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.
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.
In the Todd family, art, rebellion and anger run deep. Jim says his father—a professional boxer and businessman—had a strong dislike for authority that he also inherited.
Jim started drawing when he was just 2 years old, listening to the radio and creating images that went along with what he heard. He and his three siblings rebelled against their business-minded parents by all becoming artists, each of them latching onto a different art form: visual arts, acting, poetry and music.
Though he didn’t practice an art, James Todd Sr. had a dramatic disposition, often telling impressive stories to Jim and his siblings. After he died, Jim found his autobiography, and it gave new insights into his father’s life. “It never was published but it was interesting to read,” Jim says. “It was clear that he had the ability to write. Despite the fact that they were business people, my parents were very supportive of all of us. Our family was lucky in that regard.”
The catch was James Todd Sr. was an alcoholic whose anger permeated the home and led to financial instability for the family. For Jim, art served as an outlet, but the physical abuse he saw with his parents made him vow to be a different type of parent later in life.
“So I got it into my head as the oldest son that there would be two ways I could be successful with a family,” he says. “And that was to keep a job and not beat up my wife.” He pauses. “What I didn’t know—what a lot of children of alcoholics don’t realize—is that you pick up a lot of the same fears and traits of the alcoholic parent. And so I was obsessive compulsive about everything being right. And I also inherited my dad’s anger. I wasn’t physically abusive so I didn’t see myself as abusive. But I expressed my anger verbally … so all the boys grew up with that tension.”
James “Seamus” Todd III inherited his father’s name as the first child. He spent the first year of his life in Germany, where Jim and Julia lived at the time. One friend there, a Catholic priest and psychologist, described Seamus to his parents as freigebig, meaning “generous,” when the 1-year-old offered him a trinket the first time they met.
Like his father, Seamus started making art at the age of 2. He would sit in front of the television and draw images inspired by what he saw. And he often spent time with his grandfather, James Sr., who encouraged him to cultivate his talent and understanding of the world. There were no expectations that Seamus should become an artist, Jim says.
“He just lived in the atmosphere of the art and was always working. Like my parents, I knew it was important to simply support what he was doing,” he says. “If he didn’t want to be an artist, that was fine. If he did, we would support him.”
As Seamus got older, he began to develop a critical eye to the world. He and Jim spent time together making fun of pop culture and television commercials. “He had good insight into human character, which he expressed largely through satirical humor,” Jim says.
By the time Seamus reached high school, he had begun to toughen up. He started lifting weights and—Jim would find out later—taking steroids and dabbling in other drugs. A sensitive boy, Seamus used drawing as an outlet, but he also seemed, at least to his parents, to be building a strong exterior against other people.
“My father was a man who was very just, and so we were brought up hating bullies and he was quite violent about them,” Jim says. “I shared that and Seamus shared it, too. What was unfortunate about it—when I’m old enough to realize it—is it can turn you into a kind of bully. And that tended to creep into this issue of being a sensitive artist as well. You saw yourself as fighting off the demons of the world but then becoming one yourself.”
Andrew and Alex Smith grew up in Potomac and ended up at Hellgate High School the same year as Seamus. They recall meeting him in chess club and honors English class and found themselves smitten with his bigger-than-life persona, particularly his confident, loud voice and a tremendous giggle that would start low and explode into an almost infectious burst.
“We were calm, shy kids and we needed an extrovert like [Seamus] to get us out of our shells a little bit,” Andrew says. “It was not a crack, but a fissure. We were stimulated by his exuberance and the lack of caring what other people would make of it.”
Missoula used to have a main drag populated by high school kids that has, over time, lost favor. Back then, on Friday and Saturday nights, a stretch of Higgins Avenue would be a pageant of squealing tires, rolled-down windows and machismo. Seamus and his crew hated the self-serious attitude of kids being cool in their cars. They’d climb to the rooftops of downtown buildings overlooking the drag and yell down at them. Other late nights, they wandered the streets, exploring under bridges. The university, where Jim and the Smith brothers’ parents all worked as professors, became a cloak-and-dagger landscape when Seamus showed them how to sneak into the underground tunnels below the campus.
“Trying to make Missoula interesting to a 16-year-old was Seamus’ major preoccupation,” Andrew says. “He was restless and a bit bored in this town.”
