You may not know the name of artist Mary Blair, but you know her work: the design elements of “Cinderella” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan,” which brought Disney animation into the modern era. She was also behind the vigor of Disney's World War II-era “Saludos Amigos,” “The Three Caballeros” and the charming illustrations for Golden Books, treasured by adults and children alike.

And as a culmination of her travels, her zest for life, her innovative, international style, there's the musical journey that Walt Disney himself recruited her to design. Perhaps you've heard the theme song: “It's A Small World.”

“She was very proud of it — thrilled, because it would make so many children happy,” recalls Blair's niece, Jeanne Chamberlain who, with her sister Maggie Richardson, is carrying on Blair's legacy. Richardson notes that, though the song by the Sherman brothers “can make people crazy,” the project was always a part of Blair's life.

And there's so much more, from California landscapes that tell dramatic stories in watercolor to tropical-looking Maxwell House coffee ads to window designs for Bonwit Teller in New York. Blair was even the “color designer” for the eye-popping musical film “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

It's all ready to be discovered — much of it for the first time by the public — in “Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair” at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco's Presidio. (Beware, your GPS device may take you to Montgomery Street in the financial district, instead.) The exhibit, opening today and running through Sept. 7, includes more than 200 drawings, paintings, designs and photographs.

The exhibit was originally proposed by the late Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's daughter, and represents something of a homecoming for Blair's artwork. Born in McAlester, Okla., in 1911, Blair moved with her family in the early 1920s to Morgan Hill, south of San Jose. She studied art at San Jose State College from 1929 to 1931, then won a scholarship to the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.

The scholarship was noted in a story, accompanied by a smiling photo, in what was then the San Jose Mercury Herald. According to the headline, the still-teenage artist was “On the Road to Fame.”

A wide-ranging career took her — at first reluctantly — to the Disney studio, then to Washington during her husband Lee Blair's military service and to a home and art studio on New York's Long Island. Mary Blair returned to the Bay Area late in her life. She died in Soquel in 1978.

John Canemaker, the exhibit curator who is also director of the animation program at New York University, says it's regrettable that Blair isn't “experiencing any of the fame” that has finally developed around her.

The first large-scale exhibit of her work, “The Colors of Mary Blair,” was a hit at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009. Canemaker, who wrote the catalog for the Disney exhibit, previously published “The Art and Flair of Mary Blair.” Blair's concept paintings for Disney movies — the inspiration for the animators and directors — are now commanding attention at art auctions.

“Over the past, say, 30 years there's been a gradual increase in our knowledge of the people behind the scenes, particularly in animation,” Canemaker says. He featured Blair in another book, “Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists.”

As revealed in the Disney Museum's catalog illustrations (the exhibit was not yet ready to preview) Blair's “inspirational” paintings are far more than storyboard sketches to guide animators. Each image tells its own story with bold color, vivid action, emotional depth and up-to-date technique.

Among the highlights: Alice looking at the White Rabbit's house, which might have been built by Picasso, for “Alice in Wonderland”; Tiger Lily and Peter dancing in a kind of expressionistic fantasy for “Peter Pan”; and Captain Hook's ship in a swirling sky that's part dream, part nightmare, also for “Peter Pan.” The exhibit includes a brilliant yellow floating staircase for “Cinderella” that might have been designed by Salvador Dalí. It was never used in the finished film.

The traditional Disney studio animators had trouble converting Blair's ideas into familiar 3-dimensional shapes. Yet her designs — done both inside and outside the studio — are the ones that now look bold and timeless.

“Although much of her art veers away from naturalism toward abstraction,” Canemaker says, “she was one of Walt Disney's favorite artists. He personally responded to her use of color, naïve graphics and the storytelling aspect in her pictures, especially the underlying emotions palpable in much of her art.”

“Walt would say, 'I don't know how Mary can get those colors to work together,' ” recalls Blair's niece, Maggie Richardson. “Then he'd walk out, and there'd be a sunset, and there'd be those colors.”

Chamberlain, Richardson's sister, says both women are pleased that this comprehensive exhibit is presented by the Walt Disney Family Museum.

“Mary's relationship was with Walt Disney, not the Disney studio,” she says. “She knew that, when he was gone, she would not get any more work. And after he died, she didn't.”

Beyond the studio's animated films, the wealth of material in “Magic, Color, Flair” suggests that Blair was bursting with ideas throughout her life.

There are pencil sketches she made during a Disney-organized “good neighbor” trip to South America in 1941, where she was captivated by the culture. Her California watercolors, from the 1930s, are storytelling vignettes. There are sophisticated, modernistic scarves she designed for high-end retailers in the 1950s.

Nothing is more delightful than her illustrations for Golden Books in the 1950s and '60s, among them “The Up and Down Book” and “I Can Fly.” They're brimming with color and personality, and it seems as if the artist is taking flight herself. (Recently published is a wide-ranging tribute, “A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books.”)

“As I look around now,” says Chamberlain, “I realize that her style was ahead of its time, with her colors, with everything so vivid.”

When Blair was living in Soquel late in life, she took a portfolio of her art to an advertising agency in San Francisco in search of some new assignments. “She was told that her work was passé,” Chamberlain says. “I wish I could find out who said that.”

'Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair'

When: Through Sept. 7; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, except Tuesday

Where: Walt Disney Family Museum,

The Presidio, 104 Montgomery St., San Francisco

Admission: $12-$25; 415-345-6800, www.waltdisney.org

Information: www.magicofmaryblair.com