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
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
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
striking use of color and stylized graphics greatly influenced many Disney
postwar productions, including "Alice
," "Make Mine Music
," "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
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
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
"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.
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
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
"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.