The predictably unpredictable artist


Hannah Burlingame/Review • Jimmy Reagan is an artist from Mendota Heights whose work is currently on display at First Presbyterian Church in South St. Paul. He was diagnosed as a toddler with complex autism, and his artwork gives him a way to show people how he sees the world.

Hannah Burlingame/Review • Jimmy’s work has moved beyond paintings. Aspects of his paintings, like the “tick marks” or the buttons on the work seen here called “Man with Sad Face,” get used as prints on different accessories like scarves and bowties.

Local painter doesn’t let differences hold him back.

 

It all started as a way to help him learn school subjects. Through a series of accidents, that turned into a local Mendota Heights artist finding his calling. Now Jimmy Reagan, who will turn 25 in July, has a style all his own and is getting recognition for it far and wide.

Peg Reagan, Jimmy’s mother, says he was a normal developing kid. Then, as a toddler, “he got sick,” Peg says. “It was like he became profoundly and chronically sick.”

Peg says Jimmy has progressive onset autism. She says when she realized he couldn’t say her name anymore the family knew something was wrong. By the time he was 2 and a half, Peg says they realized he had lost his language skills, though the pediatricians kept telling them to not worry about it. 

Later, Jimmy was diagnosed with mast cell disease, which Peg says means he is basically allergic to food and the environment.

“They think something triggered his immune system to go haywire,” she says.

 

Finding that spark

It was in December of 2008 that Jimmy started to get so sick that he had to be taken out of school. 

“He was not well. He basically was a bag of bones and was unable to complete a single task,” Peg says.

His school district hired a tutor to come to the Reagan’s home in January of 2009. She asked how they were going to approach teaching Jimmy. Peg says she happened to mention that if she teaches Jimmy by showing him how to do something, he’s always engaged and responsive. If they tried to tell him, it was harder for him.

“[The tutor] said, ‘why don’t we try teaching him geography with artwork,” Peg says.

The first project was taking a white t-shirt and drawing the state of Minnesota on it and labeling where certain things, like grandma’s house, were.

The tutor introduced Jimmy to an artist friend who was interested in kids on the autism spectrum

The friend showed up with notepads and a pencil one day and asked Jimmy to draw her a doodle. Jimmy gave the pencil and notepad back and left the room.

Peg says she thought the art experiment was over, but a couple months later, Peg received a call from the artist asking to come over again. When she returned she had all kinds of artwork with numbers, letters and bright colors.

They had Jimmy start by drawing on a National Geographic because of the interesting pictures, and something clicked.

Peg says there are hundreds of years of artists in her family, including her uncle, who was a well-known artist in New York who passed away in January 2009.

“My aunt says that George passed the torch to Jim,” she says. 

Peg says Jimmy started drawing some interesting things and she framed some of his work. As his health improved, she says she thought she would make some notecards for his doctors. 

She put together an event for some of his doctors at their home, and it was set up like an art gallery with Jimmy’s work on display. 

“These doctors walk in and were like ‘Oh my gosh, who’s the artist?’ and I’m like ‘It’s Jim,’” Peg says, adding it was met with disbelief. 

Peg says people told them they needed to have an art show, and it happened in April 2010. 250 people showed up. All the pieces sold.

Peg says showing his work has changed her son — his posture changed. When at events, he works the room and shakes hands with people.

 

A specific style

When Jimmy started off, he was using pencils then moved to oil pastels. 

“From there I knew we couldn’t use oil paints because they take too long to dry,” Peg says, adding acrylic paints work best.

Jimmy’s art has a signature style that includes his “tick marks,” which are short, dense brush strokes. His tick marks are used in a clothing line from TJE Fashion that includes purses, bowties and scarves.

Peg says Jimmy primarily paints and now also does monoprints, where he carves into foam, which is then used as a stamp. He’s also delved into foam sculptures.

Peg says his color choices are always a surprise and his connection to color is something she has learned from.

“I mean, I changed the way I decorated my house now, based on colors he puts together,” she says.

At least once a week, Jimmy goes to a museum, and they try to expose him to as many things as possible. His favorite subjects include portraits, animals and landscapes.

Since Jimmy is mostly non-communicative, he lets his artwork do his talking. 

Peg says some of his most interesting works are his self-portraits. Eye contact is a really important part of a lot of the portraiture he does, though many people who are on the autism spectrum often avoid direct eye contact.

“Jimmy’s portraiture has oftentimes a direct gaze at the viewer. If you look at his self-portraits, he almost always has glasses on or his eyes are closed. You do not see his eyes,” Peg says.

 

Showing his work

Rochelle LeTourneau, a volunteer who primarily works with art exhibits at First Presbyterian Church, says the United Theological Seminary exhibited some of Jimmy’s artwork.

When she found out he was from Mendota Heights, she called Peg to talk about showing his artwork at the church.

LeTourneau says the textures and colors in Jimmy’s work stand out and there is something compelling about the eye contact in his paintings. First Presbyterian has been showing some of his work since early April.

The response from the congregation has been overwhelmingly positive. LeTourneau says the colors draw people in even if the painting isn’t something they would buy to put in their home.

First Presbyterian Pastor Tom Watson says when he saw Jimmy’s work he immediately loved it. He added he would love it “regardless of Jimmy’s challenges.”

Watson says those coming to look at the artwork get to see someone else’s expression of life and how they view the world.

“Try to see what it means to Jimmy and let that have an affect on you. Let that teach you something,” Watson says.

Peg says the response to Jimmy’s work is exciting and is validation for her family, who knew all along he was smart and talented.

While Peg says Jimmy feels gratitude for people enjoying his work, he doesn’t really care if people don’t like it.

Peg says for people with family members on the autism spectrum, Jimmy’s success offers them a sense of hope and purpose.

When starting off on this journey, Peg says they could have marketed Jimmy in the autism community or market him as he is, which is an artist. Peg says Jimmy is an artist first, who is also a person living with complex autism and mast cell disease.

“It becomes part of your story. A good story is never all one way,” she says. “Jim has had a challenging story in 24 years, but we hope that it’s one where the take away is [the importance of ] finding something that brings you joy and brings joy to other people.”

Peg says Jimmy’s artwork does both.

“Whether he tries to or not, he changes the lives of people around him.”

 

– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com


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