The Smiths recall that Seamus was always drawing whatever scenarios unfolded around him, as if documenting his life in a comic book.
“He had talent to burn,” Alex says. “There was a darkness. There was a lot of political stuff—a lot about Reagan. He could be pretty caustic, and he called things as he saw them. He thought a lot was screwed up with the world. And that was in his work.”
His work could be playful, too. Writer and filmmaker Annick Smith, the twins’ mother, would often have parties at the Smith’s Potomac ranch. After one party, a bottle of bourbon went missing and Andrew remembers he and Alex catching hell from their mother the next morning. Seamus was there, too, and he sat back and drew a comic of the inquisition unfolding.
“He captured the hilarity of the conflict,” Alex says. “It was classic Seamus: It was smart and it was funny. It was taking a shot at both Andrew and I and our mom, but it was loving at the same time. He was constantly drawing. I never met anyone with that sort of ability at that age. I always wonder where that could have gone if it had been more focused.”
At the time, Jim and Seamus did not get along. Seamus played football at Hellgate, which increasingly drove his father mad as his son suffered more and more injuries from the game. “I was very critical of it because I didn’t like the way it dominated the culture of the schools,” Jim says. “He knew that.”
Making him an anomaly in the world of teenage cliques, Seamus also belonged to the punk rock scene, and Alex recalls going to see shows at the Moose Lodge where Seamus would throw himself into the mosh pit, leather, spikes and all.
In addition, Seamus contributed drawings to the school newspaper, The Lance, under then-editor John Engen.
“I remember him as a really blustery kind of ‘bull in a china shop’ young guy,” says Engen, who now serves as Missoula’s mayor. “In those days, late ’70s and early ’80s, to be kind of punk-looking was much less common than it is today. He wore this pseudo military garb and variations on a mohawk and he was a really rough and tumble kid, but what I remember most about him was these drawings with just a Bic ballpoint pen that were incredible. I very much remember the style and the absolute confidence in the pen strokes. The images showed that there was more going on there than what was going on in the mind of a typical high school kid. He was a guy with depth and maybe a guy with demons, I don’t know.”
It was during high school that Seamus developed a benign tumor on his forehead. No one gave it much thought. Even when the doctor revealed that the tumor was actually an undeveloped twin—a fetal cyst—the strangeness of that revelation hung in the air for only a short time before the doctors removed the lump. The incident worried Julia, Seamus’ mother, because the twin had been connected to her son’s brain, at the frontal lobes—and what if there were complications? But afterward everything seemed fine. Nothing appeared to be damaged.
Meanwhile, Jim worried Seamus had become a football thug with a little too much interest in fascism. His appearance seemed to emulate the skinhead style, with big combat boots, a shaved head and military-like stylings. He had also developed an aggressive reputation on the football field and garnered the nickname “The Mad Duck.” His artwork reflected some of his enthusiasm for the sport. In a series of comics he did called “High School Funnies,” he’d drawn a cartoon of himself pointing to Hellgate saying, “This here is the school I played for, Hellgate ... never had a championship team, but I still had a great time smashing heads and ruining my body for the Knights.”
Three decades later, after Seamus died, Jim found sketches that provided a more critical take of his high school days. In one set of comics, Seamus offers an insider look at football with a narration that says: “Guys who fell down unconscious due to heat exertion or injuries were regarded as ‘pussies,’ and instead of dealing with the player the whole practice moved away … while the trainers dragged the injured to the bus.” In another episode he observes how society publicly condemns aggression while sanctioning it in a high school sport.
Jim also discovered comics that put Seamus’ skinhead appearance in new light. His cartoons depicted himself and his friends as anti-fascist skinheads—kids who emulated the style, with some variation, but who picked fights with racists. The drawings don’t absolve Seamus’ aggression, but they do help Jim better understand what was going on inside his son’s head.
One of Seamus’ paintings portrays a colorful hell populated by a mass of damned people. The crowd of heads surrounds a throne occupied by the devil, and the devil is clearly endowed with a large penis. “It caused some uproar,” Jim says. “He was proud of that piece. He carried it around to every new place he lived.”
