Mary Blair–The lady of flair. Her name is familiar to many of us who are Disney fans. Recently, the Walt Disney Family Museum posted a blog about a new Mary Blair shrine available at the museum. She was one of Walt’s favorite artists, and one of the elite few chosen for the now fabled good neighbor trip to South America in 1941. Blair was the only WOMAN chosen for this trip (not to mention the FIRST woman to receive the distinction of Disney legend). She was an image of tranquility who met each one of Walt Disney’s challenges with the soulful eye of a poet and the joy of a child. Her quiet genius was captured during the 10th anniversary show when Disney and Blair presented early plans for It’s a Small World. But who was this amazing woman who remained content to contribute concepts, while staying in the background as a source inspiration for Disney fans fascinated by the esoteric?
She was born Mary Robinson on October 21, 1911 in Oklahoma. A naturally gifted artist, she was honored with a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute (which eventually became CalArts under Disney’s tutelage). After completing her course at Chouinard, Mary began to seek employment in the precarious environment that was the depression era art world (not unlike our contemporary moment, ironically). She married fellow artist, Lee Blair, and soon began to work in the animation business.
In 1941, she went to South America, becoming part the Walt and El Grupo entourage. It was during this time that her style began to truly take its shape. Blair was fascinated by the bright colors and the physicality of South American folk art. Her work began to more closely resemble the dolls she saw carried by the children of Brazil, Peru and Argentina. This look became a part of what is now considered the iconic Disney look. It offers a different kind of caricature which, instead of providing a cynical outlook on culture, offers Blair’s special brand of innocence.
Walt Disney continued to be impressed by Blair’s work. Although she was not gifted in the technical aspects of animation per se, he considered her one of his most valuable artists. He loved her whimsical style, and continued to find ways to use her extraordinary talents.
Blair was entrusted with the concept art Disney commissioned for the animated features that are the crux of what has often been called the first Disney renaissance: Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and her artistic voice was colored by a fascination with the contemporary craftsman style of the mid-century era she helped shape.
Her surrealist eye was a valuable asset to the Disney Studio and offered something about which few studios could boast; a feminine perspective. One might even suggest that Blair was Disney’s vehicle for positive anima (the feminine aspect of soul). She infused a much needed sweetness into an environment that was often oppressively possessed by the not so positive energy of the animus (the masculine aspect of soul).
Women at the Disney studio have generally been relegated to the ink and paint room, the stenograph, costuming and the duties of wife and mother. Sadly, this condition still continues. Even the brilliance of Pixar lacks the feminine as a physically iconic presence. Lasseter, Keane, Doctor, Bird, Stanton, Baxter, Hahn…they are all men. But women are present. They are everywhere in the background of Disney’s pantheon, doing much of the quiet, drudgery necessary in order to make the magic happen.
Mary Blair, however, broke through the barrier of whatever version of sexism existed at the Disney studio. She did this through the power of her art, not by the kind of studio maneuvering that got animators like Art Babbitt fired, or by the kind of posturing that later garnered Michael Eisner the position of CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Blair simply did what she did best, presented the world as she saw it, in all its color and life. And Disney noticed.
Not only did he notice, he chose her to be one of the first female imagineers, handing her the project that would become the most iconic of her career. In 1964, Walt Disney was commissioned by Pepsi-Cola to build an exhibit for the upcoming New York World’s Fair sponsored by UNICEF. The exhibit was to be a gift to the children of the world. Although the attraction’s song, penned by veteran songwriters (Walt’s boys), the Sherman Brothers, is notoriously infectious in the way that it tends to drive patrons crazy, it reflects Blair’s unique ability to combine silliness with social statement.
The boat ride she developed became the voice for Disneyland’s guiding ethos, not to mention a call for peace in the world. It is the outward projection of Disney’s anima; a wish for a utopian understanding of unity in diversity ala Mary (Our Lady of Flair) Blair.