You might not know her name, but chances are you’ve seen her work in classic Disney films like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, and Peter Pan, or in the “It’s a Small World” attraction at Disneyland. Mary Blair, one of Disney’s most beloved designers and art directors, worked behind the scenes on a generation of animated movies that shaped childhoods and lasted far beyond her death in 1978.
Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair, a new exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum, explores the artist’s fantastical vision and keen eye for color and style in over 200 works. We see the full scope of her creative evolution, from her days as a student at Los Angeles’ Chouinard School of Art, to her concept paintings for classic Disney features in the ’40s and ’50s, to her days in New York as a Golden Book book illustrator, mural painter, and set and clothing designer. “I feel great pleasure merely gazing at a work by Mary Blair,” exhibition curator John Canemaker writes in his biography of the artist. “It’s as delicious as feasting on rainbows.”
Walt Disney himself shared these sentiments: Blair was said to be one of his favorite studio artists, and he displayed paintings of hers in his highly curated family home. In a boys’ club of a studio dominated by a group of animators Disney called the “Nine Old Men,” Blair still secured free reign to experiment with concepts, colors, and designs that veered away from the studio’s typical styles. “All the men that were there, their design was based on perspective,” master animator Marc Davis once said, according to Canemaker in a recent interview with Juxtapoz. “Mary did things on marvelous flat planes. Walt appreciated and wanted to see this, but not being an artist himself, though continually supportive, was never able to instruct the men on how to use this. It was tragic because she did things that were so marvelous and never got on the screen.” That’s also because she tended to avoid the offensive stereotypes for which some vintage Disney films are now criticized–her inventive concept drawings for Peter Pan featured Native Americans dancing under a green moon with purple skin, not the cliched “red” that the studio ultimately adopted.
Born in a small Oklahoma town in 1911, Blair developed her strikingly modern aesthetic as a student on scholarship at the prestigious Chouinard during the height of the Great Depression. Taking a job as an animator at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer went against her dream of becoming a fine artist–she had focused mainly on watercolors–but her animation career ended up taking her on Fantasia-worthy adventures. A 1941 tour with Disney through Mexico and South America, sponsored by the U.S. government as part of President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, inspired the vibrant, colorful style Blair became known for. Her watercolors were as lush as their inspirations–the floating gardens of Xochimilco, the fishermen of Lake Titicaca, the marketplace at Chichicastanango. After the trip, Walt Disney named her art director on The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos–films that didn’t quite stand the test of time. Still, Blair’s legacy has lasted despite often being minimized in film credits as a “color stylist”–to wit, for Peter Pan, to which she contributed gorgeous concept art.
Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair is on view at the Walt Disney Family Museum until September.