The Women of Disney: Mary Blair the Artist, Trailblazer, and Legend

Lisa Stump

Mary Blair is one of the most famous female Disney artists of all time.

The Women of Disney: Mary Blair the Artist, Trailblazer, and Legend

Mary Blair is one of the most famous artists to ever work for The Walt Disney Company. Her work is known for being colorful, vibrant, and playful. She has been featured on prominent anniversary merchandise over the years and led development on “it’s a small world,” as well as created the iconic mural inside Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

Mary Blair is one of the most famous female Disney artists of all time.

The Women of Disney: Mary Blair

Mary Blair was an American artist, animator, and designer who worked for The Walt Disney Company. She was known for her vibrant colors, stylized designs, and whimsical imagination. Blair’s work can be seen in many classic Disney films, including “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” and “Cinderella.” She also created iconic designs for Disneyland attractions such as “it’s a small world” and the Mexico pavilion in EPCOT, as well as many of the art installations around the parks.


Early Life and Education

Blair was born in McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1911. She showed an early talent for art, and her parents encouraged her to pursue her passion. Blair attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where she studied under some of the leading artists of the day.

After graduating in 1933, Blair worked as an artist for various studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Walt Disney Studios.

its a small world opened

Women’s Rights and Her Career at Walt Disney Studios

Blair joined The Walt Disney Studios in 1940, and quickly became one of the company’s most respected artists. This is an especially outstanding achievement, as this comes during a time period when women were discriminated against in the animation industry. Blair’s achievements at the Walt Disney Company helped set a higher bar for women’s rights within the field, alongside Sylvia Holland, Hazel Sewell and Retta Scott.

Below is an image of the letter women would receive if they applied to animate in the Walt Disney Company. The letter states that “women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason girls are not considered for the training school.”

At the time, Disney employed many women as “inkers” who corrected and filled animations. They worked in physically separate environments from the more prestigious male animators, and were not permitted to join them. It wasn’t until the beginning of World War II that the studio began onboarding female employees to help with animation.

rejection letter
Image Source: Kevin Berg

In the speech below, Walt Disney explained to employees why women were being brought into animation as “inbetweeners.” An inbetweener is an animation position. This person is responsible for creating the drawings in between the extremes of an action drawn by the animator, assistant animator and breakdown artist.

The girls are being trained for inbetweens for very good reasons. The first is, to make them more versatile, so that the peak loads of inbetweening and inking can be handled. Believe me when I say that the more versatile our organization is, the more beneficial it is to the employees, for it assures steady employment for the employee, as well as steady production turnover for the Studio.

The second reason is that the possibility of a war, let alone the peacetime conscription, may take many of our young men now employed, and especially many of the young applicants. I believe that if there is to be a business for these young men to come back to after the war, it must be maintained during the war. The girls can help here.

Third, the girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could. In the present group that are training for inbetweens there are definite prospects, and a good example is to mention the work of Ethel Kulsar and Sylvia Holland on “The Nutcracker Suite,” and little Retta Scott, of whom you will hear more when you see Bambi.

Mary Blair

Mary Blair worked on a number of classic Disney films, including “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” “Saludos Amigos,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan.” Blair’s work was known for its vibrant colors, stylized designs, and child-like imagination. She was also a talented storyboard artist, and her ideas often helped to shape the final look of a film.

Her iconic artwork garnered her enough attention to be assigned as the lead designer on “it’s a small world,” which debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and is currently available to guests at five of the six Disney resorts around the world.

mary blair mural tiles

Mary Blair’s Artwork in Disney Parks

Mary Blair’s artwork has been featured predominantly throughout Disney Parks over the years. In addition to the work she completed on attractions, she also had her artwork featured on the banners in front of Cinderella Castle for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, as well as the disposable cups dispensed during this 18-month long party.

Her artwork has also recently been spotted on “Alice in Wonderland” anniversary merchandise.

