McAlester To The Magic Kingdom: A Legendary Artist’s Ongoing Legacy

Mary Blair's creative talent took her from McAlester to the Walt Disney studios, where her art and style was foundational in Disney animated classics.

Wednesday, June 9th 2021, 10:19 pm

For Disney World's 50th anniversary this year, Imagineers are redesigning the iconic Cinderella castle in the style of one legendary artist - Mary Blair. For this amazing Oklahoman, art took her all the way from McAlester to the Magic Kingdom.

Mary Robinson (Blair) was born in McAlester in 1911. She once wrote that "she grew up defacing schoolbooks with crude drawings."

According to the Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society, she lived in houses on East Comanche, North East Street and West Harrison. Mary's aunt worked at Dow Coal and Coke and her dad at Choctaw Press Brick Company.

Author Jeff Kurtti worked at Disney for years and has studied Mary before and after her time at Disney.

"I don't think anyone really forgets their childhood roots,” Kurtti said.

Like many Okies of the Dust Bowl era, the Robinsons moved to California in the 1920s. Mary married fellow LA art school student Lee Blair in 1934 and the two turned to a studio that was hiring during the Great Depression.

"One of the biggest employers of artists in Los Angeles was Walt Disney," said Mary Platt, director at the Hilbert Museum for California Art at Chapman University.

"Walt liked to hire people from the Midwest because he himself was from Missouri. So that's something he had in common that probably helped their bond,” said Nathalia Holt, author of “Queens of Animation,” a book about Disney’s early women artists.

"Mary represented a facet of Walt Disney himself. She represented a joyousness and fun in her work that reflected a feeling of childhood and innocence," Kurtti points out.

Mary quit Disney in 1941. Her family, however, convinced her to go ask Walt for her job back before a group of Disney executives and artists, including Walt, were about to do a goodwill tour of South America.

She was rehired and many Disney experts say that trip was an artistic awakening for Mary.

"You get inspired by everything around you the sights, the sounds - I mean everything - the voices, the music,” said Platt.

Over the next 12 years, Mary created the concept art that was the bedrock for Disney animation in Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

Behind the scenes, life wasn’t a fairy tale for Mary. She had miscarriages before giving birth to her two sons. She reportedly also suffered spousal abuse. 

These personal details were told to author Nathalia Holt by Mary's surviving family and were never revealed publicly until Holt’s book.

“It really shows how strong she was that she was able to persevere,” said Holt.

Before Mary resigned for good from Disney in 1953, she also created concepts for both Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty. According to Holt, the character Maleficent was mostly Mary's creation.

The author argues that Mary’s style of art helped inspire modern Disney classics like Pocahontas's "Colors of the Wind" theme and the character Ellie in Up.

"It's just amazing what she was able to do in such a short life really,” said Holt.

The children on the It’s A Small World rides at Disney, many illustrations in the Little Golden Books and massive murals - all finished before her death in 1978 and all by the artist from McAlester whom Walt adored.

"Mary Blair's work for Disney, because of the ongoing legacy audience for Disney, will be seen and known for lifetimes to come," said Kurtti.


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