A leader in animation and film
Table of Contents
Lee Everett Blair was born on October 11, 1911 in Los Angeles, CA. His grandfather, father and uncles were pivotal architects and contractors in the urban development of Los Angeles. He grew up in Glendale and attended Polytechnic High School. There, he and his brother Preston Blair (1908-1995), who was also an artist, were encouraged by teacher Mary Louise Arnold to pursue art. In 1930, Blair graduated and was awarded a scholarship to attend the prominent Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.
It was there in 1931 that he met his future wife Mary Browne Robinson (1911–1978) and studied under Lawrence Murphy (1872 - 1947), Millard Sheets (1907-1989) and the great Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). At the age of 21, Blair won the gold medal in the watercolor competition of the Los Angeles Olympics for his work titled Rodeo. During that same year, Blair, under the instruction of Siqueiros and Sheets, worked on frescos that decorated the walls of Chouinard. After the medal and local exhibitions, Blair started to gain national attention and went on an exhibition tour with fellow watercolorists to New York, the Midwest and Northern California.
In 1935, his growing notoriety and progressive artistic style earned him the role of president of the California Watercolor Society; he was 23 at the time. In 1936, Blair started animation work for U.B. Iwerks studios producing art for Flip the Frog Cartoons. In 1938, Lee and Mary, along with Walt and Lillian Disney, went on a goodwill sketching tour to South America that was sponsored by FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy. This was a pivotal trip that influenced the animated movie The Three Amigos. From 1939-1942, Blair taught landscape painting at Chouinard and worked with Walt Disney Studios. In 1942, Blair also contributed to the war effort by joining the Navy; he animated training films for the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics.
Sometime between 1947 -1950, Blair moved to Great Neck, New York with Mary and started Film/TV Graphics Inc., a dual advertising company. Through this joint husband and wife partnership they went on to produce animated, training and educational films along with television commercials. It was at this time that Blair studied at the Art Students League in New York and started an additional film production/advertising firm in New York City. During his stay in New York, Blair served as the President of the New York Film Producers Association for two terms. Also around that time, Blair started the New York Mayor’s Office for Films, Radio and Television, which helped to further establish the city as a major entertainment venue.
In 1968, Lee and Mary moved to back to California settling in the beautiful city of Soquel. Blair taught figure and landscape painting classes at Santa Cruz Community College. From 1975-1979, Blair also taught film animation at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Then, on July 26, 1978, Mary Blair died of a brain hemorrhage. In 1983, Blair was awarded a lifetime membership to the American Watercolor Society in recognition of his “… unusual achievement in the advancement of watercolor painting in America.” Lee Everett Blair died in 1993 in Soquel, California.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
In the years of the Great Depression, Los Angeles became the art center of Southern California. Lee Blair, Millard Sheets, Phil Paradise, Rex Brandt and Emil J. Kosa, Jr. were a group of students and teachers of Chouinard Art Institute (now known as CalArts) that helped to establish a strong community of local artists. In their works, they captured the social realism of everyday American life, while experimenting with watercolors and plein air techniques.
Most of the watercolorists at Chouinard went on to work together on Federal Art Projects or at some of the age’s pioneering production companies such as Walt Disney and Warner Brothers. They were also politically and socially motivated to create art that represented the everyday struggle of the American people during the depression. It is in this social realist spirit and a love for the land that Blair’s style came to be “characterized by the large format size, free, bold brush work, and strong, dark, rich colors [and a]…weighty manner.”
Blair’s innovations to the art world can be seen when he was the Director of Color and a screen writer, accompanied by his brother Preston Blair, for “Dance of the Hours,” a scene in Disney’s Fantasia. This animated film was quite avant-garde for its time because of its inclusion of “animated artwork of varying degrees of abstraction or literalism…used to illustrate or accompany … [a] concert in various ways.” It was also the first major motion picture to be released in stereophonic sound, using a process dubbed "Fantasound.”
Blair’s relationship with Walt Disney developed out of his wife Mary’s connection to the artist. Walt Disney employed Mary for many years as a color stylist. She contributed to Disney’s Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
As most artists of that time, Blair always returned to the teaching of art and the solace that it provided. In the age of the Great Depression, one had to use whatever talents and resources they had to survive. In Blair’s case, it was his connection to Disney, his wife Mary and his ingenious business skills that kept him financially afloat. Blair truly enjoyed the fulfillment of teaching landscape and animation and continued to teach for a large portion of his life. One gets the feeling that his time at Chouinard left an imprint on his character and made him think that he had to give back to others in the sense that Murphy, Carter, Sheets and Siquerios gave him.
