Local artist partners with Charleston Autism Academy 

Art for Autism

Jeff Fitzharris will debut his t-shirt series on Thursday, including This Wizard of Oz-inspired one

Jonathan Boncek

Jeff Fitzharris will debut his t-shirt series on Thursday, including This Wizard of Oz-inspired one

When the idea for a T-shirt line first came to him, Jeff Fitzharris says, "It hit my head like a bag of hammers." The artist, who lives and works in Charleston, is a painter and muralist whose work is collected by the likes of Jack White, Deepak Chopra, Sylvester Stallone, and Sydney Poitier.

In July of 2012, in between art commissions, he'd come up with a concept for a series of T-shirts all bearing the same catchphrase, "There's No Place Like Charleston" (TNPLC). He started dreaming up designs, like the Wizard of Oz-themed one that he'll debut at the brand's launch party on Saturday: a psychedelic Charleston streetscape with a stylized, starry-eyed Dorothy taking center stage. But Fitzharris quickly realized he wasn't going to be satisfied creating a company that would only lead to profits for himself.

"Initially, it was just a T-shirt idea I was going to do," he says. But to justify all the hours that he knew he would be dedicating to the project, he wanted it to be about something bigger than making money. It didn't take long for Fitzharris, who has an autistic relative, to decide what the reason would be. Not only would proceeds from the sale of shirts benefit those with autism, Fitzharris decided, he would employ individuals with autism in the production process as well.

Fast-forward a little over two years, and Fitzharris, Laura Misenhelter, and Victoria Boynton are sitting at a table on the King Dusko patio, discussing the launch of the T-shirt line and the Nov. 13 benefit party that will promote both the brand and the mission of TNPLC. They're also discussing the vision that's brought them together. Boynton, a freelance publicist who frequently works with King Dusko on events, has jumped on board to help promote the mission well beyond the first fundraiser at the venue.

Misenhelter, who has a son with autism and is the president and co-founder of the Charleston Autism Academy, has signed on to run the business end of the enterprise. A pharmacist by trade, she developed the academy in order to deliver Applied Behavior Analysis services, or behavioral therapy, to children with autism in a one-on-one setting.

Misenhelter was impressed from the outset by Fitzharris' enthusiasm and sense of mission — specifically, his desire to not only donate money, but to use the brand to provide training, employment, and a sense of purpose for those with autism. "Everyone, when they're occupied, is happier," she says. "Whether you're autistic or not."

It didn't take long for Misenhelter and Fitzharris to figure out how the academy's students could work with TNPLC. "It might be folding the shirts, packaging them, shipping them out," she says. And she feels optimistic about the brand's chances for success. "Jeff is an accomplished artist," she says. "It's very exciting to be associated with somebody of his caliber."

Once the T-shirt line was ready to launch, Fitzharris settled on King Dusko for the brand's introduction to the public. "It's a very authentic place, where you can speak from your heart," he says. "It just felt like the right place."

The event will feature music by John-Keith Culbreth and Will Blackburn, both of Stop Light Observations. T-shirts will be on sale for $20 each, and the group will also be accepting donations to the Charleston Autism Academy. But Fitzharris, Misenhelter, and Boynton encourage people to attend whether or not they can provide financial support. "The music and laughing are free," Boynton says.

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