Mary Blair (October 21, 1911–July 26, 1978), born Mary Robinson, was an American artist best remembered today for work done for The Walt Disney Company. Blair produced striking conceptual art for such films as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Her style also lives on through the character designs for the Disney attraction “it’s a small world”, as well as an enormous mosaic inside Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Blair was honored as a Disney Legend in 1991.
Born October 21, 1911 in McAlester, Oklahoma, Mary Browne Robinson moved to Texas while still a small child, and later to California when she was about 7. Having graduated from San Jose State College, Mary won a scholarship to the renowned Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, where teachers included Pruett Carter, Morgan Russell and Lawrence Murphy. In 1934, she married another artist, Lee Everett Blair (October 1, 1911–April 19, 1995).
Both Blairs soon began to work in the animation industry, joining the Ub Iwerks studio. Lee went on to work at the Harman-Ising studios before ultimately joining the Walt Disney studio where he was joined by his wife in 1940.
After leaving the studio for a brief time in 1941, Mary traveled to various South American countries with Walt and Lillian Disney and other artists on a research tour as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. During those trips, Mary and Lee worked on concept art for the animated feature films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros with Mary credited as art supervisor on those films.
She also worked on Make Mine Music, credited as art supervisor, Song of the South, credited for background & color, Melody Time, credited for color & styling, So Dear to My Heart and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
The early 1950s were a busy time for the Disney studio, with an animated feature released nearly every year. Mary Blair was credited with color styling on Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951 and Peter Pan (1953) and the artistic influence of her concept art is strongly felt in those films as well as several animated shorts she designed during that period.
After the completion of Peter Pan, Mary resigned from Disney and worked as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, creating advertising campaigns for companies such as Nabisco, Pepsodent, Maxwell House, Beatrice Foods and others. She also illustrated several Golden Books for publisher Simon & Schuster and designed Christmas and Easter sets for Radio City Music Hall.
At the request of Walt Disney, who highly regarded her innate sense of color styling, Mary began work on the attraction “it’s a small world”, originally a Pepsi-Cola sponsored pavilion benefiting UNICEF at the 1964 New York World’s Fair which moved to Disneyland after the Fair closed and was later replicated at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World as well as Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. (The attraction will also be part of the scheduled expansion of Hong Kong Disneyland).
In 1967, Mary created mural art for Tomorrowland’s Adventure thru Inner Space that was covered over during subsequent renovations of that Disneyland area in 1987 and 1998. That year, she also was credited as color designer on the film version of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
Her design of a ninety-foot high mural remains a focal point of the Disney’s Contemporary Resort hotel at Walt Disney World, which was completed for the resort’s opening in 1971.
Mary Blair died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 26, 1978.
While the fine art she created outside of her association with Disney and her work as an illustrator is not widely known or appreciated, her bold and groundbreaking color design still serves as an inspiration to contemporary designers and animators.