Mary Blair (October 21, 1911 – July 26, 1978), born Mary Robinson, was an American artist best remembered today for work done for The Walt Disney Company. Blair produced striking concept art for such films as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Song of the South and Cinderella. Her style also 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.
Born October 21, 1911 in McAlester, Oklahoma, Mary Browne Robinson moved to Texas while still a small child, and later to California when she was about 7. Having graduated from San Jose State College, Mary won a scholarship to the renowned Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where teachers included Pruett Carter, Morgan Russell and Lawrence Murphy. In 1934, she married another artist, Lee Everett Blair (October 1, 1911 – April 19, 1993). She was the sister-in-law of animator Preston Blair (1918–1994).
Both Blairs soon began to work in the animation industry, joining the Ub Iwerks studio. Lee went on to work at the Harman-Ising studios before ultimately joining the Walt Disney studio where he was joined by his wife in 1940. She worked briefly on art for Dumbo, an early version of Lady and the Tramp and a second version of Fantasia which was not released until the late 1990s.
After leaving the studio for a short time in 1941, Mary travelled to various South American countries with Walt and Lillian Disney and other artists on a research tour as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. During those trips, Mary and Lee worked on concept art for the animated feature films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros with Mary credited as art supervisor on those films.
After that she worked on several package films excluding Fun and Fancy Free and worked on 2 partially animated features Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. The early 1950s were a busy time for the Disney studio, with an animated feature released nearly every year. Mary Blair was credited with color styling on Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) and the artistic influence of her concept art is strongly felt in those films as well as several animated shorts she designed during that period.
After the completion of Peter Pan, Mary resigned from Disney and worked as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, creating advertising campaigns for companies such as Nabisco, Pepsodent, Maxwell House, Beatrice Foods and others. She also illustrated several Golden Books for publisher Simon & Schuster, some of which have never gone out of print, and designed Christmas and Easter sets for Radio City Music Hall.
At the request of Walt Disney, who highly regarded her innate sense of color styling, Mary began work on the attraction It’s a Small World, originally a Pepsi-Cola sponsored pavilion benefiting UNICEF at the 1964 New York World’s Fair which moved to Disneyland after the Fair closed and was later replicated at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World Resort as well as Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland.
In 1967, Mary created mural art for the Tomorrowland Promenade. Two similar tile murals flanked the entrance corridor. The one over Adventure Thru Inner Space was covered over during subsequent renovations of that Disneyland area in 1987 with the opening of Star Tours and the other remained until 1998 when the Circle-Vision 360° was replaced with Rocket Rods and a new mural to convey the new theme of the area. In 1968, she also was credited as color designer on the film version of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
Her design of a 90-foot-high (27 m) mural remains a focal point of the Disney’s Contemporary Resort hotel at Walt Disney World, which was completed for the resort’s opening in 1971.
Mary Blair died of a cerebral haemorrhage on July 26, 1978.
While the fine art she created outside of her association with Disney and her work as an illustrator is not widely known or appreciated, her bold and ground-breaking color design still serves as an inspiration to many of today’s contemporary designers and animators.
Google paid homage to her on October 21, 2011 on her 100th birthday with a doodle on their homepage.
In 1991, Mary was recognized with a posthumous Disney Legend award. Also posthumously, she received the Winsor McCay award from ASIFA-Hollywood in 1996.
Partial bibliography as illustrator
- Baby’s House (written by Gelolo McHugh) (1950)
- I Can Fly (written by Ruth Krauss) (1951)
- The Golden Book of Little Verses (1953)
- The New Golden Song Book (1955)
- Disney Legends: Mary Blair
- The Art and Flair of Mary Blair: An Appreciation (ISBN 0-7868-5391-3)
- Mary Blair at the Internet Movie Database
- Photograph of Mary Blair at the Disney Studio, c.1941
- A Meadow Gold ice cream TV commercial (designed by Mary Blair in the style of her “I Can Fly” book illustrations)
- Cartoon Modern’s Mary Blair Week
- Mary Blair – The Art Cartoon Modern