October 21, 1911 – Artist and Disney Legend Mary Blair is Born
“When I think of dreams, like as a kid, I see Mary Blair-like colors…like Cinderella herself, just this innocence and a purity, a sincerity…” – Animator Glen Keane
On October 21, 1911, Mary Robinson Blair was born in McAlester, Oklahoma, with her family moving to San Jose, California when she was seven. Blair’s talents were noticed early, and she was awarded a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. There, she would meet her husband, Lee Blair. She and Lee began to look for work as artists during the height of the Depression, and eventually found work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s animation studio. Lee eventually found a job at the Disney Studios, and Mary joined him in 1940, with everyone fascinated with Mary’s use of color in her work. Her first pieces of work were preliminary sketches for the feature film Dumbo.
In 1941, Blair and her husband were selected to be a part of a goodwill tour of South America with Walt Disney and his wife, which included several other notable Disney employees, including Frank Thomas (animator), Herb Ryman (layout and camera), Norm Ferguson (producer), and Bill Cottrell (story). The group would do research for a series of feature films that would hopefully offer friendship to South America before they were taken over by Nazi and Fascist influence. Blair’s work during this trip helped to shape her artistic style, and she was named the art supervisor for Saludos Amigos! and The Three Caballeros. One short that clearly shows Blair’s style was The Little House, released in 1952 [see August 8th entry]. The tone of pivotal scenes in the feature films she worked on were conveyed through her use of color in her concept art. Animator Andreas Deja recalled, “Marc Davis once said, ‘Mary Blair could put colors together like nobody else. She was better than Matisse.’”
Blair’s color use would be used to style such films 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 left the studio in 1953, just after Peter Pan, to try other fields of animation, including children’s book illustrations. However, in 1963, Walt Disney asked her to come back to help design the look of a new attraction that would premiere at the 1964 World’s Fair: It’s a Small World. She was also asked to contribute to the design of other exhibits and attractions, including two grand murals, one for Tomorrowland in Disneyland, and one for the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. Blair passed away on July 26, 1978, and was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1991.