Under the halo 

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

Page 5 of 5

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.”

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  • Seamus Todd befriended Montana psychedelic folk-and-country artist Jay Rummel, who inspired his art. Like Rummel, he created detailed works that took time to absorb—a mashup of images that, like the one above, reveal a self portrait of a stern, bearded Seamus peeking out from the chaos.

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.

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  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • After his son died, Jim Todd found several of Seamus’ academic sketches that showed a softer side. “I was glad to see them, in fact,” he says. “Not that I didn’t see the ability in his other stuff, but this showed that he wasn’t just restricted to [one style].”

“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
(for Seamus)

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.”

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