Walt Disney, for all his vision, was not an artist at heart; he was smart enough to surround himself with talented people. The look that we associate with Disney art came largely from one woman he hired: Mary Blair, the designer and illustrator behind animated films like Alice in Wonderland and the ride it’s a small world.
An exhibition about Blair closes this weekend at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, but for those of us who can’t make it to the Bay Area, a new book created for the show offers the most comprehensive survey of Blair’s work. (And that’s saying a lot, considering that there’s another Mary Blair book, by the same author, John Canemaker, that’s available in both regular and enhanced versions.)
This newest catalogue is a bookshelf must-add for fans of Disney, but for me it also pieced together the fascinating art and design career of someone responsible for creating so many of my own childhood memories—and who just happened to be a woman at a time when women were not necessarily welcomed in the animation industry.
Originally trained as a watercolorist at LA’s Chouinard School of Art, Blair began supplementing her income as a fine artist by working at animation studios. In 1940 she (somewhat reluctantly) joined the Walt Disney Studios, alongside her husband who was also an artist, Lee Blair.
Although she worked on concept art for films like Dumbo, The Lady and the Tramp, and Fantasia (she created a segment that was never produced), she truly caught Walt Disney’s eye when she traveled throughout Mexico and South America on a trip sponsored by FDR’s Good Neighbor program, gathering visual inspiration for the films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
Disney was so impressed with her work that he later had several portraits she made of Peruvian children framed for his home, something he apparently never did with his artists. This affection would only grow: In the following years, Blair became so highly respected by Disney that he quickly brought her on as concept artist for a string of very famous films including Cinderella, Song of the South, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. And many, many more.
It’s easy to tell now which films were touched by Blair’s hand: Her skillful take on modernism introduced a completely different style of illustration to Disney’s animation. Blair’s graphic approach brought a level of sophistication to the concept art which is reflected in her dazzling patterns and choices of rich colors.
Read the full article here.
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