Under the halo 

A prominent Missoula artist looks to reconcile the tragic death—and unusual life—of his artist son

In one of James Todd’s paintings from a series titled The War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice flank George W. Bush. It’s more realist than caricature, and a viewer may not know how to immediately interpret its meaning. But the subtle details, like a small religious cross floating above Bush’s head, reveal Jim’s intent. The established local artist addresses politics in his work, but it’s typically understated.

Jim started his War on Terror series a few years after 9/11. About the same time, his son, James “Seamus” Todd III, painted his own piece of a terrorist in a black hood with a halo hanging over his head. Though they hadn’t always seen eye-to-eye, the war had brought Jim and Seamus together to talk about politics. They shared similar viewpoints, for instance, likening the Bush government to an international bully who justified his warmongering through religion and saintliness. That both father and son used the same kind of symbolism—a floating cross and halo—ended up being a bit of coincidence, though perhaps telling.

Jim chaired the arts and humanities department at the University of Montana and taught at the school for 30 years until his retirement in 2000. He carved out an esteemed reputation among printmakers, exhibiting across Europe, China and the United States, and is a member of the Royal Society of Printers and Painters and the Society of Wood Engravers in England. His work is marked by precise cuts and carefully rendered detail. His subjects span from profiles of Gandhi to dark depictions of the absurdity of war.

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From his years as a young boy, Seamus, the oldest of Jim and Julia Todd’s three sons, appeared in many ways to be following in his father’s footsteps. He started out sketching comics that humorously captured the world he saw around him. As he grew older, he began painting colorful pieces that incorporated Mexican Day of the Dead styles mixed with MAD magazine-like illustrations.

Father and son exhibited similar characteristics: indomitable and willful, anti-authoritarian, enraged by people they perceived as oppressors and also irked by the hypocrisies they saw in society, all of which came out in their work. They both befriended Montana psychedelic folk-and-country artist Jay Rummel, who inspired them. Like Rummel, Seamus created detailed works that took time to absorb. On a single page he’d offer a mashup of images: undead skulls wielding automatic weapons, a weeping Elvis with devil horns, cacti and TNT, dollar signs, an hourglass, gravestones, pentagrams and often a self-portrait of a stern, bearded Seamus peeking out from the chaos.

But whereas Jim’s path led him to stability in academia and professional showings, Seamus ended up on wild backroads that helped inspire his artwork but also ruined his life over time.

Last August, Seamus died suddenly in the Jackson Hole motel room where he’d been living. To many of his friends and family, the news came as no surprise. At 46 he was still young, but life had taken a toll. Though the exact cause of death remains a mystery, an addiction to painkillers, several surgeries, a stint in federal prison and a streak of bad luck had run his body ragged.

“Despite Seamus’ talents and charisma, he seemed born under an unlucky star,” Jim says. “Lots of things happened to him that made him unhealthy, and some of those were his own fault. He was a disenchanted idealist, and behind his sometimes crude anarchist lifestyle, he was a purist who refused to compromise with a society that, for him, seemed willing to compromise everything and anything.”

In the aftermath of his son’s death, Jim discovered drawers full of drawings dating from Seamus’ childhood up to his last days. Through Seamus’ art he began to piece together the life of a volatile yet thoughtful artist who burned bright but burned fast.

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