Mary Blair was an artist best remembered today for work done for The Walt Disney Company. Her style lives on through the character designs for the Disney attraction It's a Small World, the fiesta scene in El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase, as well as an enormous mosaic inside Disney's Contemporary Resort.
Several of her illustrated children's books from the 1950s have never been out of print, such as I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss. Blair was honored as a Disney Legend in 1991, one of the first women to be given the honor.
Disney Animator Frank Thomas added, "Mary was the first artist I knew of to have different shades of red next to each other. You just didn't do that! But Mary made it work."
Walt connected with Mary's fresh, childlike art style. As Disney Imagineering artist Roland Crump once told animation historian John Canemaker, "The way she (Mary) painted – in a lot of ways she was still a little girl. Walt was like that… You could see he could relate to children – she was the same way."
Born in McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1911, the inherently gifted artist won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. After graduation in 1933, at the height of the Depression, Mary took a job in the animation unit of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) rather than pursue her dream of a fine arts career.
In 1940, she joined The Walt Disney Studios and worked on a number of projects, including the never-produced "Baby Ballet," part of a proposed second version of "Fantasia." (Walt's original idea was to periodically re-release "Fantasia" with new sequences.)
In 1941, she joined the Disney expedition that toured South America for three months and painted watercolors that so captured the spirit of the Latin countries that she was named art supervisor on "The Three Caballeros" and "Saludos Amigos." Mary's unique color and styling greatly influenced such Disney postwar productions as "Song of the South," "Make Mine Music," "Melody Time," "So Dear to My Heart," "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad," "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Peter Pan." She also contributed to special shorts, including "The Little House" and "Susie, the Little Blue Coupe."
Walt asked Mary to assist in the design of the It's a Small World attraction, which is pure Mary Blair in its style and concept, for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Over the years, she contributed to the design of many exhibits, attractions, and murals at the theme parks in California and Florida, including the fanciful murals in the Grand Canyon Concourse at the Contemporary Hotel at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Mary Blair died July 26, 1978, in Soquel, California.
To this day, Mary Blair remains this day one of the artists of Disney the most appreciated (although at her time, many artists did not like her work and were jealous of its privileged relations with Walt Disney), although none of its drawings was used as such in a Disney animated film.
As I'm sure everybody knows by now, Disneyland Park in Anaheim, CA has recently opened "The Colors of Mary Blair", a temporary art exhibit in the Disney Gallery on Main Street U.S.A.
As a Disney Art enthusiast, I personally believe it behooves anyone who has an annual pass, and anyone who just happens to be visiting Disneyland to visit this gallery while it is open and pay homage to one of Disney's greatest artistic legends.
There are many of photo reports of this exhibit online that are better than this, but no photo report can capture the Disneyness of Mary Blair. If you really want an uncut fix of Disneyness, go see this great work in person, enjoy the quiet atmosphere of the Disney Gallery and listen to the classic Disney songs that are played inside to accompany the art work.