Seamus experienced a rocky end to high school. He quit three months before graduation to avoid failing out, but he’d gotten a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, moved to California and was intermittently taking classes. It was a golden era for his art career. He showed his work at galleries and people bought his large, brightly colored paintings illustrating the lively streets of San Francisco. He worked for Last Gasp comics for whom he was often asked to provide cartoons.
In 1991, he was knocked off his scooter by a hit-and-run driver and hospitalized for several months. To save his left leg, his doctors fused it with metal. It left him slightly crippled and he quit school. In years to come, he’d go through at least nine surgeries for injuries like this—two scooter accidents and a back issue. He was infused with metal and in pain. “It was deceiving because when you saw him he looked like a really healthy, strong guy,” Jim says. “They were giving him medication for the pain because the pain was very severe. What happened then was the illegal narcotics that he had been taking were now made legal. So he was still an addict but he had become a legalized addict.”
Over the course of the next few years, Seamus met a woman named Sheri and they had a daughter, Hanna. The marriage lasted five years before it dissolved, but afterward Seamus and Sheri took turns raising Hanna in Jackson Hole. Seamus began drawing cartoons for The Planet, now called the Jackson Hole Weekly. After his death, an article in the Jackson Hole Weekly titled “Remembering an Iconoclast Artist,” by former staffer Mary Grossman, fondly recalled Seamus’ “iconic and hilarious” cartoons. In a state known for its conservatism, readers rallied around and against his social and political satire. “There are still advertisers who boycott us as a result of the pot leaf that appeared on our cover in 2003,” Grossman wrote about one of Seamus’ works.
Another one of his cartoons depicted caricatures of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in Nazi uniforms. Like his terrorist painting, the three politicians have halos drawn above their heads and they all appear to be looming like gods over Guantanamo Bay Dentention Center. The caption reads: “Thanks for nothing Dick Cheney.” Seamus meant to scathe the former vice president in time for Cheney’s retirement to the Wyoming resort town. But the cartoon also held a personal meaning, mainly because he’d painted it just a few years after being released from prison.
For a time, Seamus sold guns. His physical disabilities made it difficult to find work in the resort town, and he needed to make money to support himself and Hanna. The venture was legal—he had obtained a federal gun license—and it also held an air of danger to which Seamus seemed classically drawn. Not long into the job, however, police caught him smoking pot while in possession of the guns—a felony—and so, in 2006, he wound up at Lompoc Prison in California.
While Seamus was in prison, Jim and Julia regularly received letters. And later, after he got out, Seamus told his parents stories about his time there. But it wasn’t really until after Seamus died that Jim started piecing together his son’s prison diaries and drawings, and better understanding his son’s experience.
At Lompoc, Seamus began attending a drug rehab group that required him to keep a journal. According to his journal entries, he found himself confronted with a harsh life of gangs and violence. The white inmates ostracized Seamus for being friendly with other races. The prison guards abused their authority. In his drawings he depicts cartoonish guards power-tripping over the other prisoners, using their guns for intimidation and smiling diabolically while doing it.
Entries also explain that guards asked Seamus to provide information about inmates allegedly manufacturing illegal booze. He refused to snitch and was put in “the hole,” also called the “special housing unit” or SHU, which he describes in his journal as a “sweltering” 4-by-8 space. His notes describe how he was denied medication, and that chronic back and leg pain constantly seized his muscles. The prison ceased his visitation rights with Hanna and began to confiscate letters, diaries and drawings. He had to hide them carefully and keep his notes less and less detailed.
“So the notes become very impersonal,” Jim says. “He doesn’t mention people’s names very much. He talks quite a bit in the third person, he doesn’t mention us by name, and so forth.”
His 30-day sentence in the lockdown unit turned to 6 months. “Once in a while internal reflection babbles forth,” he wrote in one journal entry. “Normally I am able to keep feelings of pain in suspension. After many events, one learns even without drugs how to keep oneself numb. Keeping blinders on is not allowing oneself to focus on an issue which would cause severe depression for one’s actions.”
In 2007, a year and a half after he went in, the prison released Seamus. He went to pick up Hanna from Jim and Julia’s home. “Their separation was unbearably painful for them both,” Jim says. “It was deeply moving to see Seamus leaning over to embrace his daughter who had been sleeping, and her expression of rapture when she awoke to see her father.”
