Mary Blair left the world thirty years ago, but her artful illustrations have characterized generations of childhood memories. She was one of Walt Disney's favorite artists and was among a group who accompanied him on a post-WWII, government funded tour of Central and South America in 1941. The Goodwill tour aimed to help soften international perceptions of America through the majesty of Mickey Mouse. Inspired by the cultural landscape of Latin America, Blair's artistic style evolved, and the drawings she created while traveling were used for lesser-known Disney films such as The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, a retrospective of her work, is currently on view at the Cartoon Art Museum in downtown San Francisco.
Like many artists, Mary Blair and her husband, Lee, couldn't make ends meet as fine artists, so they turned to the commercial art industry. Mary was one of Disney's first female concept artists, and her original watercolor and gouache paintings hold a rarely revealed secret: much of the typical Disney imagery starts out far less cookie-cutter than it ends up. Blair's original concepts had some Disney-esque charm, but they were edgier, with more personality and flavor. They began artfully, but got the life sucked out of them as they were squeezed through the Disney mold. Walt Disney loved Blair's artwork but also thought his audience needed to be comforted by the familiarity of his films' characters, so he continued to force her concepts through the Disney machine.
The same was true for non-Disney projects, an example being a concept Blair created for a Pall Mall cigarettes advertisement. The final print copy was only loosely based on her original sketch, which made cigarettes look like a pleasant item you'd find in a picnic basket. Though it's no secret that concept art incurs some changes along the production line, it is surprising to see how some of the most artistic elements get edited out.
In 1964, Disney's It's a Small World attraction debuted at The World's Fair alongside the less popular audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Blair was chosen as the designer for It's a Small World, and she happily mocked up the design using detailed collage techniques, wallpaper, and acrylic paint. Besides developing concepts and art direction for Disney, Blair also illustrated titles for the Little Golden Books series that so many of us loved as children. But, beyond the world of cute, Blair was a talented watercolorist. One of the best parts of the exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum is that it ends with a dark, brooding painting of city streets called San Francisco Nights.
If you've never been to the Cartoon Art Museum, now is the time. It's nestled in the Yerba Buena corridor with many other arts and culture venues and does a great job of highlighting the unsung artists behind animation and comic art. A small warning for our family audiences -- while Mary Blair's exhibit in the front gallery is friendly for kids, the Sex and Sensibility exhibit in the back gallery is not.
The Art and Flair of Mary Blair is at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco through March 30, 2008.