Under the halo 

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

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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.

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  • Patrick Sheehan
  • After he left prison, Seamus Todd painted this piece of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney as Nazis looming over Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.

“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.

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  • Many of Seamus’ pieces, including “Drug Demon,” left, and “Old Death,” addressed his own issues with drug addiction. “Drug Demon” is now part of the private collection at Spokane’s Jundt Art Museum.

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.

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