Many artists begin a portrait with the eyes. Jimmy Reagan, this year’s WineFest artist, is no different.
The eyes in his paintings are arresting. They meet the viewer forthrightly and give a glimpse into each subject’s joys or struggles. But it’s not just their expressiveness that makes them significant. “When you’re somebody with autism, eye contact is really difficult,” explains Jimmy’s mother, Peg Schneeman Reagan.
Jimmy’s intensely vibrant paintings, oil pastels, and colored-pencil drawings — striking portraits of people and animals, colorful landscapes, and café scenes — allow viewers to see the world as he does: “full of color and beauty,” Reagan says.
Discovering a passion
Diagnosed with regressive-onset autism 16 years ago, 18-year-old Jimmy Reagan is coming into his own through art. It’s a gift that runs in the family; a great-grandmother was an artist at one of St. Paul’s daily newspapers in the 1920s, and a great uncle, George Schneeman, was a celebrated Modernist painter in New York.
But it wasn’t until four years ago that Jimmy, his parents, and four siblings discovered his aptitude and his passion for art. His tutor and a friend, a visual artist and teacher, recognized and helped to cultivate Jimmy’s artistic talent.
One of his paintings was selected as the signature artwork for WineFest No. 17 — A Toast to Children’s Health, a benefit for children’s health research, education, and care at the University of Minnesota, and will be a high-profile item in the event’s live auction.
The family’s open, light-filled home in Mendota Heights is Jimmy’s studio; he paints next to a window overlooking the garden. Influenced by both Cubism and Impressionism — particularly by the post-Impressionist work of Vincent van Gogh — he’s at work daily, rendering riveting images in bold, complementary hues.
Connecting through art
Too often, Peg Reagan says, the talents of people with autism go unrealized. While Jimmy’s IQ is normal, autism seriously compromises his speech and social skills. “Language is really frustrating for Jim. He realized [his art] is something people like, and he didn’t have to use his words.”
Where language has failed him, drawing and painting are allowing Jimmy to communicate with a receptive and growing audience of art lovers, many of whom come to his work without knowing that he’s autistic.
“Physically, he’s better than he’s been in years,” says his mom, who describes Jimmy’s work as cathartic for his family as well. That there’s an eager audience for it in the Twin Cities and that it’s raising money for children’s health? All the better, says Reagan, who is a longtime supporter of the University’s work in pediatrics.
As his captivating vision of the world and the work in which he shares it earn wider acclaim, Jimmy Reagan is helping to transform the way people with autism are perceived. His sister Kelly puts it simply: “Other people are finally seeing Jimmy the way we do.”
By Susan Maas