Jimmy Reagan cares about canvases, not carpet, as evidenced by the squirts and blobs of brightly hued acrylic paint that drip from his easel to the floor below.
Artists can spend years developing a style, but Reagan seemed to possess a unique view that emerged as soon as he began drawing, painting — and making a mess — at age 16.
Reagan’s signature are the short, dense brush strokes that he called “tick marks,” swirling bristled patterns dabbed in the background of most of his compositions.
His canvases, so luminous they seem lit from within, are drawing interest from galleries and collectors around the world who are intrigued by the 24-year-old artist’s shimmering landscapes, smirking farm animals and, especially, his portraits.
The faces that Reagan forms in blocks of color are often distorted or display angled profiles, but all of them are arresting in their gaze.
“The subjects look out at you in such an interesting way, and everyone who sees them gravitates to the eyes,” said Peg Schneeman Reagan, his mother and chief booster. “Eye contact has always been hard for Jim.”
Diagnosed with complex autism at age 2, Reagan speaks with difficulty, doesn’t drive and needs constant supervision. Still, he’s become a prolific artist.
From his makeshift studio in a high-ceilinged room off his family’s Mendota Heights kitchen, he works from instinct.
“We don’t know where his influences come from,” said his mother. “Jim feels free to break the rules because he doesn’t have any rules. That is a gift of his autism diagnosis.”
Reagan’s art began developing a following when his mother posted some of his images with online galleries. Since then, his work has been featured in international art expos in Berlin, Milan and Chicago. Earlier this fall, one of his paintings was featured at the web-based awards called the Streamys. Two of his canvases will be on display at the LA Art Show in January.
Represented by a West Coast gallery, some of Reagan’s originals have sold for more than $10,000, and prices of his limited-edition prints are also on the rise.
Art as conversation
Described as verbal but not conversational, Reagan, the third of five children, often relies on movie lines to communicate. He recites dialogue from Harry Potter films, spaghetti westerns and Disney classics, quoting Winnie-the-Pooh dangling over a waterfall (“Hang on, Piglet!”) when he’s nervous or uttering a line from Pinocchio (“Different from the rest”) when feeling isolated.
“I say he’s like a stroke patient,” said his mother. “He sees and understands, but can’t get the words out.”
His sister, Kelly Reagan, agreed:
“Jim’s not a talker, so experiencing his art offers a bridge for people to get to know him. It’s how he voices his point of view.”
That’s why his gallery show at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton is called “Conversations With Jimmy.” On display through the end of November, the show, which features 75 of his paintings, oil pastels, monoprints and foam sculptures, engages its viewers with Reagan’s visual language.
Cindi Beth Johnson, a curator of the show and a professor in theology and the arts at the seminary, considers Reagan’s work to be spiritual.
“Artists are in touch with the spirit world in a culture that values the rational and predictable,” she said. “Jimmy’s work is a reminder that authentic expression is not limited to words. We can rest in the beauty of it.”
Kiersten Jarvis sees more than beauty in his color-saturated paintings: She sees hope.
“I’m like a detective, trying to figure out how my children sense and see things,” said Jarvis, an Edina mother and stepmother of three teens with autism. “I look at these pictures and it reminds me that the perceptions of people with sensory differences are not like mine.”
While Reagan and his art have garnered an unusual amount of acclaim, many people on the autism spectrum develop fixed interests and areas of deep expertise.
“It’s always a mystery, but we see a tremendous relationship between people on the spectrum and the arts, which offers flexibility and an alternative opportunity for expression for people who have difficulty navigating the social environment,” said Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota. Wilson has known the Reagans since 2010 and proudly displays one of Jimmy’s framed prints in her dining room.
“Not a person who sees it isn’t totally captivated by it,” she said. “We who are committed to autism advocacy totally celebrate his brilliance.”
Because Reagan likes bow ties, his mother had a tick-marked fragment of a painting printed on fabric, then cut into a tie for him and a scarf for her.
“We wore them to an event where Jimmy was the featured artist and so many people came up to us and wanted to buy them,” said his mother.
Now Reagan’s impressionistic patterns adorn scarves, headbands, ties and pocket squares, handbags and note cards, all sold on his website (throughjimmyseyes.com) and by gift and apparel retailers and pop-up shops.
Reagan is busy with his brush or palette knife almost every day, standing at his easel while he sways to a playlist that includes classical music as well as favorites Dr. Dre and John Mellencamp.
His work is maturing, according to Jeff Anderson, who holds advanced degrees in art and works one-on-one with Reagan every week.
“His skill in breaking everything down into shapes keeps getting better,” said Anderson, who has introduced Reagan to new techniques, materials and media.
“I don’t say ‘Do this.’ That’s not what I’m there for, and it wouldn’t happen anyway,” said Anderson. “I say you can see the soul in his paintings. We don’t know where that comes from.”
Anderson is careful to clarify that he is Reagan’s mentor, not his teacher.
“He works in the moment, and watching that has helped me. I tend to critique my work and get analysis paralysis. Jim just does it and incredibly interesting things happen. That’s liberating to me as an artist.”
It’s too early in his career to know if Reagan’s work will continue to grow in status and value in the art world, but Anderson has confidence in his talent.
“People are going to know about Jim,” he predicts.
Already, Reagan’s signed work has generated thousands of dollars for nonprofits; the Reagans have donated various paintings and prints for charitable auctions and fundraisers for local causes, including the University of Minnesota pediatrics department and disability nonprofits Fraser and Arc.
Because he’s self-taught, Reagan is considered an “outsider” artist, a form that has developed respect in the art world.
Cara Zimmerman, vice president at Christie’s and a specialist in outsider art at the world’s leading art auction house, has not evaluated Reagan’s paintings. Still, she noted that his disability is only one element in establishing a critical reputation.
“In its early days, outsider art suffered from an overreliance on the narrative of the artist. While the artist’s story is interesting, it has to stand on its own. The work is what will drive the market,” Zimmerman said. “An artist like Van Gogh was an outsider, but we don’t lead with his mental illness, we lead with his sunflowers.”
Making art is what Reagan does. In fact, he only stops painting, drawing or sculpting when he doesn’t feel well. A lanky 105 pounds, Reagan has various food and environmental allergies and mast cell disease, which impairs his immune system.
Reagan’s family anticipates that Jimmy will need round-the-clock support throughout his life. His mother hopes sales of his artworks may fund some of his needs, but she admits it’s hardly a sure bet.
“With Jim, you never know. A lot of artists of renown have confidence in his potential, but he could decide tomorrow that he’s tired of it or doesn’t feel good enough to do it anymore,” she said.
For now, Reagan is happy to stand in front of his work and pose. That leads his family to conclude that he’s proud of his collection and appreciative that it’s gaining recognition.
“When I’m asked what I want for Jimmy, I say, ‘The same things that I want for my other kids,’ ” said Peg Reagan. “I want them to find something they love to do and to contribute to their community. And that’s what’s happening for him.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.