Yesterday I started a post on Motown songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich, who died on August 26. I am a Motown fan, and so had heard of many of the recording artists and business dudes she worked with, but Greenwich was unknown to me. However, life intervened, and by the time I got home late last night, there were several other well-written posts (at Shakesville, at Bitch, etc.) about Greenwich’s contributions to Hitsville USA and American popular culture. The only thing I can add to those is a recommendation to read Susan J. Douglas’s Where the Girls Are, which includes several chapters on the roles and images of women in the music biz of the ’60s that made me think about those songs (which I already loved) differently.
So instead, I’ll tell you about another amazing artist you probably haven’t heard of. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that animation is one of my personal and academic interests. Last night the Dude and I went to a screening of Walt and El Grupo, a new documentary (due out on Sept 11 in NYC) about a 3 month “good-will” tour that Walt Disney and a number of his employees (writers, animators, musicians) took to South America–specifically Brazil, Argentina, and Chile–in the fall of 1941. The movie was made up of interviews and archival footage and animation clips inspired by their voyage, and was completely overstuffed with information.
Despite its flaws (and my troubled relationship w/ the Mouse), I enjoyed the film generally, but I was completely enchanted by repeated references to and images by a woman named Mary Blair, who worked at Disney from 1940-53, although she freelanced for them well into the ’60s. It was during the South American trip that she seemed to come into her own as an artist, and her colorful, graphic, occasionally “primitive” renderings and studies (which remind me of Matisse and Rousseau, among others) which found their way into many of Disney’s big mid-century films, including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and the now-infamous Song of the South (if anyone has access to this film, please email me!). She also worked in advertising, graphic art, children’s books, and Disney-theme-park “imagineering.”
Struck by her images, we came home last night and began searching for more information, and I realized that although they worked in different fields and were separated by at least a generation, Ellie Greenwich and Mary Blair were two of a kind.
It’s important t0 point out these female pioneers in various male-dominated fields, showing that women have almost always been a productive, creative part of our world, as well as demonstrating what has already been accomplished by our foremothers–a lot of ground has been broken, and many doors have already been opened, at least a crack. We remember (and I do mean “we,” not everyone does) suffragettes, congresswomen, activists, and performing artists, but we (the general we) are likely to forget or ignore the behind-the-scenes people who help shape and enrich our culture. And so women, even the most amazingly talented, get dropped out of the record, and our history (US history, women’s history, capital-H History) becomes more and more distorted.
Remembering the Greenwiches and the Blairs and the ____s is a crucial part of the feminist enterprise. If you have any overlooked artists (or teachers or inventors) you’d like to see featured, let us know.
I can’t find a lot of Blair’s images that I can upload due to rights issues, but you can find some of her beautiful work here, there, and over yonder (look for the video clip about half way down to see Mary).