Under the halo 

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

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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.”

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  • A recent portrait by James Todd of himself and his son, Seamus.

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.”

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