A Woman to Know: Mary Blair

Walt said that I knew about colors he had never heard of before. — Mary Blair

(image via The Blair Estate)

Mary dreamed up the magic kingdom in "Cinderella," the mermaid lagoon in "Peter Pan" and the psychedelic landscapes in "Alice in Wonderland."

When she first started working at Walt Disney Studios in 1940, men dominated the animation scene. But 30-year-old Mary made sure her artwork stood out; her imaginative ideas and mid-century modern inspiration caught Walt Disney's eye. He invited her on a work trip to South America, where Mary's work exploded with color.

"Mary's colors were just so vivid, so right out of the tube," one of her Disney colleagues remembered. "There's something simple and childlike in her work, but also very sophisticated, very contemporary. She was ahead of her time."

From there, Mary's work traveled beyond Walt Disney studios. She painted storyboards for the beloved children's Golden Books series, and she collaborated with her advertising exec husband on designs for Maxwell Coffee, Lord & Taylor and other big clients.

But Walt Disney kept one of Mary's pieces hanging in his own home, a reminder of the artist who styled so many of Disney Studio's early animations. In 1964, he invited her back to Disneyland, with a blank check to create her masterpiece: the whimsical and wonderful "It's a Small World" ride. Each singing Eskimo, dancing leprechaun and smiling sunshine in the ride began right inside Mary's sketchbook. The ride's distinctive style — complete with tinsel, pom-poms and, of course, eye-popping color — remains the greatest museum to her work.

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