Jimmy Reagan always felt different. As a toddler, he was diagnosed with autism, losing his language and social skills as other children were developing theirs. At 12, he was diagnosed with a chronic cell disease that causes his immune system to attack itself. His parents took him out of school in eighth grade and home-schooled him.
But his diagnoses weren’t the only things that made Reagan different.
His art did, too.
Reagan is a painter and mixed media artist whose work has been shown around the world alongside that of Picasso and Seurat. Pieces sell for up to $8,000. Reagan’s work has been featured around the globe, from Milan’s ArtExpo in Italy to the LA Modern+ContemporaryArt Show in California. He was also the featured artist at the University of Minnesota’s 2012 WineFest when he was just 18.
“When people see his artwork, they feel connected to him,” said his mother, Peg Reagan, of Mendota Heights. His art, she said, “… allows people to feel like they’re having a conversation with him, even though it’s not with words.”
His art has helped his mother connect with him, too. She recalled when her son was crafting his painting, “FACE-sick.” Usually he signed his name to mark that he was done. When he signed his name backward and upside down, Peg was confused.
“I looked at him. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he looked at me straight on and said, ‘sick,’ ” Peg said.
Reagan had been trying to tell his parents for months that he was unwell, but she said they weren’t listening — or didn’t understand. He couldn’t articulate that his sickness was flaring up again. Peg only recognized it because of his art.
Reagan comes from a long line of creative people. His brother is an award-winning videographer, his sister is an illustrator and his aunt was a studio art major. But the family tradition dates back a century. Reagan’s great grandmother was a fashion illustrator at the Pioneer Press in the 1920s and his great uncle was George Schneeman, a famed New York City painter.
Schneeman died in 2009, the same year Reagan began creating art. Peg’s aunt always tells her that Schneeman passed the baton onto him.
“I don’t introduce Jim as, you know, ‘This is Jimmy Reagan, he’s autistic,’ ” Peg said. “I’m like ‘Jimmy’s an artist, first and foremost.’ ”
Peg said her son’s autism shapes his perspective. He’s an outsider artist, meaning he’s untrained. She said this allows his art to expand beyond the confines of expectations or what people want it to be.
When Reagan was working on his painting, Girl from Egypt, which showed at the 2012 Chicago Expo, he was coating the girl’s face in black pastel. Peg recalls telling her son, “You don’t have to use black when you’re painting this.” She was thinking back to her high school art classes.
Peg left the room as Reagan kept painting. She then heard him yelling, “Don’t use black, don’t use black.” When she stepped back into the room, Reagan was unloading a tube of black paint all over the piece.
“So I’m like, you know, I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Peg said, because Girl from Egypt turned out to be “spectacular.”
Reagan’s family has been pivotal in pioneering autism work in Minnesota, including helping to found the University of Minnesota’s autism clinic, with Jimmy as its first patient in 2000. He was also among the first in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s autism program, which gives people with special needs opportunities to do a “practice run” through the terminals.
The Reagan family has been involved in various philanthropic ventures, donating proceeds from Jimmy’s art to organizations like the U’s children’s hospital and autism clinic. When he started painting, they never anticipated they would be selling his art.
“We felt that that was the right thing to do, to share his artwork and support people that have supported him,” Peg said.
St. Paul wine shop Sunfish Cellars was the first to show Reagan’s art in 2010. Owner Bill Miller said he had Reagan’s art on the walls of a previous location for seven years until the business moved.
“What it did for him was amazing,” Miller said. “When he would talk to people, he could look them in the eye, he could shake their hand and he could talk about his painting.”
Miller said while he appreciates art, he doesn’t consider himself an expert. But he said Reagan’s art still hangs on his wall at home.
“I just love how it makes you feel,” Miller said. “It’s full of life. You know how you feel on a spring, green day when finally the leaves pop on a tree and it’s just alive? That’s how I see his paintings.”
J.D. Duggan is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.