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Walt Disney Family Museum's "The World of Mary Blair" exhibit offers a dazzling, in-depth look at this Disney Legend's artistry

Walt Disney Family Museum's "The World of Mary Blair" exhibit offers a dazzling, in-depth look at this Disney Legend's artistry

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One of the most fascinating things about a new exhibition of Mary Blair's work are the dozens of inspirational sketches created in pen and pencil by an artist best known for her bold use of color.

Those rudimentary drawings - many paired with finished works - provide a comprehensive look at one of the 20th century's most interesting illustrators and designers. "Magic, Color, Flair: the World of Mary Blair" opened last week at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and continues its run Wednesdays through Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sept. 7.

Photo by Leo N. Holzer

"Almost all artwork, no matter the final form, begins with drawing because drawing is the artist's fundamental tool," Blair said in 1967. The quote is among those highlighted in the show.

Guest curator John Canemaker - an Oscar-winning independent animator, animation historian, teacher and author - organized the exhibition to reflect the arc of Blair's career before, during, and after her years at the Walt Disney Studios.

"The most interesting thing, at least for me, is to be able to show the process so that you get into the mind of Mary Blair a little bit more. You see how she thought about designs and putting it together," Canemaker said. "Even the paintings, many of them are showing the surround. You don't just have it framed up to the picture but you have it go beyond so that you see some of her paint splashes going off of the page and her rough sketches.

Walt Disney Family Foundation

"Pretty much half of this exhibition, maybe even more, is from private collections. Of course, the bulk or almost all of the Disney concept pieces are from the museum's collection," he continued. "We have work from her student days, from her California School of Watercolor days, and from when she left the studio in 1953 and worked for that decade in New York doing clothing design and children's book illustrations."

Born in McAlester, Okla., in 1911, Blair won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. After graduation in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, she took a job in the animation unit at MGM rather than pursue her dream of a fine arts career. In 1940, she joined The Walt Disney Studios and worked on a number of projects, including the never-produced "Baby Ballet," a segment for a proposed second version of "Fantasia ."

In 1941, Blair joined "Walt and El Grupo ," a U.S. State Department-sponsored Disney expedition that toured Mexico and South America for three months. The sketches and watercolors she painted while on the trip inspired Walt Disney to name her as an art supervisor for "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros ." Blair's striking use of color and stylized graphics greatly influenced many Disney postwar productions, including "Alice in Wonderland ," "Make Mine Music ," "Cinderella ," "Peter Pan " and others.

Mary Blair examines concept drawings for "Cinderella."
Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company

Many people believe that Blair had her "ah-hah moment" during the South American visit.

"She said she didn't think anything special happened down there, but she did mention the color," Canemaker said. "It was the color, the different customs of the people. I think it was the whole new atmosphere she was in."

Afterward, Blair also had an opportunity to become "more assertive in her own way," Canemaker continued. "Before that, she had worked at the studio for about a year and she didn't like it that much because she was given things to work on and wasn't generating them from her own ideas. But in South America, when Walt saw what she could do, that all changed. She then decided she did like what she was doing in animation and that it was a very creative thing."

Courtesy Walt Disney Family Foundation.
Copyright Disney

The Blairs - nieces Jeanne Chamberlain and Maggie Richardson as well as great-nephew Kevin - believe that their aunt "had a great deal of fun, dancing, swimming and running on the beach" during the trip and that she really enjoyed a "landmark moment" once she saw her work "translated authentically to film" in a segment of "The Three Caballeros" featuring a train's caboose with one square wheel.

"The Three Caballeros" followed closely by "Make Mine Music" and "Peter Pan" are arguably the best examples of Blair's designs really inspiring the final film.

Ted Thomas, director of a documentary film about the South American trip and son of Disney animator Frank Thomas, never met Blair directly but said that she was always spoken of with great respect by his father.

Walt Disney Family Foundation. Copyright Disney

"He would use her as an example of someone who was so naturally gifted and then improved that gift through the different projects she worked on. He'd also say how very difficult it was to try to draw and translate her designs into animation because she was so superbly gifted at working in this very flat kind of medium and animation eventually has to be rounded and dimensional with volume," Thomas said.

"She was a very singular talent," he continued. "When standout people work with other geniuses, you tend not to pick one out from another. As time goes on and they're no longer with us but their work remains, then it becomes clearer and clearer how outstanding their talents and their achievements were. And, I think that's the case with Mary Blair. She was so ahead of the curve, that we're only now catching up with her and becoming fully appreciative of what a great talent she was."

In 1964, Walt Disney asked Blair to assist in the design of the "it's a small world" attraction, first conceived for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. The beloved boat ride - with cheerful dolls representing several countries of the world in a musical prayer for peace - was moved to Disneyland in Anaheim after the World's Fair closed. The attraction has since been replicated for Disney parks worldwide.

Walt Disney Family Foundation. Copyright Disney

Blair also designed fanciful murals for Disneyland's Tomorrowland in Anaheim, Calif., and  the Contemporary Hotel at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. She died July 26, 1978, in Soquel, Calif., and was named a Disney Legend in 1991.

