Whether you knew it or not, Mary Blair’s art has been all around Disney travelers for years. In a man’s game, she was a stand-out, an artist with such a unique and vibrant style that no one else could match it.
Blair’s tenure with Disney didn’t start as an Imagineer. Originally, she was an animator, whose work can be seen in films like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. In the 1950s, she began working on set designs and creating murals and attractions for the soon-to-open Disneyland.
More of Blair’s work could be seen in Disney’s Golden Books. The books are still in print today and, if you grew up reading Golden Books, more likely than not, you were seeing her work. A fan of the books, Jacqueline Kennedy once wrote Blair to thank her for her illustrations in them and to tell her that her daughter Caroline loved them.
If you’ve been to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, there’s one piece of Blair’s work that you have seen again and again and most likely you’ve had the song in this attraction stuck in your head more than once. Of all the things that she created, Blair loved her work on “it’s a small world” best. Though many other Disney legends did work on the ride, like Alice Davis and Claude Coats, “it’s a small world” has been thought of as Blair’s baby. Could you imagine “it’s a small world” without the color? It would never have the same effect.
Blair’s style is whimsical. In a way, her style is more of a way a child might see the world. There’s little darkness. It’s bright and hopeful. That was what was needed for “it’s a small world.” When you are on the ride, you join the children. The color scheme and structures of the buildings and backgrounds help you forget that you are traveling to different countries because it’s all a seamless transition. You are in Japan one moment and France the next. You acknowledge the differences in cultures but you don’t necessarily feel that you’ve entered a totally new place. It’s all connected, just like such a small world should be. Even though the children do have features to reflect their different cultures, they are purposefully all designed with the same shape. The shape actually came from a line of Hallmark cards that Blair designed for Disney in the 1940s.
Imagineer Rolly Crump once said that he believed that Blair was a lot like Disney himself. The way that she painted and who she was sometimes aligned more with a little girl. He said that Disney was like that too. They related to children better than most.
Blair passed away in 1978, but she remains a presence in the Disney parks. In Disney’s Contemporary Resort, a giant mural was painted in her style. She frequently painted murals for Disney in her lifetime. On Main Street in Magic Kingdom, a window was dedicated to her, and four other Disney Imagineers, saying, “Center Street-Painting and Sculpture.”