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A Mid-Century Modern Alice

Johnny recently wrote about about Alice in Wonderland’s imaginary kitchen and asked for ideas inspired by this theme. He wrote that fairy tales and children’s stories are great source material. When I think about Alice in Wonderland, I am reminded of Mary Blair, one of my favourite artists.

Mary Blair - artist

An unassuming quiet-spoken woman, she dominated Disney design for half a century. The stylishness and vibrant color of Disney films in the early 1940s through mid-1950s came primarily from her brush. In her prime, she was an amazingly prolific American artist who enlivened and influenced the not-so-small worlds of film, print, theme parks, architectural decor, and advertising. Her art represented joyful creativity and communicated pure pleasure to the viewer. Her exuberant fantasies brimmed with beauty, charm and wit, melding a child’s fresh eye with adult experience.

Animator Marc Davis, who put Mary’s exciting use of color on a par with Matisse, recalled, “She brought modern art to Walt in a way that no one else did. He was so excited about her work.” Mary’s unique color and styling greatly influenced many Disney postwar productions most notably The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Mary assisted in the design of the It’s a Small World attraction for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair (blame the music on the Sherman Brothers). She contributed to the design of many exhibits, attractions, and murals at the theme parks in California and Florida, including the fanciful murals in the Grand Canyon Concourse at the Contemporary Hotel.

As Johnny mentioned, the literal translation of ideas can capture atmospheres and events, similar to the way scenes from films capture an emotion or experience we identify with. Mary Blair’s art perfectly captures the scale and color of my early boomer childhood, and takes me there with the speed of PF Flyers to hideouts and imaginary forts of blankets over furniture. Though much of Blair’s work veers toward abstraction, her use of color and the storytelling aspect in her pictures, especially the underlying emotions expressed in much of her art, somehow transport me to a cozy and dreamlike place.

Instead of a single color or one veneer, we playfully use a mixture of color and wood in a painterly fashion. Legendary animator Frank Thomas said, “Mary was the first artist I knew of to have different shades of red next to each other. You just didn’t do that! But Mary made it work.”

Like Carroll’s surrealist creation, a kitchen can bring such imaginative pleasure. Johnny says to escape is a great release; to dream and not quite understand is in some ways like visiting Venice, Machu Picchu or Gaudi’s Parc Guell. Blair’s biographer John Canamaker perhaps put it best when he wrote, “I feel great pleasure merely gazing at a work by Mary Blair. It’s as delicious as feasting on rainbows.”


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