REVIEW: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair by John Canemaker
When I got into lettering and illustration, I started compiling a list of other artists whose work I really admired. Miroslav Sasek (I wrote about him here) and Alain Gree come to mind.
Mary Blair came up quite often in the online forums. Her best known work would be the It’s a Small World ride at the Disney parks.
Ok. I know what you’re thinking. That’s the kiddie ride you bypass on your way to the Haunted Mansion. Or if you’re traveling with little ones, you go on because you HAVE to.
Here’s an old “E” ticket from the late 70s my mom kept. All the rides are still there, except for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which closed in 1994. The paper ticket system was replaced with one and multi-day park tickets in 1982.
It all seems rather quaint, nowadays. I’ll admit, I haven’t been on that particular ride at Disney World in Orlando for decades. I think I got to a certain age and thought that was only for “sissies” and “babies”. The looping music track probably didn’t help, either.
Putting all that aside, I took a closer look at Blair, and her work.
Born in Oklahoma in 1911, Blair eventually settled in Southern California in the early 20s.
She had painted from childhood, and won a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. While there, she was determined to be an illustrator, but expanded to fine art art via Lee Blair, a fellow student. The two would marry in 1934.
The couple exhibited their art nationwide, but reluctantly also worked with Hollywood animation studios to help make the ends meet. As Lee Blair put it: ”Way beneath our standards, but we needed to eat.”
After working at the Harman-Ising animation studio for several years, Mary moved to Disney in April 1940 as a $60-per-week sketch artist.
Working in gouche and watercolour, she developed conceptual paintings and staging actions for the shorts and films. Her style was quite different from Disney’s “Illusion of Life”, where characters and elements were rendered more realistically. Mary’s style was very childlike and abstract. Despite this, Disney loved her work. Although her style may seem playful and simple, behind it was a love of hard work and professionalism.
During this time, her delicate watercolours changed to flat colours—often gouache on single colour backgrounds.
In June 1941, Mary quit in disgust. While she found the work “interesting”, she “wanted to stay home and paint”.
In August 1941 she again found herself working with Disney in South America. This time, it was to research films and promote America’s “Good Neighbour policy” As she said: ”I felt I had found a place in the business”.
The tour helped develop her distinctive style. It was during this time she worked on The Three Cabalerros and Saludos Amigos shorts.
The War Years
When America entered WW2, Mary mostly continued working on the South American films and worked on several private murals.
There were particular challenges for Disney during this time, as they were under government contract to produce training and propaganda films. As well, many of the staff had gone into military service. It wasn’t feasible to produce a feature-length film during this time, so they produced short films that were “packaged” together into a loosely connected narrative.
The Disney Features
Cinderella was Disney’s first feature following WW2. Mary was instrumental in developing the colours, costumes and staging for every important sequence in the film. The mood, ‘emotional colours’ and skewed perspective all had Mary’s distinctive style.
However, Blair’s designs were toned back in favour of Disney’s classic, more realistic, style. As this was Disney’s first feature in some time, he was cautious.
As animator Ward Kimball put it: “She would inspire people, but her drawings were bastardized.” While Disney loved her work, it was clear there was a limit on how much of that would show up in the final product.
Blair also worked on Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan during this time.
It’s interesting to note the differences in Blair’s original design compared to the final film. Blair’s compositions are very graphic, often breaking rules on perspective. It created an energy that’s somehow lost in the final, animated feature.
A good example is the short The Little House. Blair’s designs have a very graphic quality, almost Sasek-like. When I watched The Little House on YouTube (a very poor quality version, unfortunately) I sensed a big disconnect. I wanted to see that graphic style on the screen. A wisp of it was here and there, but for the most part seemed to be washed away by the Disney house style. Too bad.
A few years after Blair’s departure, background artist Eyvind Earle stepped in as colour stylist. He also found resistance to his bold style. However, this time Disney stood up for the artist …
“For years and years I have been hiring artists like Mary Blair to design the styling of a figure, and by the time the picture is finished, there is hardly a trace of the original styling left. This time, Eyvind Earle is styling Sleeping Beauty, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Life after Disney
In 1953, Blair left Disney to persue a freelance career, working on children’s books, Broadway sets, costume designs and ads—which unfortunately included some for cigarettes. Different times.
When Disney started developing It’s a Small World for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he knew Blair had to be involved. Here was a project she deeply cared about.
Using collages with paper and cellophane on black backgrounds, with details in gouche, this was her boldest work yet.
The Small World exhibit moved to Disneyland in 1966, and Walt Disney World when it opened in 1971.
- There’s a secret, hidden Blair ceramic-tile mural at the Disneyland Tomorrowland entrance. It was covered up in 1988 during renovations.
- Although I didn’t know it at the time, I photographed the Blair mural at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World back in 2011 (image below).
Sadly, both Mary and Lee were alcoholics, with Mary herself being described as a “high-functioning alcoholic”.
Disney’s death in December 1966 hit Blair hard. It could be said this was the start of a dramatic decline for her. She finished the on-going projects for Disney, but they never hired her again. Her memory had started to fail, and the distinctive Blair colours had “gone to mud”.
Blair died of a cerebral hemmorhage in 1978.
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