by Bill Kinder
My first visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum, a couple of years ago, offered way more than I had time to cover in a leisurely morning with out-of-town family guests. Now planning a return trip, I’m resolved to focus on the special exhibit on now through the September 7: “The World of Mary Blair.”
I know a little bit about Mary Blair. She is the artist who cast a bold, modern feel to so much of the Disney catalog, ranging from Cinderella to “It’s A Small World.” But I don’t know much about her biographical history—nor how in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s she succeeded at being that rare, creative woman in a male world. I also know I could use a boost in my ability to fully appreciate the art. I can understand its role in the films she worked on. I have seen many of the Disney films Blair touched, and I think of her style as a mid-century modern one, with very simple, bold lines. But I’m looking for a more nuanced artist’s perspective. So to foreground my visit, I turned to my friend Ralph Eggleston, the brilliant production designer of great Pixar films and accomplished artist in his own right. I knew he would offer a great perspective as both scholar of Hollywood’s history and as an artist practicing at the top of his craft today.
Ralph kindly welcomed me to invite myself to his early morning coffee and croissant ritual a couple weeks ago, where I got the master class review of Mary Blair’s unique strengths and place in history I had hoped for. What I didn’t anticipate was how close Ralph was to a number of primary sources in Blair’s life, including colleagues, friends, and family, adding a colorful dimension to my museum pre-flight. Ralph is one of many who has been inspired by Mary Blair—what she did and more importantly how she saw. Her vision was so original that it stylistically influenced decades of our visual popular culture. Ralph appreciates that style, but even more he appreciates her push for originality and emotion in her work. For someone who describes his job as “rollerskating during an earthquake,” I can see how a daring original like Blair stands as an inspiration. Ralph has managed to collect a few Blair originals of his own (one he scored at a church flea market) and is sworn to the preservation of those pieces, along with her legacy.
First, a bit of the Blair bio: she was born Mary Robinson in 1911. She came of age in California, and won recognition for her art while at San Jose State earning a scholarship to the Chiounard Art Institute in Los Angeles, which spawned a flock of key California artists in that period. She did some watercolors at the time, which capture the light of L.A. as well as some of the social conditions of the Depression. She also met the man who would become her husband, who in that period came to some prominence for winning the gold medal in painting at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. (Olympic painting competition, remember that? I don’t. Perhaps because it ended in 1954. And I thought the judging for figure skating was hard to follow. If you want to see how you would have judged, see the watercolor “Rodeo” Lee Blair was medaled with here.)
Ralph was mentored by some of the prominent artists of that Depression era, and knew one who courted Mary and would later lament that the attractive Ms. Robinson got away. “Lee showed up and had a car,” he explained to Ralph. “More importantly, he had a back seat.”
The newlyweds both worked in the brand new animation industry, first for Ub Iwerks. Disney then hired Lee, and Mary did some freelance illustration and visual development work starting in 1940—when the key turning point to her artistic career came. She went on a research trip with Walt and Lillian Disney as part of a campaign I’m afraid could only have transpired in an era of Olympic painting: a government-sponsored “good will tour.” They went to a number of countries in South America, and Ralph points to this as the launch pad for a new direction in her artistic vision, as wonderful as it was prior to that trip. There are different theories about the source of the change, and you can form your own as you look at the work at the Presidio: no one knows exactly for sure how or why, but it was after this trip that anything you could call “blair-esque” blossomed. When you go to the exhibit, look for that clear demarcation in style post-South America. Guest Curator and animation scholar John Canemaker organizes the material in a straightforward, three-act structure, and the before and after here are called out as 1) Learning and 2) Breaking the Rules. Ralph says we will see some of her earlier touches in her later work, but no seeds of the later approach are visible before the South American trip, which led to work with her husband on development art for Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros .
“Walt worshipped the ground she painted on,” says Ralph. There was nobody Walt Disney appreciated in his art department more than Mary Blair. There were likely a few of men in the art department at the time who felt at least a little jealous of this woman rising to the highest levels in the studio. One wonders how the personal and familial collaboration with one particular male colleague, her husband Lee, faired as her career eclipsed his. Not that I expect the Family Museum, or really anyone, to answer that credibly. Is it even an appropriate inquiry (comments section below)?
What precisely is “Blair-esque”? To steal liberally from Ralph’s professional vocabulary, the style is set by her choice of strong graphic patterns and vivid colors. Not necessarily saturated colors, but colors composed in a masterful combination to make a vivid impression or to cause the eye to move around the frame. A lot of us gravitate to the color. In fact, the subtitle of the exhibit is “Magic, Color, and Flair.” But don’t overlook her great sense of shape as well, Ralph warns. Shape and value came first (perhaps the “flair?”), and color came last. Of course all these aspects of an image inter-relate, and Blair had an ineffable way of painting shape and value directly through color. Maybe that’s the “Magic” of the exhibit’s title.