Jim says Seamus hoped to one day publish his prison notes to expose the conditions at Lompoc. (If he had, he wouldn’t have been the first. Michael Santos published a scathing insider look at Lompoc in 2006 titled Inside: Life Behind Bars in America.) And while Jim is willing to reveal the journals now and talk openly about his son’s life, he’s careful not to send the wrong message. He doesn’t want the story of Seamus to be about him. He doesn’t want it to be about absolution, either. He wants it to be a warning.
“[Sharing his prison notes] is not an effort to whitewash his reputation,” he says. “He was guilty of illegal possession of drugs and the sentence he received might have been much worse. Julia and I hope that the tragedy of Seamus’ life might demonstrate how drug addiction can ruin the lives of young people whatever their intelligence and abilities, and that our prisons only contribute to the downward spiral of many addicts.”
Once Seamus returned to Jackson Hole with his daughter, he began painting again. That’s when he finished the piece of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush hovering over Guantanamo—a massive painting—and offered it to his parents’ friend, Patrick Sheehan, whom he’d corresponded with while at Lompoc. It still hangs in Sheehan’s Washington, D.C. home.
“He had a wonderful sense of humor: droll, dry, a dark take on life that appealed to me very much,” Sheehan writes in an email. “He had me in stitches often in our phone conversations. He probably could have been a fine standup comic were he so inclined (he wasn’t, thank heaven).”
Seamus’ strong personality still stood out after prison, but he had more physical pain than ever. Even more, anxiety had began to take hold. Every night after his release, until his death, he kept his television on to drown out the noise in his head.
Andrew Smith met with Seamus again five years ago, after not seeing him for a decade. Andrew and Alex had become filmmakers, and Andrew now taught at the university. The twins’ first feature film, 2001’s The Slaughter Rule, included a character named Tracy Two Dot, who was heavily based on Seamus and a few of their other friends. There had been talk of Seamus doing a comic book companion to the film, but that project never transpired.
“It was clear he was talented, but I think he was driven by that need to not be involved in the world of art, to not do what our parents did,” Andrew says. “It probably seemed too safe. He makes me wonder sometimes if I took the safe route.”
Seamus came over to Andrew’s house with Hanna and they got to meet Andrew’s daughter, Tilly. “I remember Tilly being fascinated by this guy in my house who was wearing a big leather jacket with a ruddy, smiling face—loud and kind of giggling a lot,” Andrew says. “There was a teddy bear there. I saw how he shaped his life around his daughter. He is a soulful person who girded himself against that by putting on a persona of aggression.”
Later that day, they went out for a meal and Seamus told Andrew stories about Lompoc. “They were hard to believe, but because it was him they were easier to believe,” Andrew says. “There were crazy escapades and sometimes conspiracies, elements of paranoia certainly, but hilarious stories about persecution and misunderstanding.” They talked about getting together again, but never did, though the Smiths continued to write Seamus into their scripts. “There is an unwritten screenplay we have about growing up in a rural town,” Andrew says. “It’s less charged with aggression than The Slaughter Rule, and more about discovery. I feel like Seamus is in this character. He’s kind of in everything we do.”
Over the next couple years, Seamus seemed best in the mornings, Jim says. He and Hanna lived at the Pioneer Motel in Jackson Hole, a place where the town’s migrant workers came and went each season. During the day, while Hanna attended high school, Seamus hung large canvases on the motel wall and painted. Jim and Julia saw him frequently. During the summers and holidays, Seamus would bring Hanna and her half-sister, Sapphire, to the Todd residence where they’d swim in the pool or open presents around the Christmas tree.
“Before he went to prison our relationship was getting better, and when he got out of prison is when it was probably the best,” Jim says. “But in some ways it was the saddest. He almost lost his capacity to take care of himself and so he just concentrated entirely on Hanna. He was a very good father. He was the one who sort of woke me up to my weaknesses. He dealt with her in a way without this anger stuff. He was very calm and decisive. He wouldn’t let her get away with stuff. I knew that was a kind of reaction against my anger and so I thought that was good.”
In January 2013, Seamus ended up in the hospital with kidney failure. After recovering from that, his health continued to deteriorate. He walked with a cane and often had a hard time moving, so he would sit on his bed and paint. The untitled last painting he made showed a prominent skull and bold colors—a self portrait. It had a sophistication and keen use of color that Jim hadn’t seen in Seamus’ earlier paintings.