Here are some main locations where visitors can find Mary Blair’s artwork in Disney Parks:

  • “it’s a small world”: Blair was the lead designer for the “it’s a small world” attraction located at five of the six Disney resorts throughout the world. She created the iconic dolls that are featured throughout the ride, as well as the overall color scheme and design of the attraction. The artistic characteristics of the dolls were also featured prominently on a series of Hallmark cards created by The Walt Disney Company.
  • The Mexico Pavilion: Blair also contributed to the design of the Mexico Pavilion in EPCOT’s World Showcase. She created the colorful murals that can be found throughout the pavilion, as well as the costumes for the performers in the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros.
  • Disney’s Contemporary Resort: Blair designed the Grand Canyon Concourse Mural at Disney’s Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. The mural features a whimsical depiction of the Grand Canyon, as well as a famous five-legged goat.

Internationally, Blair’s artwork can be found in several locations as well:

  • Disneyland Paris:
    • The murals in the Discoveryland Hotel
    • Costumes for the performers in the Mickey and the Magician show
  • Tokyo Disneyland:
    • The murals in the Tomorrowland Terrace
    • The costumes for the performers in the Mickey’s Magical Map show
  • Hong Kong Disneyland:
    • The murals in the Adventureland Bazaar
    • Costumes for the performers in the Mickey and the Magician show

In addition to these locations, Mary Blair’s artwork can also be found in the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The museum features a permanent exhibit on Blair’s life and work, as well as a rotating collection of her artwork. This museum also features the life and legacy of Walt Disney. It is located in The Presidio of San Francisco, as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

Magic Color Flair The World of Mary Blair

Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair

Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair was an exhibition that took place at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California from March 13 to September 7, 2014. The exhibit showcased the work of Mary Blair throughout her career with The Walt Disney Company.

The exhibit featured over 200 pieces of Blair’s artwork, including paintings, sketches, and concept art. The exhibit was organized chronologically, and it traced Blair’s career from her early days at Disney to her later work as a freelance artist. The exhibit also included a number of interactive elements, and a book was also released go alongside the exhibit.

Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair was a critical and commercial success. The exhibit was praised for its comprehensive overview of Blair’s work and its interactive elements. The exhibit also drew large crowds, and it was one of the most popular exhibits in the history of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

The exhibit was accompanied by a book of the same name, which was written by John Canemaker, a noted animation historian. The book provides a more in-depth look at Blair’s life and work, and it includes essays by a number of experts on Blair’s art.

Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair was a landmark exhibit that brought Blair’s work to a wider audience. The exhibit helped to solidify Blair’s reputation as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

Mary Blair artwork

Later Life and Legacy

Blair left The Walt Disney Studios in 1953 to focus on her family and freelance work. She continued to create art and design for a variety of projects, including children’s books, television shows, and advertising campaigns. Blair was also a popular lecturer and teacher, and she inspired generations of artists with her unique vision and talent.

She died in 1978 at the age of 66. Mary Blair was a talented artist who made a significant contribution to the world of animation. Blair’s legacy continues to inspire artists and designers around the world.

moana concept art disney

Influence in the Disney Parks Today

In addition to the permanent artwork installations and Disney intellectual properties enjoyed by guests around the world today, Mary Blair’s legacy continues to influence and inspire.

Her artwork has become something of a continual reoccurrence within Disney property development and merchandise, often being featured on new apparel, housewares, or prints created around the films she worked on during her time with the company.

Her bright and whimsical style has also been emulated by artists and Imagineers throughout the years. The company continues to celebrate the childlike whimsy and bold color she seemed to effortlessly wield for a wide portfolio of concept art and attractions work.

Modern variations can be seen when examining stylized artwork available for newer films made by Disney. This is especially apparent in the “Moana” concept art pictured above. The artist featured the lush tropical setting of the movie using the same simple, bright geometric patterns and color styling that Mary Blair fans recognize.

As one of the most enduring creators of the twentieth century and a model for career women in the 1950s, Mary Blair’s legacy continues to inspire. Her vibrant colors, stylized shapes, and whimsical imagery will continue to delight guests at the Disney Parks for generations to come.

What’s your favorite artwork by Mary Blair? We’d like to read about it in the comments below.

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