In the mid-1960s, James Todd experienced an epiphany. He was living and working in Germany, still mourning the death of his brother from a few years earlier, and invited a friend to his studio so he could paint a portrait of him.
"I was about halfway through the portrait and I suddenly got very upset," Todd recalls. "I couldn't figure out why. I mean, I just had to stop painting. I realized then that I had unconsciously begun to paint my brother's portrait."
Todd put the portrait aside and never finished it, but the incident stuck with him as an example of just how powerful it can be for an artist to try and capture someone else in a work of art.
Now 72, Todd has focused on portraiture through woodprints and painting for over five decades. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute and University of Chicago before earning his master's from the University of Montana in 1969. Before he retired in 1999, Todd served as an influential teacher at UM for 30 years, chairing the Humanities Program before moving to the Art Department.
Todd's thoughtful when he talks about portraiture. He's clear to differentiate between drawing technically accurate replicas of a person and going beyond that to capture the essence of someone's personality. In the case of his friend transforming into his brother, Todd says that the artist's perspective can transform a portrait's entire feeling.
"I don't even know if my family members would recognize my brother in that painting," he says. "But I could see the beginning of his image taking over this other portrait. So portraiture can be kind of complicated."
In late January, the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) will display several portrait exhibits, and Todd's Portraits of Printmakers, already part of MAM's collection, serves as an introduction to the portrait theme. Todd's work not only shows 10 famous printmakers, but also pays homage to each one's style of printmaking; the background of each portrait replicates one of the individual artist's signature pieces. The result is incredibly intricate. Todd illustrates Rembrandt Von Rijn's innovative etchings, Jacques Callot's metal engravings, Pablo Picasso's thin-lined lithography and Hannah Hoch's political photomontage. The approach allowed Todd to study the techniques of the influential printmakers, to honor them as artists and to challenge himself.
"It was a kind of private study of how they work," he says, "and so I did take it upon myself to copy their techniques exactly but then I was further challenging myself by putting it into a wood engraving, which I specialize in."
Etching tools, half-finished paintings and inked wood engravings fill Todd's Missoula studio. He pulls out paintings from one of his most recent projects, The War on Terror, which he started a few years after 9/11. One painting shows a solider ready for battle in which the gear and guns illuminate the sci-fi quality of the newest technology. Another shows the smirking crew of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice, and Todd captures the character of the politicians without resorting to caricature. He says he didn't want to create images that were satirical, preaching-to-the-choir portraits, but ones that realistically hinted at the dark truth of politics and war. Only a few times does he outwardly editorialize the portraits—for instance, he paints a glowing cross above the head of Bush—but even those don't overshadow the subtlety of the portraits.
"I'm just telling you my politics. I don't know whether you agree," he says carefully. "When it became clear to me that we were setting up concentration camps and torturing people and all this kind of stuff, it got me upset enough that I started this series. It's been unpleasant for me to do because I've been very upset with the policies of the government."
Todd always has multiple projects going at once. Another portrait project called Pioneers of the Unseen features famous figures like Isaac Newton and Sigmund Freud, whose concepts of gravity and ego, respectively, aren't always easily illustrated.
"I was concerned with various people I'd studied over the years who had discovered things that you can't see," says Todd. "In the past, if people would give me ideas that I couldn't envision I tended to doubt them. And I realized later that this was just a disposition of being a visual artist...We see the effects of gravity but gravity itself isn't something that we really see."
With portraits of historical figures, Todd says he studies multiple photos or drawings of the person's face to find the features that stand out and to get a sense from several different perspectives what that person's personality might be. It's similar to what he does when he draws a portrait of someone sitting in his studio—he studies his subject almost like a psychologist would.
"It's an important question: What it is that makes a good portrait? When I used to have people sit for me," he says, "they would sit up straight and expect a duplication of their likeness immediately. Well, that really isn't a very important stage. It's as they get tired and as they start dreaming of things and wishing they didn't have to sit anymore that their personality starts coming through. That's when you start getting into the portrait. It isn't any particular technique. It's a kind of empathy."
James Todd's Portraits of Printmakers opens at the Missoula Art Museum Wednesday, Jan. 13. Free.