Updated for 2017!
As a child of the 70s, I heard the name Mary Blair on every Disney vacation in every Disney monorail that zipped through the Contemporary Resort. My own children are not so familiar with her name. While I still can’t take my eyes off the fabulous seven story tile artwork in the atrium of the Contemporary, most children today seem lost in staring at their cellular devices. This seems like such a shame to me, as I touch the tiles every time I order something to nibble on at the Contempo Cafe. The tiles are a part of my Disney vacation history.
Just who was the creator of the fabulous Contemporary mural?
Christian Science Monitor described Mary Blair as graduating from the Chouinard Art Institute of Los Angeles at a most important time. The Depression loomed heavily over the art world then, and Blair set aside her hopes of being a fine artist by accepting an animation job at Metro Goldwyn-Meyer studios. She had a strong background in watercolor, utilizing colorful tones and a playful style.
In 1940, she went to work for Walt Disney, who quickly assigned her to several big projects for the Disney Corporation. “Mary’s unique color and styling greatly influenced Disney’s postwar productions,” as described in the company’s biography of Blair. Her sharp eye helped craft movies like Cinderella, Song of the South, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.
Color was everything to Blair, who experimented in ways that other animators had yet dared to do. “Mary was the first artist I knew of to have different shades of red next to each other,” remembered animator Frank Thomas. “You just didn’t do that! But Mary made it work.”
The official Disney Website says that Walt connected with Mary’s fresh, childlike art style. As Disney Imagineering artist Roland Crump once told animation historian John Canemaker, “The way she (Mary) painted – in a lot of ways she was still a little girl. Walt was like that… You could see he could relate to children – she was the same way.”
Wikipedia describes Mary Blair as born in 1911 as Mary Robinson. In addition to her work for Disney, several of her illustrated children’s books from the 1950s remain in print, like the book I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss. Together with her husband Lee, Blair was a member of the important California regionalist school of watercolor of the 1930s.
When Mary and Lee Blair both began working in the animation industry, the worked with famed Disney Cast Member Ub Iwerks. Mary Blair worked briefly on art for Dumbo, an early version of Lady and the Tramp, and a second version of Fantasia, which wasn’t actually released until the late 1990s.
It was a very busy time for the Disney studio in the early 1950s, as they released an animated feature nearly every year. Mary Blair was credited with color styling on Cinderella in 1950, Alice in Wonderland in 1951, and Peter Pan in 1953.
At the request of Walt Disney, Blair began work on Disney’s new attraction, It’s a Small World. This attraction was originally a pavilion sponsored by Pepsi-cola, which benefited UNICEF, at the 1964 New York World’s fair. The attraction moved to Disneyland after the World’s Fair closed. Later, , It’s a Small World was replicated at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, and again later in Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland.
In 1967, Mary Blair created mural art for the Tomorrowland Promenade in Disneyland, with two similar tile murals flanking the corridor to the entrance corridor. Blair finished a 90-foot-high mural at Disney’s Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida, which was completed for the resort’s opening in 1971.
You can view the mural from all four directions in the Contemporary’s Grand Canyon Concourse. Featuring animals, birds, flowers, and American Indian children, the mural consists of 18,000 hand-painted tiles. You will find Blair’s name on the tiles just as you enter the Contempo Cafe.
Mary Blair died in 1978, and she was honored as a Disney Legend in 1991.
While you are looking at the mural, be sure to see if you can spot the five-legged goat.
Why should you visit the Contemporary Resort just to see Mary Blair’s mural?
Because Mary Blair is a Disney Legend, and her resort mural is an iconic 9 story part of Disney history.
Because when they Contemporary Resort opened, this was the showpiece of the entire Contemporary Resort and a one of a kind artwork.
And because Disney Company Imagineers are known for “plusing” the parks and resorts. There is always a little voice in the back of my head telling me to be grateful I didn’t arrive at Disney to find the mural covered and scaffolded as a part of some sort of upgrade. There are currently no Internet rumblings of a mural upgrade, but…
If you haven’t seen this masterpiece yet, there is no time like the present.
While you’re here, you might as well read my favorite Cheapskate Princess article. Perhaps it will inspire you to plan that Disney vacation.
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