Some people who knew Mary have told Ralph that her unique vision may have been due to not magic but, well, unique vision—as in a physiological “problem” with her vision. As in, she had bad eyesight, and she started overcompensating in this singular way. It’s another interior-life-of-the-artist question we’ll never answer. But interesting to consider. I was reminded of my own experience, working with a documentary cameraman who had an innate ability to frame strong, clear compositions—and who, I learned, also had innately terrible eyesight. They are not exclusive, I’ve seen it so.
Anyway, Ralph thinks it hardly matters; all artists have an “internal palette” (he compared the blue skies he renders in, say, Toy Story , compared to his Pixar colleagues’ turquoises and yellow-tinged skies), and that’s enough to account for Blair’s view. Also, you can take any of her paintings and look at them in black and white and they are crystal clear. You don’t need any color at all.
For a present day artist like Ralph Eggleston, the important takeaway is that Blair knew how to guide the viewer’s eye to the point of the image. Sometimes that point was a sense of playfulness, and what you get is an invitation for your eye to dance around the image. This makes some people think of her as limited to a decorative, ornamental approach. Ralph points to evidence in her film work that this couldn’t be further from the truth—her work is loaded with character. The images are always full of very specific ideas in support of character. It might appear effortless, but it is never precious. The film work is a means to an end, done in the service of character and narrative. She clearly worked hard at, and thought a lot about, what she was doing in that context.
When she gets to the period of her career reflected in curator Canemaker’s third act, “Creating New Worlds,” her work becomes less character-driven. In advertising, the image is not so much a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. Yet how fascinating that in this period she did “color design” on How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying , such an iconic moment of the character of Sixties modernism itself.
If you can’t make it through the Blair exhibit in a deliberate, reflective way (maybe you’ll have out-of-towners needing to get to the next stop on their SF Tour), Ralph offers three must-see highlights:
1. Blair’s Notebook. Her sketchbook shows so much of her process. You can interact with it via touchscreen. It is an inspiration.
2. There are two large pieces on loan from Mike Gabriel which have never been seen, and they are very moving. They also have a fascinating origin: they were commissioned by Walt Disney as a gift for Carmen Miranda.
3. Water colors. Notice the physicality of her brushstroke. She was very assured in these paintings, whereas her oils were more mannered.
Now I’m starting to feel primed to see this exhibit. And how appropriate that they are now screening a film with Blair’s signature look: Peter Pan . I can’t say that title is the most highly regarded in the Disney canon, but I’ll be happy to see it anew, vividly remastered I hope, through the lens of Blair’s efforts. I’m expecting that focus to bring some redemption to the title. It did recently with a screening I set up of Alice in Wonderland—really a hodgepodge of a film that is remembered as eluding Walt’s usual attentions, but is in fact that much better when you stumble into a scene with the hallmark style of Mary Blair.
Finally, I asked Ralph if they had a loop of “It’s A Small World” music running. He did not recall that they did, which means either we can be relieved that we don’t face the earworm itself at a tasteful museum display, or Ralph has an impenetrable filter against the hypnotic effects of that evil ditty.
Summing up, Ralph points to Mary Blair’s work as a call to do more than what we thought we could do. Not something we already know we can do, or something that we can afford, or something that fits in the box. Blair models a certain adventurousness we could all use in our creative thinking and action.
Making reference to previous Blair shows in Los Angeles and Japan, Ralph called our hometown Walt Disney Family Museum work excellent: “the singlemost comprehensive Blair exhibit” ever mounted. There is work here you won’t find online, or in a book. Not to mention it’s the original work, in a thoughtfully arranged presentation.
I hope to see you at the museum.
Read more about Mary Blair:
Here are some books about The Art of Pixar on Amazon.com.
Ralph Eggleston was born October 18, 1965 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and went to school at the California Institute of Arts. Eggleston worked at Warner Brothers and Amblin/Universal TV prior to coming to Pixar in 1992 during the development of Toy Story. He became Art Director on that film, The Incredibles and Up; Production Designer on Finding Nemo, Wall-E; plus writing the original story and creating visual development for Monsters, Inc. He also wrote and directed the Oscar-winning short film For the Birds. Ralph is currently working on secret projects at Pixar. His art is celebrated in the “Art of Pixar” books. This poster shows his own sense of inventive use of shape, color and emphasis to convey and idea and feeling.
Bill Kinder was the Director of Editorial & Post Production at Pixar for seventeen years, recently striking out on his own to direct his first feature White Rabbit. His vision for the film is a post-Iraq War noir thriller that brings to the surface effects of war on the home front. He combined his understanding of digital filmmaking with the maverick spirit of independent filmmaking he learned from Francis Coppola during his stint at American Zoetrope. Prior to his work in feature films, Mr. Kinder directed an Emmy®-nominated documentary, produced television news, other non-fiction specials, and edited commercials. He also enjoys shooting and editing short films for his independent production company, Boxcar Pictures. Bill lives in Berkeley, CA with his wife, three kids, a dog, and a Canon 7D.