A little over a year ago, city graphic designer Jamie Marshall's longtime college friends drove into town to meet with her about a project. In doing so, they were adding a piece to a puzzle that still mystifies the world of those who experience its larger, unseen picture everyday.
That project was a film: "The United States of Autism," an artistic endeavor that searches for answers about the world of her friends' real child, Tommy.
Tommy Everts lives his life on the autism spectrum. His parents, director Rich Everts and executive producer Sugey Cruz-Everts, have created "The United States of Autism" as a way of sharing the lives of those whose loved ones have a unique way of looking at the world. With autism affecting between one and 1.5 million Americans, it's no small community.
When Everts and Cruz-Everts asked their fellow Franklin and Marshall College alum if she would be willing to contribute the graphics for the film, Marshall didn't hesitate.
"I knew it was going to be something great," Marshall said. "Not only because the project sounded immensely intriguing, but because 'The U.S. of Autism' is a film that needed to be made. And now that it's finished, I am so proud and humbled to have been a part of it."
"(Everts) also promised me a cookie," she added. "That sealed the deal."
That candor is typical of Marshall when talking about the film; she typically balances perspective on her contributions to it with a deadpan sense of humor. But concurrent with her humor is an obvious dedication to both the film and the family behind it.
"At the risk of sounding very 'Pollyanna,' there really weren't any challenges on my end," Marshall said. "It really was a pleasure to work on the film. I mean, I didn't have to travel back and forth across the country with bulky camera equipment and a deadline, or spend hours on end editing footage. I had the easy job."
The toughest part of "The United States of Autism" project started when Everts embarked on an 11,000 mile cross-country trip in search of answers about his and Cruz-Everts' son Tommy, and Tommy's world. Tommy stopped speaking at the age of 2. He's now a teenager. It's for him - in light of the years that followed his entrance into silence - that Everts and Cruz-Everts created The Tommy Foundation. The organization works to support families affected by autism in the northeastern U.S. Since its inception in 2005, The Tommy Foundation has expanded its connections nationwide, and, according to its website, is planning to open its first umbrella organizations in New York and Florida.
After the pitch for "The United States of Autism" won a $50,000 grant through Pepsi's Refresh Everything Campaign in March 2010, The Tommy Foundation began production on the film. According to its website, the organization is now raising funds for an expected 2012 release, and is aiming to submit the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The request for Marshall's graphic design skills in post-production didn't come out of nowhere. Marshall has created most of the graphics on The Tommy Foundation's website. She's also behind the logos, web graphics, media kits and fliers for both the organization and, now, the film.
Also known as "Boots," a college nickname that stuck, Marshall is a freelance graphic designer and the creator of Bootsdraws.com, her T-shirt, print and design company. She's also the artistic director for Goodjoe.com, a T-shirt company that unites artists with nonprofits for the betterment of both. Each week, Goodjoe.com donates a portion of its sales to a different nonprofit organization, and also holds contests that benefit specific organizations.
"The United States of Autism" was an opportunity for Marshall to work on a film that matters deeply to people who likewise matter to her.
One in 110 children in the United States has autism, a developmental disability that affects one's communicative abilities, capacity for play, and the degree to which he or she is socially interactive. And one of those children is Tommy.
"Autism doesn't only affect children, but helping families that are dealing with a child, or children, with autism has been one of Rich and Sugey's main priorities, as well as helping their own child, Tommy," Marshall said. "Also, although the film puts out a lot of good information, it's more about a man searching for answers about autism and how it affects the lives of families like his own, and finding out that perhaps all we need to do is love each other, enjoy life and take each day as it comes. Like our children do."
The film also gave Marshall the opportunity to spend time with Tommy for the first time since he was 3.
"He's just become a teenager, now, and it was amazing to see him," she said. "He's grown so much, and although he doesn't speak, the interest he takes in the tiniest of things, in the details that we usually don't notice, is utterly awesome to watch."
"Oh, and he also gave me some kisses," she said. "He has great taste in women."
After that meeting, and over the course of the next year, Marshall began creating her contributions for the film. With children and teenagers occupying all aspects of the autism spectrum, and with autism being typically diagnosed before the age of 3, it's not surprising that children also influenced the film's graphics. Like her graphics for the Tommy Foundation, the art Marshall designed for the film is playful, friendly and optimistic. It presents a cartoon-like - but not cartoonish - visual with soft edges and a sense of spontaneity.
"Rich said he wanted playful graphics for the film," Marshall said. "The graphics I've done for Rich and Sugey's nonprofit, The Tommy Foundation, have always been child-like, so playful graphics for the film fit right in."
According to Marshall, her main priority was meeting the film's design needs, be it a map, a car, a child, or an interpretation of the iconic puzzle piece that represents the bio-neurological condition that largely remains a mystery to both the scientists who research it and the families that live with it every day.
"It's not like I'm not creative - I'm an artist after all - but this was Rich's baby," Marshall said. "I just did as I was told, and hopefully I did it well. But I hope everyone who sees the film loves it as much as I do. I hope it inspires them. I hope it changes at least one life for the better.
"Does that sound corny?" she asked. "I don't care. I'm sticking with it."
As for her own goals and her personal career, "Let's see," Marshall said. "Well, I suppose people could watch the film, love the graphics and decide to throw money at me. I'd like that. I'd probably even do a little dance while they were throwing the money or something.
"That said, I'm not going to pretend that I was a huge creative force behind this film," she emphasized. "All of the creative ideas came from the director. It was his vision, and I'm honored to have been able to help bring it to life.
"Seriously, you should be bursting at the seams with excitement over watching this thing," she said. "It's that good."