Born on October 21, 1911, in McAlester, Oklahoma, Mary Browne Robinson moved to Texas while still a small child, and later to the city of Morgan Hill, California in the early 20s. After graduating from San Jose State University which she attended from 1929 to 1931, Mary won a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where artists such as Pruett Carter, Morgan Russell and Lawrence Murphy were among the teachers. She graduated from Chouinard in 1933. In 1934 shortly after college, she married another artist, Lee Everett Blair (October 1, 1911 – April 19, 1993). She was the sister-in-law of animator Preston Blair (1908–95). Along with her husband Lee, she became a member of the California School of Watercolor and quickly became known for being an imaginative colorist and designer.
Mary's first professional job in the animation industry was as an animator with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She would soon leave and join Lee Blair at the Ub Iwerks studio before moving to Disney.
Mary Blair joined The Walt Disney Company in 1940 and worked briefly on art for Dumbo, an early version of Lady and the Tramp, and a second version of Fantasia titled "Baby Ballet" which was not released until the late 1990s.
After leaving the studio for a short time in 1941, Mary travelled to various South American countries with Walt Disney, Lillian Disney and other artists on a research tour. The watercolors that Mary painted, lead Walt to assign her as an art supervisor for the animated feature films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
Mary first began animation and color design on major films in 1943 and would continue to work on animated films for Disney for a full decade. Her work with animation did not end there however as after that, she worked on several package films, excluding Fun and Fancy Free, and on two partially animated features — Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. The early 1950s were a busy time for the Disney studio, with an animated feature released nearly every year. Mary Blair was credited with color styling on Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953), and the artistic influence of her concept art is strongly felt in those films, as well as in several animated shorts, including Susie the Little Blue Coupe and The Little House, she designed during that period.
After the completion of Peter Pan, Mary Blair resigned from Disney and worked as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, creating advertising campaigns for companies such as Nabisco, Pepsodent, Maxwell House, Beatrice Foods and others. She also illustrated several Little Golden Books for publisher Simon & Schuster, some of which remain in print today, and she also designed Christmas and Easter sets for Radio City Music Hall. Blair not only worked in graphic design and animation but also as a designer for Bonwit Teller and created theatrical sets.
At the request of Walt Disney, who regarded highly her innate sense of color styling, Blair began work on Disney's new attraction, "It's a Small World". Originally a Pepsi-Cola-sponsored pavilion benefiting UNICEF at the 1964 New York World's Fair, the attraction moved to Disneyland after the Fair closed and was later replicated at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World Resort as well as Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland.
Mary Blair created murals that would be showcased in Disney parks, hotels and other Disney attractions from California to Florida. These murals were not only painted but some would be tile decor. In 1967, Blair created mural art for the Tomorrowland Promenade. Two similar tile murals flanked the entrance corridor. The mural over Adventure Thru Inner Space was covered over in 1987 with the opening of Star Tours, while the other remained in place until 1998 when the Circle-Vision 360° was replaced by Rocket Rods and a new mural was designed to reflect the new theme. Her design of a 90-foot-high (27 m) mural remains a focal point of the Disney's Contemporary Resort hotel at Walt Disney World, which was completed for the resort's opening in 1971.
Mary Blair would also go on to make sets of Walt Disney note cards for Hallmark. In 1968, Blair was credited as color designer on the film version of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Blair would eventually move out to Washington for Lee Blair's military career and then return to her in home studio located in Long Island, New York.
Films that Mary Blair worked on include:
Blair was also a writer for:Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color
Once Upon a Wintertime
Mary Blair moved back to California and would die of a cerebral hemorrhage in Soquel, California on July 26, 1978.
While the fine art she created outside of her association with Disney and her work as an illustrator is not widely known, Blair's bold and ground-breaking color design still inspires many of today's contemporary designers and animators. A Google doodle was created on Friday, October 21, 2011, to commemorate the centennial of her birth. The Doodle featured an image of an illustrator as Mary might have drawn herself, surrounded by the simple patterns and shapes that made up her familiar cartoon world. Simon & Schuster will publish Pocket Full of Colors, a picture book biography about Mary Blair, in August 2017. The book is written by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, and illustrated by Brigette Baranger, who once worked as an artist at Disney.
Mary Blair has been credited with introducing modernist art styles to Walt Disney and his studio by using primary colors to form intense contrast and colors that are unnatural to the image they are depicting.
In 1991, Blair was recognized with a posthumous Disney Legend award. Also posthumously, she received the Windsor McCay Award from ASIFA-Hollywood in 1996 along with two other Disney animators.