Printmaker James Todd revisits his childhood self in Looney Toones 

When James G. Todd, Jr. retired from the University of Montana in 2000, his mother showed up bearing a box of his childhood artwork. The renowned printmaker and former art department chair and humanities director, now 80, hadn't seen most of the pencil-on-newspaper drawings in at least 50 years, some not since he first made them. A few of the pictures were vaguely familiar to him, while others he didn't recognize at all. It was a strange experience, he says, to see images of what had been on his mind when he was so young.

"It was like meeting myself as a child," he says.

Several of the drawings, all of which he drew between the ages of five and eight, depicted what Todd was learning about World War II. Among them is a patriotic parade featuring flags and marching band, men going off to war on a ship, a wounded sailor bandaged in a cart and three evil-looking men representing the axis powers with swastikas on their uniforms. In other drawings, he drew a leopard sneaking through a living room, monsters, cowboys, a carnival, a dancing hippo—the stuff of an innocent childhood imagination.

For his new exhibit, Looney Toones, on display at UM's Montana Museum of Art and Culture, Todd has taken several of the childhood drawings and reinterpreted them as woodcuts. In the woodcuts, he's added shadow and embellished details, and afterward he hand-painted the prints in bright colors, giving them more dimension and an element of motion. But in general, the new versions stay pretty close to the originals in most ways, including the spontaneous spirit so often present in children's art.

In his early years studying art, Todd learned about the modernists' interest in spontaneity.

"There was a lot of reference to early modern artists being interested in the work of the insane and the work of children," Todd says. "There was a preoccupation with trying to find spontaneity and more authenticity."

Todd says he didn't get too wrapped up in the philosophy, but the idea of comparing a child's artwork to the work of an adult artist steeped in theory and practice stayed with him. He didn't find many artists who could pull off the childlike lines with satisfactory sophistication, save for the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, who made spontaneous work in the Expressionist/Surrealist style and who notably listed his childhood artwork in his catalogue raisonné alongside his major masterpieces.

When he had his own children, Todd studied their artwork with curiosity. He picked out a few of their drawings that intrigued him and turned them into woodcuts, which he exhibited in the early 1980s. One was a reinterpretation of a picture his son, Bhaird, drew when he was three years old, of a little kid with flowers for hands smiling ear-to-ear while planes and bombs fly around him. Another, drawn by his son Rial, was an image of a duck-like creature with a cape standing near a highway. He also did a rendition of an art piece made by his son Seamus (who eventually grew up to be an artist like his dad), which seems to show a person with five eyes facing an ice-cream-cone-shaped creature. Todd called that one "Moses and the Holy Ghost," though he doesn't know why, exactly.

click to enlarge James Todd’s “Electric Lantern Show” is part of a new exhibit featuring his woodcut interpretations of childhood drawings.
  • James Todd’s “Electric Lantern Show” is part of a new exhibit featuring his woodcut interpretations of childhood drawings.

Todd, who's represented by the Radius Gallery, has been creating the pieces for Looney Toones slowly and steadily since he received the childhood drawings from his mother. The exhibit stemmed from an art catalog of the series that Todd had made, printed as a glossy, softcover coffee-table book through UM Printing and Graphic Services. The art director there, Ken Price, was one of Todd's former students, and Todd says Price helped him to clearly reproduce the rippling, impulsive lines of the sometimes faint original drawings.

The titles Todd uses for the woodcuts had always come to him spontaneously, and he stuck with them even when he didn't know what they meant. In "Baptism of the Devil," for instance, which shows a monk, a priest and a devil, the ladle-like implement used for the baptism looked to Todd like a hot dog on a stick. In his interpretations, as with the originals, there's a mix of horror and humor, with a playfulness that seems to be integral to his mission of reimagining the meaning of those mysterious pictures from long ago.

Todd had some some fun ideas about wordplay in the pictures. One image shows a knight in armor visiting a patient at a hospital, which Todd came to believe was a child's misinterpretation of "night nurse." But while flipping through the drawings, he also discovered some disturbing images. In one picture, a small person is attacking a larger person, punching at the large person's groin with one hand and wielding a knife in the other. Todd recalls the incident from which that drawing came. He was somewhere around four years old and his father had made him angry, though he doesn't remember why.

"I do remember coming across the room at him and taking a box of crayons and ramming them against his lower shins," Todd says. "That's all I can remember."

Embracing the horror of the picture, in which his childhood self had reinterpreted the event with a knife, he called his woodcut "Patricide," though in the introduction to the book he takes great care to thank his parents for encouraging his artwork from an early age.

In a way, though, Todd was surprised his childhood drawings didn't evoke more despair. He drew them during a war and while living uncomfortably in Seattle in a run-down low-income housing project.

"That interested me," he says. "I would have expected the pictures to show more distress or fear or something," he says. "But mostly they're really zany. That took me by surprise. As an adult, the darkness of things often consumes me more but these are quite optimistic despite everything. I don't know if it was wish fulfillment or what. But it may have just simply been the joy of doing them."

The Montana Museum of Art and Culture presents James Todd's Looney Toones, on display at the Meloy Gallery in UM's PARTV Center through September 9.

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