Blair’s style exudes a quality that is unorthodox to his peers and time in history. Art columnist and critic for the L.A Times Arthur Miller called Blair “one of the least ‘affected’ most direct watercolorists in America,” and later comparing his work to “that of Winslow Homer.” In 1933, Henry McBride of the New York Sun reviewed the annual American Watercolor Society show and stated that, “The best work this year is by Lee Blair.”
A great example of Blair’s work would be the painting Dissenting Factions. In this painting Blair shows his social consciousness for the common working American. The painting depicts a scene where union workers from the film industry are on strike, something that Blair was a part of and experienced first hand. The scene is one of chaos, with people fighting and police beating protesters over the head with batons. One man is even climbing up the flag pole to retrieve the American flag: a symbol for the relentless fight for justice.. It shows the American spirit at its best. The way that Blair plays with his shading is something that could be compared to Caravaggio, he uses dark figures in the front, shading in the middle, and brighter colors in the back that protrude diagonally out of the left hand side of the painting. This painting shows character, strength and the struggle that a generation had to endure.
Lee Everett Blair is an important figure in commercial and fine art. Because of his innovations and contributions to animation and watercolor painting he has played a key role in the building of the Disney nostalgia. Blair’s influence has touched anyone who has ever seen one of his films as a child. His paintings also captured the devastating impact left by the Great Depression. Blair has a plaque in the L.A coliseum for his 1932 Olympic gold medal and was involved in numerous Art shows, associations, societies, and production companies. Blair stated that he liked to paint “the human side of landscape,” and that he painted the “elements of a landscape that many artists omitted.” The art that Lee Everett Blair left behind is one of influence, character and a time in history where the beauty of California was seen from all around.
1911 Born on October 1, 1911 in Los Angeles, CA
1930 Graduates from Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles
1931 Meets Mary Browne Robinson. Attends Chouinard from 1931-1934
1932 Wins Gold Medal for watercolors in the L.A. Olympics
1934 Marries Mary Browne Robinson.
1935 President of the California Water Color Society
1936-1937 Works for U.B. Iwerks studios producing art for Flip the Frog Cartoons
1938 Joined Walt Disney Studios. Director of Color and Animation and screen writer for “Dance of the Hours” a scene in Fantasia. Also worked on Pinocchio and Bambi and contributes with his brother Preston on Fantasia.
1941 Goes on trip with wife Mary, Walt and Lillian Disney to South America on a goodwill sketching tour sponsored by FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy Influencing the Three Amigos movie.
1939-1942 Teaches landscape painting at Chouinard
1942 Joins the Navy and helps create animated training films for the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics.
1946-1958 Works for Walt Disney Productions
1947-1950 Moves to Great Neck, New York with Mary to start Film/TV Graphics, an advertising company. Studies at the Art Students League in New York.
1959 Screenwriter for the movie The Untouchables.
1968 Moves to Soquel, California. Teaches animation and landscape at Santa Cruz community college.
1975-1979 Taught film animation at Santa Cruz Community College and UCSC
1978 Wife Mary Blair dies of Brain hemorrhage on July 26,1978
1981 Awarded the Dolphin Lifetime Fellowship from the American Watercolor Society
1993 Dies in Soquel, CA
1932 Gold Medal, Los Angeles Olympics in Watercolor and Drawings category
1932 First Prize, Arizona State Fair
1933 William Church Osborn Purchase Prize, American Watercolor Society
1939 Meyer Flax Prize, California Watercolor Society
1981 The Dolphin Fellowship, American Watercolor Society
1932 Arizona State Fair (prize)
1933 American Watercolor Society (prize)
1933 California Watercolor Society (prize)
1934 Oakland Art Gallery
1936 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
The Tony Price Gallery
Isley Studio, Los Angeles, CA
Art Institute of Chicago
American Watercolor Society
Artists and Writers Association
California Water Color Society (President 1935)
Laguna Beach Art Association
New York Film Producers Association (President for two terms)
New York Watercolor Club
Painters and Sculptors of Los Angeles (1932-1937)
Society of Western Artists
- 1. Gallery, Todd Madigan. Lee Blair. Scenes of California life 1930-1950. 1991.
- 2. Anderson Susan. Lee Blair. Regionalism: The California View. Watercolors 1929-1945.
- 3. Westphal, Ruth/Dominik, Janet B. American Scene Painting: California, 1930’s and 1940’s.
- 4. McClelland, Gordon/ Last, Jay. California Watercolors 1850-1970: An Illustrated History and Biographical Dictionary.
- 5. Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who was who in American Art: 1564-1975. Vol. 3.
- 6. Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California: 1786-1940. Vol. 2.
- 7. www.californiawatercolor.com
- 8. www.calarts.com/data/artists/Lee_Blair.asp
- 9. Perine, Robert. Chouinard: An Art Vision Betrayed. 1985.
- 10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Blair.