Thirty-five years after her death, interest in Mary Blair and her enchanting artworks continues to grow. Her early fine art watercolors and classic Disney film production concept paintings are popular with collectors. Contemporary artists still find inspiration in Blair's independent spirit, and her ability to survive in traditionally male-dominated fields, her technical virtuosity, bottomless creative ingenuity, and powerful visual storytelling.

"I think her work is such that it does appeal to a wide range of people and a wide age range and Walt Disney saw that as well," Canemaker said. "He liked the childlike quality in her art, but he also saw it for possible use in futuristic stuff like the Tomorrowland murals" at Disneyland and "he saw it in a primitive way like Grandma Moses ... with a certain warmth that went back to folk art."

Courtesy of Pam Burns-Clair family

In the exhibition, Blair's original sketches hang next to brightly colored finished paintings. Pages from two sketchbooks - featuring simple graphite and ink drawings of children, animals and international settings that would inspire "it's a small world" - have been loaded into an easy-to-use touch-screen digital display. Nearby, there's a video showing Walt Disney and Mary Blair discussing "it's a small world" along with two glittery characters from the attraction, a blue-haired tot and a penguin.

Great-nephew Kevin remembers very clearly when Mary Blair was doing the sketches for 'it's a small world' one Christmas. "My grandparents had this white brick fireplace and the sketches were spread across it. It was just the sketches; just black and white. And she was showing me where everything was going to be. I was 8 at the time. ... I didn't understand that there was going to be a ride or anything like that, but it was amazing looking at all of that. ... She always had 'small world' in her heart and it was such an important part of her life after it was done."

Canemaker called his efforts for an exhibition championed by Diane Disney Miller "a great joy." He also authored the $40 exhibition catalog and participated with Ted Thomas, Alice Davis, Rolly Crump and Blair's nieces on an hour-long complementary audio tour. Museum members will be able to download a digital copy of the audio tour or listen to it free. Guests can pay an additional $7 for the audio tour on top of the $10 to $25 admission charge. Visit www.waltdisney.org for more information.

Photo by Roger Colton

Magic, Color, Flair: the world of Mary Blair is organized by The Walt Disney Family Museum and is being presented in the newly dedicated and named Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall in honor of Walt Disney's daughter and co-founder of the museum. She died Nov. 19, 2013.

Former Disney CEO Ron Miller talked a bit about Diane Miller during a special preview of the new exhibition and so did some others.

It wasn't too long after helping make sure the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Southern California was completed, that "Diane had a new mission. She was disturbed by some of the books that had been written, the misrepresentations and everything, and she wanted to right the wrongs," he said. "Diane went about it in a very modest way. She was a modest person. ... She got it done her way and walked off," turning her attention to plans for the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Ron Miller & Diane Disney Miller outside
of the Walt Disney Family Museum

"I think we have something really unique here," he continued. "It's entertaining. It's a piece of history and it's the story of a wonderful man with all the support of his collaborators and everybody else. I think when people go through (the museum), they come back enthusiastic. I think her wish was fulfilled and I wish she was standing here and not me.

"She was such a loving wife. She would do anything for me and, most of the time, I would do anything for her. We had such fun and excitement through our marriage - almost 60 years of marriage, six months shy of 60 years. She was one month shy of being 80 years old and she had the vitality and energy of a much younger woman.

"She still had things that she wanted to do here and the family, we've made a commitment that we're going to fulfill the dreams of those things she left us with and we're confident that we have the right people in the right place to help us do it."

One of those right people is Kirsten Komoroske, the museum's executive director.

"Diane described her father as a person with a lot of drive, huge curiosity, a great love of life and of people. His example was do what you love to do, work hard at it, do it as well as you can and always believe in yourself. Diane was her father's daughter," Komoroske said. "Diane was dedicated to sharing with the public the work of many talented artists who contributed to the Walt Disney Studios throughout her father's lifetime.

"It's only fitting that the first exhibition in our newly named Exhibition Hall showcases the work of another brilliant woman, Mary Blair. Mary played a key role in shaping not only Disney history but also the creative world as a whole. Her perspective and artistic influences are still strong forces today. And the inspiration that Diane created is also a significant force and is evident in all that we do here at the museum. We miss Diane terribly. Not a day goes by that we don't notice her absence. But with the strong leadership of the family and the board, we're determined to move forward. We'll continue to showcase artists and innovators and educate and entertain our visitors. Magic, Color, Flair: the world of Mary Blair is an example of that determination."

Animation historian John Canemaker

Canemaker recalled one of his fondest memories of Diane Miller. "It's the last time I saw her. She drove me back to my hotel ... and I asked her 'if Walt were here, what would you like him to say about all that you've done with the concert hall in Los Angeles and this wonderful monument?' She thought for awhile, sitting behind the wheel, just parked waiting to let me out and she said, 'I hope he'd say that I did a good job.' That was it. And I don't think there's any doubt about that."

  • Wow! I saw an ad for this exhibit on a MUNI bus and was intrigued, but now I have to go. Amazing article - thanks so very much!

  • Great article Leo. Looks like a super exhibit. I like the fact there is a catalog and audio. I love Blair's sense of color and composition and I am happy this exhibit was chosen as the first one for the newly-dedicated exhibition hall. Kudos to all involved.

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