From Morgan Hill to Disney Fame
Like so many creative spirits, Mary Robinson Blair was ahead of her time, and history bears this out as her work for Walt Disney continues to kindle new appreciation and value more than 40 years after her passing in 1978.
Blair was born in Oklahoma in 1911 and moved to Morgan Hill as a young girl. She attended Live Oak High School and San Jose State University and studied at Chouinard Art Institute (1933).
After school, she spent the Depression years working as a watercolorist and was active in the California Watercolor Society, gaining regional recognition.
Blair was hired as a Disney Studios artist in 1940. The following year she was among a select group of artists invited to travel with Walt and Lillian Disney to South America as part of the Good Neighbor policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The trip influenced Blair’s bold use of color, beginning with two animated feature films, The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos and continuing throughout her distinguished career. For over a decade, she worked on some of Disney’s most iconic films, including Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Fantasia and more.
Blair’s accomplishments are all the more notable given the highly competitive work environment at Disney Studios and in Hollywood in her day, especially for women.In the 1950s she left Disney for Long Island NY, where she worked as a freelance graphic designer for advertising clients including Maxwell House, Nabisco and Beatrice Foods. During that period she also provided illustrations for I Can Fly and other best-sellers in the Little Golden Books series published by Simon & Schuster.
In the 1960s, Disney again hired Blair—this time to work on large-scale, high-profile projects. The It’s a Small World exhibit debuted at the NY World’s Fair in 1964, was moved to Disneyland, and was then replicated at Disney resort properties in Florida, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong. Blair also created a 90-foot-high mural for Disney’s Contemporary Resort Hotel at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971.
On your next visit to the Morgan Hill History Museum, you can see examples of Blair’s early watercolor work on display. One original work, Morgan Hill Foothills, was given by Blair to her childhood friend Virginia Horton Sword as a wedding gift. Sword enjoyed displaying it in her home for many years before donating it to the Historical Society. One giclée print, Chicken Coops, was donated to the Historical Society by Robin Shepherd, along with a book about Blair’s art. Both of the Blair watercolors have been beautifully framed by Colibri Art Gallery.
Mary Blair was inducted into the ranks of Disney Legends in 1991. Her innovative and timeless art was honored with a Google Doodle in 2011, a century after her birth. An exhibit of 200 of her works was featured in the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009, and at the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco in 2014.
The art of Mary Robinson Blair lives on today at Disney resorts, in classic Disney films and the Little Golden Books, and in the imaginations of generations of artists who have been inspired by her unique style and her work.
If you happen to visit Disneyland, be sure to see It’s a Small World…there’s a visual representation of Mary as a little girl scaling the Eiffel tower with balloon in hand. See if you can spot it!
Academy and Emmy award-winning artist, professor and author John Canemaker pays tribute to Blair in “The Art and Flair of Mary Blair.” Order from Booksmart or on Amazon. Blair’s story is featured in the Spring issue of gmhTODAY. Look for it on local newsstands, or read it online.