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Mary Blair . Disney’s early inspiration

March 27, 2012

Mary Blair‘s two nieces Jeanne Chamberlain and Maggie Richardson have created a new website celebrating the life and work of their aunt.  They very kindly allowed me to use information from their site in order to talk about Mary’s work here today. It’s a fabulous site with many examples of her work spanning all periods from her life.  I hadn’t seen much of her early work (like that below), but clearly she showed an amazing talent for colour and a flair for style even in her early twenties.

John Canemaker is an Academy Award-winning animation filmmaker, the author of ‘ The Art and Flair of Mary Blair’ says that ” beneath her deceptively simple style, lies enormous visual sophistication and craftsmanship in everything from color choices to composition ”

An imaginative color stylist and designer, Mary Blair helped introduce modern art to Walt Disney and his Studio, and for nearly 30 years, he touted her inspirational work for his films and theme parks alike. Animator Marc Davis, put Mary’s exciting use of color on a par with Matisse, recalled, “She brought modern art to Walt in a way that no one else did. He was so excited about her work.”

She was certainly an innovator with her free flowing style. 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 said, ” 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.”  Here they are together with a Disney interpretation on a Mary Blair doll.

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.”

During the late 1950’s and early 60’s, working on multiple commercial art projects in her home studio in Great Neck New York, allowed Mary to spend time with her two small sons. Some of her assignments included Meadow Gold (Beatrice Foods), Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods, Pall Mall, Dutch Boy Paints, Hanes underwear and Blue Bell Clothing.

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.

Here we can see examples of Mary’s private world where she captured her children in her own unique style.

Mary’s neices speak about their own memories.  “My sister Jeanne and I grew up knowing and loving our Aunt Mary. We were often in awe of her sophistication but we loved being around her…….She was incredibly kind and unexpectedly “fun” – her mere presence generated excitement.  Throughout her life, Mary continued to share her greatest gift with us – her talent; although as children we didn’t fully understand or appreciate it at the time.  I remember, as a child, being disappointed at Christmas by receiving yet another “picture” by Aunt Mary instead of a doll or other toy. Jeanne remembers wondering why Aunt Mary always wrote her whole name on her pictures — we certainly knew who she was!  Those childhood gifts that we managed to save are, today, among our most precious treasures.”

The 1970’s were to be Mary’s last years of life. During these years her love of texture, color and collage art combined in a surprising and exciting “new” expression of Mary — the Mary Blair “nude”! — jaunty, teasing, sometimes absurd but always “innocent” and undeniably… Mary Blair.

A huge thank you to Jeanne and Maggie for allowing me to share some information here today, but more importantly for ensuring that through their website, Mary’s work can continue to delight and entertain the generations of children to come and those still living inside us all.

There’s also a great article here in the Huffington Post enjoy !

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2012 11:29 pm

    Wow – great post. I appreciate the breadth of her work. “I Can Fly” was a favorite book of one of my daughters when she was little. I didn’t realize what a big role she played at Disney.

    • March 28, 2012 10:16 am

      Thanks Jil, yes Mary was a force at Disney and as you say what a range of work too. An inspiring career.

  2. August 2, 2014 12:28 pm

    Fabulous post with so many great illustrations included.

    • August 2, 2014 12:30 pm

      Thanks for the comment. Mary’s work constantly amazes me.

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