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, who put Mary’s exciting use of color on 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.” 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 told animation historian John Canemaker, “The way she 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.”
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 rather than pursue her dream of a fine arts career. In 1940, she joined the Walt Disney Studio and worked on a number of projects, including the “Baby Ballet,” a never-produced segment for a proposed second version of Fantasia.
In 1941, she joined the Disney expedition that toured South America for three months; her watercolors 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 a break from Disney, Mary found a successful career as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. Among her works were the illustrations for several Little Golden Books, some of which, including I Can Fly, are still in print today.
Walt later asked Mary to assist in the design of the it’s a small world attraction for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair; the final result was an attraction that is purely Mary Blair in its style and concept. Over the years, Mary contributed to the design of many exhibits, attractions, and murals for the theme parks in California and Florida, including the fanciful murals in the Grand Canyon Concourse at Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort Hotel.
Mary Blair passed away on July 26, 1978, in Soquel, California.