The Unsung Concept Artist Behind Disney’s Mid-Century Blockbusters

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Concept art for Johnny Appleseed, Mary Blair, c. 1948. Source: The Magic of Mary Blair

Disney’s teams of animators and designers are known around the world for their unparalleled creative, innovative artistic vision and, historically, most of these great talents were men. But as it turns out, one of the most influential concept artists in the Disney arsenal was a woman named Mary Blair. Disney lovers everywhere have her to thank for the amazing imagery of well-loved mid-century favorites and one of Disney World’s most iconic rides.

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Mary Blair, c. 1941. Copyright Estate of Mary Blair. Source: The Walt Disney Family Museum

Born an Okie in 1911 as Mary Robinson, her family first moved to Texas and then on to Santa Clara County, California (part of the now famous Silicon Valley) in the 1920s. From 1929 to 1931, she attended San Jose State University, after which she received a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute–a newly founded school in Los Angeles with Disney connections. Walt Disney, himself, would drive many of his animators to Chouinard on Friday nights for classes starting in 1929, and the Institute became more or less a farm school for Disney animators. But this did not immediately lead to then-Robinson’s work with Disney.

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Chouinard’s courtyard, c. 1931, when Mary Robinson would have started classes. Photo by Will Connell. Source: Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater

Mary Robinson became Mary Blair shortly after graduating Chouinard, when she married a fellow artist, Lee Blair, who’s brother worked as an animator for Disney. But Mary Blair’s time with Disney was yet to come, as she started out working for MGM. She soon left to work at Ub Iwerks‘ studio with her husband. Iwerks and Disney started out their careers together in Kansas in 1919 and famously collaborated to create Mickey Mouse. Iwerks did most of the animation on Disney’s successful early works, like Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance. But Iwerks felt over-worked and under-appreciated by a driven Disney, and he left to create his own studio in 1930. He would return to Disney a decade later.

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Ub Iwerks refining a Disney sketch of Mickey Mouse. Source: Wikipedia.
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Ub and Walt in the 1920s.

The Blairs, like employer Ub Iwerks, moved on to Disney in 1940. Mary Blair did some minor work for Dumbo and an early draft of Lady and the Tramp (the film did not make it to theaters until 1955 by which time Blair had left), as well as a short called “Baby Ballet” for Fantasia that didn’t quite make the cut. And that was year one with Disney.

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Part of a storyboard for “Baby Ballet,” by Mary Blair. Most likely from the book The Disney that Never Was. Source: Michael Sporn Animation.

In year two, 1941, Blair traveled with Walt Disney and a team of animators on a Latin American tour for inspiration. This led to the creation of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. This became Blair’s early success; Disney found Blair’s imaginative watercolors a captivating fit for the new works and subsequently named her artistic supervisor for both films.

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The Disney “Goodwill Tour” of Latin America garnered a feature in LIFE magazine, in which one can see Mary Blair touring, talking with the locals, and at work on her sketch book clad in a khaki skirt suit.

Directly after these films that received mixed reviews (though ultimately successful at the box office), Disney Studios released more package films–that is, films containing multiple, distinct stories. She created concept art for The Adventures of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad, Make Mine Music, and Melody Time. Disney also created two films that blended animation and real actors (much like in Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros at times)–Song of the South, based on Uncle Remus, and So Dear To My Heart, both of which featured Blair art inspiration.

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In the 1950s, Disney truly began its animated film empire with full-length movies like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, to all of which Blair made stunning contributions. In Cinderella, she created the feature’s distinctive pinks and blues, the iconic magical castle, and the pearly white stage coach.

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Alice in Wonderland was nothing short of a fantasy for Blair, whose abstract, semi-surrealist style matched Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical, topsy-turvy, dream world. In her watercolors, Alice “fell up,” faced a house of cards, sang with flowers, and took tea with the Mad Hatter.

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Peter Pan would be her last work for Disney when she left the Studios in 1953. The story of this film again matched Blair’s dreamy, blurred style, but where Alice boasted bright blues and reds, Peter Pan had a primarily moody green and black palette.

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In between these last three films, she created concept art for a few shorts, including The Little House and Susie the Little Blue Coupe, which inspired Cars many years later.

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Though Blair left, her influence remained, especially for the main concept artist behind Sleeping Beauty, Eyvind Earle, who worked with Blair on Peter Pan. Earle’s style unmistakably reflects Blair’s in the 1959 film.

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But Blair’s Disney legacy didn’t end there. After years away from the Studios as a freelancer, Walt called Blair up personally to help him on an enormous project–a pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. Disney had agreed to partner with Pepsi and UNICEF to create an exhibit on “children of the world”; looking back, what an opportunity this exhibit had (and fulfilled) to foster ideas of harmonious diversity at the height of the Civil Rights movement (’64 would be the year of the Civil Rights Act). As a result of this request, Blair created the famed “It’s a Small World” ride, which became a permanent fixture of Disney parks around the world following the Fair’s end.

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Following her “It’s a Small World” success, Disney tasked Blair with the creation of tile murals for “Tomorrowland” at Disneyland in California. She created two larger than life works–one for the “Adventure Thru Inner Space” exhibit (replaced with “Star Tours” and now “Star Tours–The Adventures Continue“) and one for the Circle-Vision 360° theater (later replaced by “Rocket Rods” and now “Buzz Lightyear’s AstroBlasters“). These murals were later painted over.

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Source: Flickr
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Source: Little Verses Blog
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Mary Blair in front of one of her Tomorrowland murals. Copyright Mary Blair Estate.

Blair created one last tile mural for Disney in 1971. Her largest yet, one can still take in its abstract glory in the Grand Canyon Concourse of the Contemporary Resort at Disney World.

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Don’t be surprised if you spy a five-legged goat in the top image; it’s intentional–a comment on no man-made work being perfect. And though not visible in the coverage of the infamous “I am not a crook” speech, Nixon made those remarks in front of this mural. Source: Disney World Resort Guide blog

Beyond Disney, Blair did a great deal of work for Little Golden Books, various advertisement campaigns, and even served as the color designer for the film adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Whether or not people know her name today, they certainly know her work and experience it again and again each time they watch Disney classics like Peter Pan or cruise through “It’s a Small World.” She loved art, and she loved children–the basic requirements to be an Imagineer, and she was one of Disney’s most outstanding.

 

*All images most likely fall under copyright, be that of Disney, the Blair Estate, or LIFE magazine.

Content and image sources: The Magic of Mary Blair, House of Retro, Magic, Color, Flair: the world of Mary Blair, Disney Avenue, EatDrinkFilms, Little Verses

For a book full of Mary Blair inspiration, look here. And be sure to check out Mary Blair’s non-Disney works on her official page.

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