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Disney artist Lee Blair: '32 Olympics gold medal winner


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  • Disney artist Lee Blair: '32 Olympics gold medal winner

    The fine arts once had their own categories at the Games. Lee Blair's watercolor 'Rodeo' won a gold medal in 1932, but it's been missing for decades.

    By David Colker
    Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
    August 25, 2008

    Lee Blair won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles without ever training in a gym, on a track or in a pool.

    Blair's event: watercolor painting.

    Although nearly forgotten, the Olympics held from 1912 through 1948 included arts competitions, with the winners receiving the same gold, silver and bronze medals as the athletes.

    In addition to Blair's category -- he won for a watercolor called "Rodeo" -- there were medals for oil painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature.

    Blair, a Los Angeles native who died in 1993, went on to other successes after winning his medal at age 20. He worked for Disney on several films, including "Fantasia," for which he helped design the dancing alligators. He also created some of the hallmark commercials of early television, including one starring a perky percolator for Maxwell House coffee.

    According to family members, he never gave up the dream of being recognized as a great artist. But in his later years, he seldom spoke of his gold medal.

    "I don't remember Uncle Lee ever once mentioning it," said his niece, Jeanne Chamberlain. In fact, she had never seen the medal -- until three weeks ago.

    In the wake of the death of Blair's son, Kevin, Chamberlain was going through family documents stored in a safe deposit box in Northern California. She pushed aside some papers and found a thin, cardboard box.

    "I opened it up, and there was the gold medal," said Chamberlain, 74.
    Blair's 1932 medal helped bring attention to what is now known as the California Style of watercolor painting. Over the next few years, his works were featured in exhibitions, but given the financial realities of the time, he chose a more commercial career path.

    His wife, Mary, was also an artist who went to work for Disney. Her work there, and away from the studio, eventually overshadowed his, at least in popularity.

    She's particularly known for playing a key role in the design of the It's a Small World ride that debuted at the New York World's Fair.

    Her fame caused friction. "He always felt that he kind of took a back seat to my aunt," said another niece, Maggie Richardson of Rancho Cucamonga. "It was a male-ego kind of thing." Mary died in 1978.
    "If you don't know how to draw, you don't belong in this building" - John Lasseter 2006

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