gmhTODAY 32 SPRING 2021 April- June 2021 | Page 78

Historically Speaking by Robin Shepherd Morgan Hill Historical Society

In 2008 , The Morgan Hill Historical Society received a donation of a rare watercolor by one of California ’ s most talented and influential artists of the mid-1900s , Mary Robinson Blair . This generous gift brought to light the incredible journey of a former resident who went on to become an icon in her field .

Generations of Americans have grown up with Alice in Wonderland , Peter Pan and Cinderella . These and other classic Disney animated films bear the distinctive design and color stylings of Mary Robinson Blair .
Born into an impoverished Oklahoma family in 1911 , Mary spent her formative years in Morgan Hill . Arriving in 1918 , the Robinsons lived on the third floor of the Friendly Inn where her father , John , worked as the caretaker .
During her years at Live Oak High School , Mary befriended Virginia Horton . According to her yearbook , Mary was class vice president and valedictorian as well as a member of the Oak Leaf yearbook staff . After graduating in 1928 , Mary and Virginia both attended San Jose State College and their friendship continued . Mary ’ s goal at that time was to be an art teacher . She won the opportunity to assist the famous Mexican
Social Realism painter , David Alfaro Siqueiros , on a school mural .
In 1931 , Mary went to Los Angeles on a scholarship to Chouinard Art School . There Pruett Carter , a popular American illustrator of the time , mentored her . She married fellow art student Lee Blair in 1934 .
During the early 1930s , Mary pursued her passion for watercolor as a member of the California Water Color Society . When her old friend Virginia married Martin Sword in 1936 , Mary gave them her watercolor entitled Morgan Hill Foothills as a wedding gift . Virginia displayed it in her home for many years until she moved into a care facility in 2008 . In accordance with Virginia ’ s wishes , her daughter Linda Sword Johnson donated the watercolor to the Morgan Hill Historical Society .
After Chouinard , Mary and Lee tried to make a go of it as fine artists , but at the height of the Depression , economic hardship pushed them into the commercial sector . Recognizing their talents , Disney Studios hired Lee in 1938 , and Mary in 1940 .
In 1941 , Mary was invited on a three-month Disney expedition touring Mexico and South America . Mary ’ s personal experience of the people and culture of Latin America inspired a bold transformation in her work that won her a coveted role as art supervisor on The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos .
It was not an easy time for women
in terms of career advancement or equal pay , and the male-dominated film industry was no exception . Even so , Mary ’ s creativity , joyful design style and color sensibility caught the attention of Walt Disney himself . He consistently championed her work in films and theme parks until his passing in 1966 .
Disney said in 1941 , “ The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men , and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could .”
In the early 1950s , Mary resigned from Disney and the Blairs moved to Long Island , New York . There , she created illustrations for national ads , magazines , clothing designs , theatrical sets , and illustrated Golden Books for children .
In 1964 , Walt Disney commissioned her to work on the UNICEF Pavilion design for the New York World ’ s Fair . Afterward it became the “ It ’ s a Small World ” attraction at Disneyland . In 1966 , she completed murals for the children ’ s wing of UCLA ’ s Jules Stein Eye Institute and Disneyland ’ s Tomorrowland .
Mary ’ s final large-scale work , the Grand Canyon Concourse mural in the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World , is a tour de force that transforms the hotel ’ s bold modern architecture and “ brutalistic aesthetic ”( 1 ). The mural has been