The Brain Behind the Brush: Uncovering Mary Blair’s Animation Legacy
by Alex Picoult
Image 1: Portrait of Mary Blair; retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Blair.
A floating pirate ship powered by pixie dust.
The silhouette of a maid dancing with her prince on a palace balcony.
A young girl falling into a technicolor rabbit hole.
These scenes we dreamed of in our childhood, and the magic they instilled in us, would be nonexistent without the involvement of one woman in Walt Disney Imagineering: Mary Blair.
Blair made numerous artistic contributions to Disney Imagineering, despite the male-dominated ranks of Walt’s designers, architects, and painters. She was an instrumental concept artist for the animation studio, creating the initial designs for Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955), among many others.
Despite the fact that she was responsible for the character design and styling of numerous multi-million dollar films, a Google search shows that she appears only once on a Disney website. Considering her exceptional dedication and commitment to the biggest animation studio of her time, Blair’s designs certainly do not deserve this ignorance. Not only did Blair advance the animation scene within Disney Imagineering, she set new and advanced standards for color theory and composition in mid-century modern art.
Blair’s talent is most evident in what many would consider her magnum opus: the facade of “It’s a Small World.” Disney brought Blair out of retirement for this project, which was originally intended for the 1964 World’s Fair. Blair’s eyesight was severely diminishing, yet her sense of color was as consistent as ever.
Meant to be an amalgamation of architectural styles from every corner of the world, the design was a conceptual feat. Blair was able to emulate the modernity of the Eiffel Tower, the Mughal style of the Taj Mahal, and the Romanesque style of the Leaning Tower of Pisa all in one structure—while still adding her own mid-century contemporary flair.
Meanwhile, her mastery of color was unmatched. Visitors of the World’s Fair were surprised by the unique color combinations, like teal with pink and olive green with gold; many expected the hues to clash, but Blair instead succeeded in expanding the public’s appreciation of color and the power it can hold when arranged carefully. Although her color combinations appeared contradictory at first, their harmony could not have been more fitting for the storyline of the ride: to unify children of all cultural backgrounds around the world.
Her colleague Marc Davis summed up the country’s fascination with Blair’s work perfectly: “I don’t think even Matisse could hold a candle to her—and I mean that very sincerely. She could put colors together and they would just sing.”
Image 2 and 3: Blair’s concept art for the facade of “It’s a Small World” (1964); retrieved from https://magicofmaryblair.com/mary-blair-gallery/.
The erasure of Blair’s involvement in animation and design can be largely attributed to the ‘boy’s club’ environment of Imagineering at the time. According to Maureen Furniss’ book Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics, “women made up only sixteen percent of the top of the employment hierarchy” throughout Imagineering in the 1950s (Furniss 235). There was minimal faith that female designers could create cartoons with the same poignant value as male writers and lyricists.
Ironically, their unwillingness to allow women into executive design positions opened up vast job opportunities for women in the technical sector of Imagineering. Such positions consisted of painting individual animation frames called cels, sculpting ride animatronics, and painting the physical park sets according to instructions given by their higher-ups. These women were so talented and precise with their work that men in the company appeared to feel threatened by their presence. At one point in the early forties, male designers organized a strike when a rumor arose that executives were “trying to develop girls for animation to replace higher-priced men” (Furniss 232). Not only is this deeply sexist, but it also reveals how the studio consistently undervalued the contributions of their technical workers on the basis of gender.
Approximately seventy percent of these painters and technical workers were women, which is important to remember when walking through the parks. Even though female artists were effectively prohibited from climbing the ranks to more influential design positions, it is their work that is most visibly recognizable to us today. They masterfully refined the ideas handed to them by men, working eighty hour weeks to perfect mere seconds of the final film. The movies we’ve watched for decades, and the sets that remain in Disney theme parks – movies and sets that have inspired generations of children—were almost entirely produced by the hands of women. So, despite efforts at the time, their contributions could never be ignored.
Image 4: Painter working on cels for Pinocchio (1940). Retrieved from Walt Disney Productions.
As much as male artists attempted to protest the entrance of female designers into Disney Imagineering, their talents were undeniably valuable. Didier Ghez, in his tribute to various Disney designers, titled The Hidden Art of Disney’s Mid-Century Era, recalls that despite the general opposition to female involvement in animation, Walt himself was particularly entranced by Blair. He “frequently challenged the animators to get her work on the screen—to their grumbling consternation” (Ghez 9). It is truly devastating to see that design work so clearly advanced was begrudgingly accepted by the male-dominated animation community. But because of Walt’s insistence and Blair’s perseverance, she inevitably “influenced the way…story sketch artists, the layout men, animators and background painters, made [their] own drawings and paintings” (Ghez 66). In this way, Blair was ultimately setting standards for animation that the rest of the community drew their techniques from—techniques that are still used today. Simply stating that Blair offered exceptional designs to Disney would be a grave understatement; she was actively changing the way animators approached film design in the earliest stages of Imagineering.
It would be a tragedy if Blair’s vibrant legacy (along with her equally vibrant paint strokes) blended into the blurry background of Imagineering’s history. So, I’ll leave you with one of Blair’s most influential designs: the original sketch of Cinderella’s escape from the palace. A dynamic reinvention of color is wholly apparent even in a single frame, with a composition simply too stunning to ignore. If you look closely, you’ll notice that even five years before its construction, Blair was able to produce a stunningly accurate reflection of the castle that still stands as Magic Kingdom’s focal point—the ultimate proof that her artistic perspective was crucial in creating the everlasting magical utopia we know today.
Image 5: Blair’s concept art for Cinderella (1950); retrieved from https://magicofmaryblair.com/mary-blair-gallery/.