When artist Mary Blair
traveled to South America with Walt Disney and a group of animators from his studio, something happened. On that 1941 trip, Blair's art came to life as never before.
"That was a rather magical trip for Mary," says John Canemaker
, author of the book "The Art and Flair of Mary Blair." "She became the Mary Blair we know today, with that stylized way of drawing and those extraordinary colors. She came home with a definitive Mary Blair style."
Blair - who grew up in the Bay Area - and her style are being celebrated in the new exhibition "Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair" at the Walt Disney Family Museum
Canemaker, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker ("The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation"), is serving as guest curator and describes Blair as "a major artist, a major fantasist and a great artist and craftsperson who forged her own way in a man's world."
It's true that when Blair started working at Walt Disney Studios in 1940, animation was entirely the domain of men, while women worked in support positions. Blair's specialty was color. After graduating from San Jose State College
(now University), she attended the Chouinard Art Institute
(which later merged, with help from Walt Disney, with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to become the California Institute of the Arts
) and emerged as a fine watercolorist. She and her husband, Lee Blair, were members of the California Water-Color Society
, but once Mary Blair returned from South America, her color palette exploded.
"Mary had a sense of color that was magnificent," says Alice Davis
, another celebrated Disney artist who worked with Blair and was a close friend. "I think one reason her colors were so bright was that she had very poor eyesight. She always carried two purses with her. The bigger one contained nothing but eyeglasses, and she was always putting on one pair after another until she found the view she was looking for." Vivid colors
"Mary's colors were just vivid, so right out of the tube," says Rolly Crump
, a former Imagineer (a Disney term blending creative imagination with technical know-how). Crump, along with Davis, worked with Blair on what is probably her best-known creation, the It's a Small World attraction at Disneyland. "There's something simple and childlike in her work, but it's also very sophisticated, very contemporary. She was ahead of her time."
While at the Disney Studio, Blair worked on color styling and concept art for some well-known animated features, including "Cinderella," "Peter Pan" and "Alice in Wonderland." In 1953, Blair, her husband and their two sons moved to New York, where she worked as a freelance artist creating advertising images (Pall Mall cigarettes, Maxwell House
coffee); designing scarves and women's suits and dresses for Lord & Taylor
; and, most famously, illustrating a number of Golden Books for children, including the glorious "I Can Fly," "The Up and Down Book" and "Baby's House."
Blair, one of Walt Disney's favorite artists (he even had a piece of her artwork hanging in his home), was enticed to return to the fold in 1963 when he identified her as exactly the right person to design a 1964 New York World's Fair attraction for UNICEF: a boat ride sailing past the children of the world. Earworm of a theme song
The resulting ride, It's a Small World, complete with that earworm of a theme song, was an immediate hit and was permanently installed in Disneyland in 1966. Crump helped bring Blair's concept drawings into three dimensions, and Davis worked on costuming the small-scale international dolls that inhabit the ride.
"I'm extremely proud of the work we did," Davis says. "My husband, (Disney Imagineer) Marc Davis, and I loved working with Mary. None of us ever had a fight or disagreement about anything. I learned so much from Mary, especially about color. I loved and respected her beyond belief. She was one of a kind. You couldn't help but love her, and that ride is very much her style and essence."
Crump concurs and adds that she had a "great sense of humor." Extraordinary artist
"She and I both loved working with color, and I thought she was an extraordinary artist. It used to drive me crazy that she wasn't having big art shows or that she didn't have an agent really pushing her. She and her husband had some small shows, but I thought she should be internationally known, like Picasso. Her style was that strong."
Blair's personal life included a fair amount of heartache. As Davis puts it, "She took her lumps better than anybody, and she got lots of them, though she never let that affect her work."
Her older son's battle with mental illness brought the family from New York back to California, where Blair had spent most of her childhood in Morgan Hill. In 1970, they settled in Soquel, and Blair died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1978 at age 66. After the death of her younger son, Kevin, in 2008, Blair's estate, including all of her artwork, went to her two nieces, Maggie Richardson
of Santa Rosa and Jeanne Chamberlain
The nieces helped organize the first major Mary Blair exhibition in Tokyo in 2009 and worked with the late Diane Disney Miller
, Walt Disney's daughter, on the creation of the new exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Big fans
"Mary crosses the lines of all demographics," Richardson says. "Young people love her, older people love her, artists love her. I know many of the Pixar
artists are big fans. She's admired all over the world."
Richardson remembers hearing about her aunt's attempts to find work in the '70s and recalls a story about Blair showing her work to a San Francisco ad agency
"Believe it or not, the man there told her that her work was passť," she says. "Mary was crushed. If only she could see the kind of acclaim she's getting now that she never got in her lifetime." All about joy
Chamberlain says her aunt's art was all about joy.
"She was a wonderful person, and you can feel that in her art," she says. "It comes down to this: her work makes people happy, makes them smile. I think the world needs that. That's why this show means the world to us. Mary is back with a vengeance, and I hope she'll stay." Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair:
Thursday through Sept. 7. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays. Walt Disney Family Museum, Presidio, 104 Montgomery St., San Francisco. (415) 345-6800. www.waltdisney.org