Tana and Jim Ford might not have learned about their son's special talent, had it not been for a school project.
Mack, who has Down syndrome, was in first grade two years ago in the South Fayette Township School District when he and classmates were asked to create self-portraits to be put on tiles and used in the district's new intermediate school.
“When Mack did his, they were just in awe,” Tana Ford said.
His art teacher sent home a note about his self-portrait and its amazing detail — spiky brown hair, large brown eyes and somewhat intricate ears.
Mack, now 9, spends at least an hour almost every day on his art. His drawings are featured on shirts that his mother sells in her Tana's Boutique in Sewickley.
Tana Ford said her son started with black marker drawings on white paper, and has evolved into abstract works of vibrant color on canvas. Many are what you'd expect from a young child, but about two out of every 50 are really special, she said.
“All of the sudden, you'd look at something and are like, ‘This is really cool. There's just something about it,'” she said.
The first three drawings that caught the attention of Mack's parents were ones he named “Scream,” “Mom” (a portrait of his interpretation of his mother) and his favorite, “Icky Bird.” All three are drawn in one continuous motion in black marker.
“What's so amazing about this, is he never lifts his (marker),” said Mack's father, Jim.
Seeing the potential in Mack's work as a fun opportunity to raise awareness about children with disabilities, Tana Ford got the idea to sell T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts featuring the drawings at her former store, Sweet Zoo, in Bridgeville.
“We sold out three runs,” she said.
Proceeds from sales went to Achieva, an organization that provides lifelong services for people living with disabilities and their families.
Tana's Boutique on Beaver Street now sells the shirts. Each piece for sale under the “Lil Mack Attack” clothing line boasts a tag with Mack's self-portrait and a few paragraphs about Mack and the shirts.
The tag says “The Upside of Down,” a nod to Mack's unique way of seeing the world.
On a wall in the store, two T-shirts are hung side-by-side; one features a drawing of a bug, and the other is of a person. On first glance, it might not be obvious they are the same drawing — one is upside down.
“He drew the bug, but when you turn it upside down, it's a person. And many (of his artworks) happen like that,” Tana Ford said.
His father said Mack drew a flower in a vase that, when turned upside down, looked like a motorcycle.
Tana Ford plans to dedicate a section of her store to selling Mack's work; not just T-shirts, but posters and other items. She hopes it helps to spread awareness about the importance of helping children with special needs — something she, Jim, and son James, a Sewickley Academy freshman, have been passionate about.
“It's just sort of been evolving and people are asking for more items with (Mack's) work on it,” she said. “We're trying to put together a line that will benefit children with disabilities, not just Down syndrome.”