Jim and Julia had planned to help Seamus move to Missoula. They looked for a house in the area where he could live and his daughters could visit once they left for college. Hanna, meanwhile, was doing well in school. She had graduated with honors and planned to study abroad in Germany. But then, the day before she left for Europe, she found Seamus dead in their motel room.
Jim and Julia traveled to Jackson Hole to collect their son’s body and comfort Hanna. With help from his ex-wife, Sheri, they gathered together his belongings and artwork. They also spoke with his doctor, whom they had never met before. The doctor told them that Seamus’ addiction and deteriorating physical condition made his untimely death almost inevitable. In passing, Jim mentioned the brain cyst from long ago that had turned out to be Seamus’ twin. It caught the doctor’s interest. Jim recalls that he paused for a moment, shook his head and said, “Sometimes it’s the damned obvious that we don’t pay any attention to.”
Years earlier, Missoula poet and family friend Roger Dunsmore had also remarked on the cyst, and he wrote a poem about it. Jim admits he wasn’t keen on the poem at first—it just felt too personal to him. But he recalls that Seamus seemed drawn to it and later, after Seamus’ death, Jim felt drawn to it, too. It went like this:
For the Unnamed Twin
From the very beginning
he heard screaming
inside his head.
He thought he was just a man
afraid to jump into the dark.
Finally, they operated.
They found a fatty tumor
on the top of his brain.
They cut it open.
Inside, they found his twin
curled like a dragonfly’s
dried, translucent wing.
And they threw it away.
Don’t be afraid,
the jump master said,
the dark is just the dark.
In the high-ceiling, windowed space of his Missoula studio, Jim Todd, now 76, has made an acrylic painting of himself and his son, Seamus. The piece, styled to look like a woodcut, is bathed in a striking cerulean hue, textured with tiny etched white lines and contrasted against a blue backdrop so dark it’s almost black. In the scene, Jim stands just behind his son looking slightly downward, his face cast in a sliver of shadow. Seamus appears more fully washed in light, bald, bearded and robust, and not a bit cowed by whatever he sees in front of him. It’s hard to guess what either stoic man is thinking, though they both seem lost in thought.
The sketches Jim found in Seamus’ stash of artwork reveal a range that surprised him. One set of drawings evoke Toulouse-Lautrec: A woman in a long gown sits perched on a chair, her curls flowing from her head. They are sweet and calm depictions, far removed from the style of Seamus’ other works.
“I hadn’t seen the academic ones,” Jim says, leafing through the sketches. “He had a whole bunch of stuff crammed in drawers and so I went through them, I found these. A lot of the edges were torn up and so I had to trim them down. But, anyway, these were the ones that surprised me. I was glad to see them, in fact—not that I didn’t see the ability in his other stuff, but this showed that he wasn’t just restricted to [one style.]”
On the studio wall are a couple of other pieces by Seamus, including the terrorist with the halo. A colorful portrait of Jim and Julia leans against the wall. In it, both of them look perturbed. Jim laughs about it. “I frown and squint, and he was exaggerating that,” he says. “And he had Julia frowning deliberately because everyone always makes her grin because she’s so good natured.”
Seamus’ self-portraits or self-reflective works seem painfully aware of his faults. In one, a crazed junkie smokes a joint and a pipe, sitting in front of a table with a pile of cocaine and pills and a bottle of liquor that says “Old Death.” In another, “Drug Demon,” which Spokane’s Jundt Art Museum holds in its private collection, taunting skulls close in on a montage of drug addicts.
For a while, after Seamus went to prison, the family was concerned about Hanna—that she would see herself as an outcast or lose her way. In fact, she did the opposite. Jim had taught Seamus about colors and, in turn, Seamus taught Hanna. She’s become an artist in her own right, garnering awards at county fairs with paintings now placed proudly in Jim’s study along with his own and his son’s work. Jim says she’s now studying in Germany and wants to teach art and languages.
Over the last few years, Jim has been teaching Hanna the craft of printmaking and giving her some formal training—something Seamus didn’t take to as much. But in many ways, to Jim, it feels like his focus on Hanna gives him the connection both father and son were always looking for.
“My concentration on Hanna is, in some ways, like a concentration on Seamus,” Jim says. “And I think he thought that was a pretty good thing.”