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Don’t Be Afraid of Color

John Canemaker’s The Art and Flair of Mary Blair honors a beloved Disney designer.

John Canemaker’s generous book The Art and Flair of Mary Blair is a long-overdue tribute to an animation designer who deserves to be well known outside the coterie of animators amongst whom she is already a legend. Blair, who died in 1978, brought an inestimable supply of blazing color, vivid design and outright surrealism to the works of Walt Disney’s studio during the years of her primary influence from 1940 to 1953.

Disney originally hired Mary Blair after her husband Lee, also a painter, had already joined and then left the studio. Mary was with the studio through the war years and most of the decade that followed, as Disney moved from Good-Neighbor travelogues such as Saludos Amigos to omnibus collections like Make Mine Music and back into animated feature production. Blair left her stamp on the features Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, as well as dozens of short subjects in between.

Blair was born as Mary Robinson in Oklahoma in 1911 and moved with her family to California at age seven. A talented painter from a young age, Mary won a scholarship to Los Angeles’ Chouinard School of Art, where she met her future husband, Lee Blair. This prolific couple originally intended to pursue nothing less than the ideal artist’s existence of painting and showing, but the economic realities of the Depression forced them to take work at Ub Iwerks’ animation studio after they married in 1934. After leaving Iwerks they both worked briefly for Harman-Ising animation studio before Lee moved to Disney in 1938. Mary joined him in 1940.

The task she was set during her first year of work wasn’t much of an improvement on her previous animation duties, and after doing development artwork for projects that never got off the ground like Penelope and a Fantasia sequel, she quit in 1941. But Disney rehired her only a few months later to tackle a new project, Saludos Amigos, a South and Central American travelogue designed to cast a loving and sympathetic eye over the many countries south of the U.S. border. Sketching for three months in cities stretching from Argentina to Mexico, Blair found herself shaping a feature project from its embryonic form and decided she indeed had a future in the field of animation.

Mary Blair’s mark on Disney’s output in the 1940s is most strongly impressed on the many short subjects she designed for the studio’s “package” features such as Make Mine Music and Melody Time. The stylized unreality of Melody Time’s “Once Upon a Wintertime” is a good example of a Blair design come to life — a boy and girl skate on a frozen country lake: the lake pitch-black, the sky black and the trees and snow bank in the background blood-red. Her focus on eye-pleasing color juxtapositions free from the shackles of realism stands in stark contrast to much of Disney’s output of the period. Blair’s work also formed the design backbone of Johnny Appleseed, Blame It On the Samba, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and the swinger’s utopia depicted in the perennially toe-tapping Bumble Boogie.

After going to Georgia and Indiana to do research drawings for Disney’s hybrid animated/live-action features Song of the South and So Dear To My Heart, Blair returned and did preliminary design work for Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan as Disney put his omnibus films aside and returned to animated features. Her influence is most obvious in Alice in Wonderland, where her flat graphic style was given free reign over Alice’s dream-world landscape. Alice probably represents the best extended display of her undiluted talent in a Disney feature, since, as Ward Kimball put it, “She would inspire people, but her drawings were bastardized.”

There wasn’t a lot of room for Blair’s particularly expressive use of nonrealistic color in the largely naturalistic Disney oeuvre of the late forties and early fifties. For the most part Disney encouraged true representation in form and movement, while Blair’s drawings celebrated color for its own sake and embraced boldly flat compositions that too often broke down when they started to move. But with realism thrown out the window in Alice in Wonderland, Blair’s highly stylized graphics were just the ticket for sequences like the March of the Cards and the Mad Tea Party.

Before leaving Disney in 1953, Blair art-directed two animated shorts, Susie the Little Blue Coupe and The Little House. (The latter short, Blair’s signature work at the studio, was based on the much-beloved children’s book of the same name, and is described by the author as “one of the handsomest shorts Disney ever produced.” The short isn’t available on home video, but a generous sampling of Blair’s original drawings are included, enough to make you pine for the finished product — time for a reissue, methinks.)

Blair became a freelance artist after she left Disney, designing ad campaigns for the likes of Baker’s instant chocolate and Pall Mall cigarettes. In the years that followed she also illustrated several well-received children’s books, including Baby’s House and I Can Fly, and created a number of intriguing set designs for a never-produced Broadway musical based on the music of Duke Ellington. She returned to the Disney fold in 1964 to help design “It’s a Small World,” the 3D ride with the famously catchy theme song, originally produced for the Pepsi Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair before moving to Disneyland and later Walt Disney World.

The Art And Flair of Mary Blair is a gorgeous book, decked out with hundreds of full-page color reproductions of Blair’s original works, from early watercolors to various Disney and freelance projects and portraits of her own children. The images are expertly laid out and reproduced finely enough to give an almost tactile sense of the source media, be it oil, pastel or watercolor. With her artwork juxtaposed with color photos of the artist, the reader is able to connect the dots between Blair’s personal appearance and her art; pictures of the always mod-a-go-go-dressed Mary Blair take on new meaning when you suddenly turn back a page and realize her pageboy haircut was lifted directly into Alice in Wonderland as the thatched roof of the white rabbit’s cottage.

Canemaker, a widely-published essayist on animation and professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, has thoroughly researched his subject and her family, and his text touches on all important aspects of her professional and private life, from her early influences to her later battles with alcoholism. Contemporaries and current artists, from Disney’s Nine Old Men to Pixar’s Pete Doctor, weigh in with opinions on Blair’s achievements and her influence on today’s animators. The book is attractively packaged in a thin 10-inch-square coffee-table format and was first published in 2003 by Disney Editions, New York. At 110 pages it seems too short; you want more of this glorious eye candy.

The Art and Flair of Mary Blair: An Appreciation by John Canemaker; Foreword by Roy E. Disney. New York, NY: Disney Editions, 2003. 110 pages. ISBN 0-7868-5391-3 ($40.00).

Taylor Jessen is a writer and archivist. He lives in Burbank.