Under the halo 

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

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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.

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  • Old Death

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.

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