


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