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Autistic artist Jimmy Reagan has made a career out of expressing himself through painting

Jimmy Reagan, 'Two Guys'

Jimmy Reagan, 'Two Guys' Image courtesy the artist

Jimmy Reagan communicates through art.

The 25-year-old Mendota Heights-based artist was diagnosed with regressive onset autism at age 2 ½. He lost his language skills, and “slipped into a world by himself,” his mother Peg says. His body suffered, too; by 14 years old, due to chronic health issues, he only weighed 62 pounds despite eating 5,000 calories a day. (It would be years until he was finally diagnosed of mast cell disease, an autoimmune condition triggered by food and environment which wreaks havoc on multiple systems in the body.)

“We had to pull him out of school because he was so sick,” Peg says.

A teacher came to Jimmy’s home five days a week, but he had trouble completing tasks and verbal interaction was a constant frustration for him. Then, one day, the teacher brought over a white T-shirt. She drew the outline of Minnesota on it and asked and Jimmy to identify some of his favorite places in the state.

“He seemed to kind of engage,” Peg recalls. “The visual art thing was starting to work.”

Jimmy’s teacher suggested that Krista Walsh, a local artist and art professor interested in kids on the spectrum, come over and work with Jimmy. Walsh brought artwork and art books; one day, she asked Jimmy to draw from a National Geographic magazine. He did, and quickly became hooked. After creating with crayons and colored pencils, he moved to oil pastels.

Jimmy Regan

Jimmy Regan Image courtesy the artist

In 2000, Peg and her husband, Brian, co-founded the Autism Clinic at the University of Minnesota. Jimmy was the first patient. In 2009, Peg held an event at her home and displayed Jimmy’s artwork throughout. She also made thank you cards for the doctors and donors featuring Jimmy’s art. A doctor noticed the artwork, and asked which artist they were highlighting. “It’s Jimmy,” Peg said.

The doctor didn’t believe Peg at first, then wanted to know where to buy the note cards. They weren’t for sale…yet.

A combination of “accidents,” good fortune, and connections built Jimmy’s artistic career. After selling notecards at coffee shops and placing his art online, WineFest (which Peg chaired in 2007) came calling. In 2012, Jimmy was the featured artist for that event; his Café at Night painting sold for $7,500, and Wine Fest commissioned him to do another work for that same price. The $15,000 in sales benefitted Children’s Health at the U of M.

After that, a gallery in Berlin called and asked Jimmy to apply to be in a show there; he did, and got in. Soon his trademark brushstrokes, called “tick marks,” appeared on pocket squares and ties; clothing retailer Martin Patrick 3 picked them up.

Viewers often describe Jimmy’s work as refreshing. “He’s an outsider artist. He’s untrained,” Peg says. “There is an innocence and sophistication [in his work] at the same time.”

Unexpectedly, an upside to autism is that it inoculates Jimmy from criticism. “He doesn’t really care what people think,” Peg explains. “He cares that they like it, but if you don’t like what he does, it doesn’t bother him.”

Painting makes Jimmy feel happy and proud, his mother says. He happily shakes hands with people at exhibitions and thanks them for supporting his art.

Jimmy’s style is constantly changing. He has progressed from pastels to free-form paintings on canvas and from paintbrushes to palette knives. Bold colors, in the style of Picasso and Calder, now dominate his work. Van Gogh and Miro have remained inspirations throughout.
“He’s come a long way from being a kid that would only lay on the couch to somebody who is able to go places, complete tasks, and create this really interesting artwork,” Peg says. “Our goal is to keep introducing new things to him and see what he does with it.”

Reagan, along with fellow artists Katharine Fitzgerald, Ingrid Hansen, Jon Leverentz, and Geoffrey Mikol, will be featured in “Art for All: The Stephanie Evelo Fund for Art Inclusion” at the Minneapolis Club opening on Wednesday.

Though disabilities may be a commonality among the artists, Peg insists that for Jimmy, autism is not his identity.

“Jim is an artist, first and foremost,” she says. “He may have a disability; that’s part of who he is, but that isn’t who he is.”

IF YOU GO:

“Art for All”
The Minneapolis Club
5 to 7 p.m., Wednesday, August 29
Admission is free, but RSVPs are requested
online or by calling 612-810-7766.