One of my favorite artists Disney ever hired was the woman known as Mary Blair. Her work was influenced by a modern art style that spread in California, and in turn, she influenced the art direction of Disney’s animated films in the forties and fifties.
First some background:
Mary Blair was born in Oklahoma in 1911 as Mary Browne Robinson. Her name would later change to Blair after marrying Lee Everett Blair (which made her the sister-in-law of animation legend Preston Blair, best known for his work on Fantasia and the MGM Tex Avery cartoons).
She attended San Jose State University in 1929 and graduated in 1931, winning a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in L.A., which was the school that would later be known as CalArts.
After graduating Chouinard in 1932, Blair worked for MGM, Ub Iwerks and eventually Disney.
She was initially planning to leave Disney after just a few years, but while there, she travelled with Walt and some other artists to South America as part of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, and was so good at watercolor art that Walt made her art supervisor for the two animated films that would become Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
She would also work on Make Mine Music, Song of the South, Melody Time, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
After Peter Pan, Blair left Disney to become a freelance graphic designer and illustrator for several companies, including Golden Books, although her relationship with Disney wasn’t over. She was hired later to make artwork for the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland.
Here is some of my personal favorite work of hers:
The shift in style for Disney’s animated films from the forties to the fifties is very noticeable thanks to the emphasis on highlighting Blair’s creativity. It was sometimes impossible not to see her drawings in clear view within those films. And her color styling enhanced them significantly. Comparing her original artwork with a frame from one of Disney’s film shows how influential she was to the final look of some movies.
Blair is a Disney Legend who helped shape some of my favorite films of the 20th century. Her artwork is the visual equivalent of a Sherman Brothers song: timeless, colorful, creative and appealing.