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'Something positive': Central Illinois artist showcases celebrity portraits at Bloomington Public Library

Reagan works in black and white realism, with his uncanny celebrity depictions on view at Bloomington Library through Feb. 18
Emily Bollinger
Artist Jake Reagan works in black and white realism, with his uncanny celebrity depictions on view at Bloomington Public Library through Feb. 18

Bloomington Public Library’s latest art exhibit, “Face Reality,” features black and white realism by central Illinois artist Jake Reagan. On view through Feb.18, “Face Reality” is one of Reagan’s first exhibitions since being released from prison nearly a year ago.

Growing up in the rural outskirts of Manito, Reagan started drawing images he found in comic books as a child. He picked up the basics in middle and high school art classes — and first learned how to shade and other nuances of drawing faces while awaiting trial for a drug-related crime in the Tazewell County Jail.

“That’s one of the things that they actually promote,” Reagan said. “They don’t necessarily have good drawing materials, but they have paper available and colored pencils. I drew a picture of my son and it turned out — not bad. I just figured it out. I was about four drawings in and people wanted me to draw pictures for them.”

Reagan would ultimately spend seven years in prison where he gained access to better art supplies by participating in programs each time he was transferred.

“You should only have to do that once and then if you go to another prison, you’re good, you can order," he said. "But they made me do it at three different prisons.”

Apart from these classes, Reagan has no formal art training. He learned tricks of the trade from others and quickly progressed his skill set, creating charcoal portraits using source material from celebrity magazines. Reagan kept a folder of celebrities he admired and once he’d collected three or four images, he was ready to draw.

“But sometimes it would dwindle down and I didn’t have anything,” Reagan said, “so then I would start looking for a picture that might have something in it that I thought would be fun to draw. There’s a picture of Scarlett Johansson. I like Scarlett Johansson, but I didn’t draw that picture because I like her as an actress. I drew it because of the leather hood that she had on. I thought, man, that’s going to be fun to draw—and it really was.”

When he was released in March 2021, Reagan took his portfolio of about 100 portraits with him.

“Face Reality” is a small collection of that catalog, including “Number One,” of Kurt Cobain, the first drawing Reagan kept beginning in 2016. Other works displayed in the circulation area of the library depict the Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince, Halsey and Taylor Swift, among others.

Since leaving prison, Reagan said he's found it difficult to draw. He works for a family-owned construction company and spends much of his free time painting, building mats and frames for his work and learning the business of being a working artist.

“Inside, it was an escape,” he said. “It was something that took me away from my surroundings. I could put my headphones in, play my music that I wanted to hear and block everything out. Out here, it’s almost the opposite. When I sit down to draw, there’s so much around me that I’ve been missing out on for years that I want to be able to be involved in. When I sit down and draw, I almost feel like I’m locked up.”

Nonetheless, Reagan continues to hustle, applying to art festivals and galleries, with two big goals in sight: He wants to launch a nonprofit that auctions art to raise money for children with incarcerated parents; and he plans to someday open a tattoo shop and art studio.

“I do want to use (art) to take care of my kids and support my family, and to be comfortable. On the other hand, if I can’t make it work, I’m going to continue to do it because it’s something positive. If nobody ever buys another picture from me, ever, at least I know that I didn’t waste seven years of my life. If you wanted to talk to me, you knew where to find me. I was in the study room drawing. If that’s all that it brings, I’m okay with that.”

“Face Reality” is on display through Feb. 18 at the BPL, 205 E. Olive St. Reagan is currently also showing works at The Cove Center in Havana, Illinois. For more on him and his collection, visit jakereaganart.net.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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