Art expands world of autistic Mendota Heights teen

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 5:24 PM

Jimmy Reagan's bold paintings and drawings have captured the public's attention and have led to an improvement in the autistic young man's own communication skills.

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Peg Reagan with her son Jimmy Reagan as he works on his latest piece of art in her Mendota Heights home. July 9, 2012.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Jimmy Reagan sings to himself as he picks up a colored pencil and deepens one of the shades of pink on his latest cubist-style drawing, a girl with penetrating green eyes.

AuThe accompanying oil painting, as yet unfinished, sits a few feet away in his studio -- the living room of his family's Mendota Heights home -- with a dozen or so of his other works, a cacophony of bold colors and characters. The eyes are the focal point of many of his paintings and drawings. They belie the fact that Reagan has had difficulty making eye contact himself or communicating for many of his 19 years. "Jim has regressive onset autism," said his mother, Peg Sheeman Reagan. "He had language, he had words, and he lost them."

The autism was diagnosed when Jimmy was 2 1/2, but she didn't want to believe there was something wrong with the third of her five children, she said. He'd been a sick kid on and off, but he was ahead of the curve in some areas. He started reading at age 2.

"One day he's up in his crib," Sheeman Reagan said. "He'd thrown all of his toys out. He wanted to get up. I said, 'Say mama and I'll take you out of the crib.' He's jumping and he's happy. This goes on, he stops jumping, and he's looking and me, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, he can't say it, he can't retrieve it.'"

Family photos show the transformation of a curly-haired, giggly toddler smiling at the camera to a boy with flat facial features who must be restrained to take the picture.

If the family tried to go out to dinner, Reagan would scream, curl himself into a ball in the corner and be almost impossible to move. The family couldn't go to church together, couldn't sit together at the kitchen table and have dinner.

Art changes his life

A lot has changed in the past year, since Reagan's paintings and drawings started making a splash on the Twin Cities art scene. He has permanent gallery space at Sunfish Cellars, a wine shop and art gallery in Lilydale. His first exhibition there drew 250 people, his mother said.

He has eight pieces on display through October in the Healing Arts event at the Owatonna Hospital. There are another eight at the Depot Coffeehouse in Hopkins. He is part of an exhibit of up-and-coming artists in Berlin. He was the featured artist at the 2012 WineFest, a fundraiser in May for the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, where his painting "Cafe at Night" sold for $7,500 and spawned orders for more. U President Eric Kaler and his wife, Karen, bought Reagan's "Girl with Leaves" to hang in their home.

Reagan was one of three artists featured in Art of Healing events at the Penny George Institute, a part of Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, on Friday and Saturday. His work will be on display there through the end of July, then will move to the oncology clinic at the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute on the hospital's campus.

Some of Reagan's paintings are reminiscent of Van Gogh, such as "Cafe at Night," modeled after the Dutch artist's painting by the same name. Others evoke Picasso's cubist period. Still others are wholly original or takeoffs on Reagan's own work. There are hundreds, Sheeman Reagan said.

His mother has turned his work into prints -- some limited editions, notecards and gift tags. The tic marks on one painting became the design for bowties Reagan and his family wore at WineFest. The tic marks from another will be silk-screened onto silk scarves. His artwork soon will adorn magnums of wine sold at Haskell's wine shops.

Difficult times

Reagan wasn't always the prolific artist he is today. Persistent illnesses, infections and food allergies made it difficult to keep him in school for two consecutive days when he was a youngster, his mother said. They pulled him out of school in January of the year he was in eighth grade. He was 14 but weighed just 62 pounds and was often mistaken for a 7 or 8 year old, Sheeman Reagan said.

Since then, a tutor has worked with him at home. Initially his illnesses made it difficult to keep him engaged, even for a short time. When he appeared to have an interest in art projects, an art teacher came in. She drew a stick figure on a flip pad. Reagan was completely uninterested, his mother said. But when the teacher returned a few weeks later and showed him art that involved letters and numbers, she got his attention. It seemed to make sense to him, Sheeman Reagan said.

It wasn't until about four years ago that Reagan started to draw and paint. Initially his work included a lot of white space. But when he saw his first Van Gogh painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and examined the thickness of the paint, the color and texture of his own work exploded.

And along with his work, his confidence, competence and communication skills began to improve.

"He did not leave the house for close to three years," his mother said. "He couldn't go to church. He couldn't go out for meals. He couldn't go out in pblic."

But that's changed. "At WineFest, he got up in front of 800 people and read his writeup," she said. "He can show up now at places at 5 o'clock and stay until midnight and be quiet and engaged and shake hands. The art has really changed the way people look at him, the way he feels about himself."

Sheeman Reagan said she hopes her son's world and work continues to expand.

"I don't want him to be a flash in the pan," she said. "I have to figure out how to keep challenging him, give him new experiences and see what he does with it.

"Our hopes for him are the same as for the other kids: that they're happy, that they contribute to their communities and they do something that's rewarding."

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284

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