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High flying; Bret Ford soared to a successful career as an illustrator and children's book author.

To appropriately tell a story, you must start at the beginning, and Gilbert "Bret" Ford's Jackson, Mississippi, roots are definitely where this story has to commence. Named for his father and grandfather, both professional photographers with an established business, everyone assumed that Bret would follow in their footsteps. However, Ford saw his world differently--it was more colorful, more animated, and more intense. "Cameras never captured things the way I experienced them; my world had to be drawn," shares Ford.


The son of a photographer and a kindergarten teacher, his upbringing was the perfect recipe to produce a talented children's book author and illustrator. "My dad is a professional photographer and photography, along with commercial, editorial, and media illustration are all influenced by technology and created on the computer. I call my father frequently for advice on computers and clients. My mom is a kindergarten teacher with expertise in early childhood literacy development, so as you can imagine, I constantly am calling home for advice from her as well," he says.

His path was also guided by educational influences. Ford explains, "I was exposed to many different children's book authors and illustrators who visited St. Andrew's Episcopal School through Mrs. Chunn's library program. The school placed a strong emphasis on reading and creative writing. Since I liked to draw, I was encouraged to illustrate the stories as they were read aloud to us, and also to create my own stories."

During Ford's middle school years, he attended Jackson's Public Schools where he was involved in the gifted program and APAC Art. Ford attributes his time spent as part of Odyssey of the Mind (now called Destination Imagination) and Future Problem Solving Program International competitions as the backbone for the development of his wordplay skills and his ability to create clever analogies to address problems and to interpret situations through a story or a skit. For two years his team won the state competition and represented Mississippi in world competitions. He returned to St. Andrews for high school where his talents were again fostered through his education.


Following high school graduation in 1996, Ford had big plans for his future. These plans included New York, where--after a family Thanksgiving trip--he always wanted to live, and Pratt Institute, one of the finest art schools in the country. Ford's deal with his parents that he could attend art school if he worked hard during his formative schooling came to fruition.


Pratt Institute is an elite one-hundred-year-old highly competitive institution. Young Ford moved to Brooklyn and found himself immersed in a culture that was unlike any he had ever known. "Every one of my classmates was 'the school artist' in their high school," shares Ford. "During those four years, we lived in our own creative learning community, often not anything like the real world."

Ford graduated with highest honors in communication design in 2002 and received a Certificate of Excellence for Outstanding Merit in Illustration. Despite his triumphs during school, Ford found his post-academic career more challenging. "After graduation I had to find my own voice, continue to grow creatively, and learn to exist in a world that was grossly competitive and required you to make money in a city with high rent," he says. He honed his skills in design and illustration while working for Galison/Mudpuppy and through freelance work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, dead Atlantic Monthly.

Ford is the first to tell you that he didn't set out to write a children's book. Rather, his stories were intended for everyone. He has written and illustrated many stories, but it wasn't until he gained work experience that his focus began to shift. "This work experience directed my aesthetic style to be interesting and entertaining for children. As a designer, I enjoyed creating books with pictures and stories emerged because it was easier to express myself through the combination of words and pictures," explains Ford.

The idea for his book, Flying Lessons, released in March 2010, began during his time at Galison/Mudpuppy. An illustration he prepared for work that included an airplane and a flock of birds caused Ford's wheels to turn. And when he received the invitation for his high school reunion back in his home state, the plot fell into place. "For many, growing up is sometimes awkward, but those characteristics that make us feel different are also the same qualities that make us exceptional," says Ford. "In Flying Lessons, the airplane reunites with its companions by opening its doors to old friends and rising above the icy city in the North to fly the birds to the safety in the warm haven of the South."

Writing and illustrating a book is one thing. Having a book, especially a children's book, published is another thing altogether. Ford found himself literally singing and dancing for publishing houses to even get them to look at his work. The children's picture book industry is fierce and for unpublished authors, publishing houses can be a giant black hole. Ford circumvented the process, thought outside of the box, and recorded an original song, animated the story in Flash, and posted it to his website. It was genius. "I was able to capture attention by inviting editors into the Flying Lessons imaginary world of the doves and the airplane," states Ford. "The editors at Disney/Hyperion believe that the future of books is animation, so they asked if I would consider creating Flying Lessons animation into a storybook format and submitting it for publication consideration. The rest is history!" Ford has two additional books he has illustrated, The Name of This Book is Secret and Baby's Favorite Rhymes to Sign, that will hit stores in May.


Ford now works as a full-time freelance illustrator and children's book author at The Pencil Factory warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, with other illustrators. "My illustration style is classic with a modern twist. It is influenced by the 1930s through the 1950s, and I try to draw clothes and objects that exist from these eras so that it feels familiar; as if it has been around for a while. The drawings are usually humorous and whimsical," elaborates Ford. "We all work, share our stories, critique each other's work, and strive to keep ourselves in check so that we maintain our individuality. I am fortunate to be a part of this group of illustrators because they are established, well respected, and very successful."

During his free time Ford scours bookstores and neighborhood flea markets looking for illustrations and inspiration. With his resounding success Ford could toot his own horn, but for this young artist, it isn't his Openheim Awards, recognition from The Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, 3x3, or American Illustration Chosen that he is most proud of. He humbly shares, "I've won some awards here and there, but my biggest success is just paying rent in New York!"

photography by gib ford
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Title Annotation:culture center
Author:Ward, Melanie M.
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:May 1, 2010
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