Today is what would have been Mary Blair’s 110th birthday. Blair was an artist, illustrator and designer, who among others was extremely influential at the Walt Disney studios in the 1950s. After graduating at the Chouniard Art Institute in L.A. she briefly worked at MGM as an animator, and for the Ub Iwerks studios as well, before moving to Disney with her husband (where she got to work at the art department, as Disney at the time had a policy that there could be no female animators, because of course…)
There she worked as concept artist on Dumbo (1941) and a proposed follow-up short from Fantasia that was ultimately never produced, but her breakthrough came when she joined Walt on a trip to South America (as part of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy). The watercolors she did while on the tour impressed Disney, and he made Blair art supervisor on Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944).
Her art is signified by her bold use of colors, where she often combined colors one wouldn’t necessarily put together. This, combined with her (deceptively) simple style of drawing gave her illustrations a childlike appearance, though in a modernist way that felt fresh and exciting. Even now her style is instantly recognizable, as viewed in these works of concept art:
Mary continued to gain more artistic control, being both concept designer and she was also credited with color styling on Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953), where her inimitable color usage is easily recognizable. However, after Peter Pan was released, she left the Walt Disney company to become a freelance graphic designer, illustrating children’s books and creating advertisement campains, among others.
As a freelancer she would return to Disney on occasion, most notably to design the It’s A Small World ride for Disneyland. Beloved by some, hated by others but definitely known to almost everyone. And whatever you think of the music, the design is really well done (minus some very dated racist elements).
Mary Blair died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 26, 1978, most likely brought on to alcoholism. An unfortunate end to the remarkable career of a woman who got to make a name for herself in a field so controlled by men. Happy birthday, Mary.
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