Ivan Doig Paints with Words by Pat Shaer

Art media are so varied. Written language is a favorite of mine. I feel exceptionally inadequate in presenting this piece of artwork. It so impressed me, however, that I must share it.

The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig’s latest book, is a gem. The story is simple; the narrative provides amazing artistry. Here’s the simple of it…in 1910, a Montana homesteading family consisting of a father and three boys, ages approximately 12, 9 and 6, find themselves having spent nearly a year alone since the death of their wife/mother. Father and sons decide that a housekeeper to cook and care for the house would now suit the bill. A very well-read family, they turn to their hometown newspaper in Minnesota. They find this ad entitled:

Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite

To this day I can hear the signal of amusement that line of type drew out of him. Father had a short, sniffing way of laughing, as if anything funny had to prove it to his nose first.

I glanced up from my geography lesson to discover the newspaper making its way in my direction. Father’s thumb was crimped down onto the heading of the ad like the holder of a diving rod striking water.

Doig is a master of making every word mean. In doing so he begins his “painting” with a design sketched out so evenly and deftly on each page. Then he strokes the pages with washes of color and maps the negative spaces in forceful colors.

The oilcloth took the beating of its life from sullen elbows that

evening after supper.


Descriptions and story are captured in daubs of paint that would make an Impressionist proud.

I can still see the schoolhouse as it appeared when we rode up out of The Cut, its paint a bit worn from the affections of the wind, its schoolyard trampled bare, its dawn-caught bank of windows a narrow aperture to sky and prairie.

And then there is characterization. The unusually erudite substitute teacher opens a special, family-night program celebrating a rare astronomical event in the area’s one-room schoolhouse with:

“Whatever little else we know about the properties of existence,

we map our days and nights by the fires in the heavens,” he began

in his best voice.”…Sunlight grants us sustenance of life as we

know it, moonlight clothes us in our own particular fabrics of

quest called dreams.”

And how about this description of a storm-promising sky from the hand of a true artist:

When I poked my head out in the last of dark, that next morning, up there was what looked like a vast laundry pile, gray mixed with white, as if the weather had been saving up and here was the heap.

I began my revel in the pages of this book for the story, but ended up relishing the language so much I cannot get it out of my mind. I suffer no delusions. I cannot do justice to this work but I do know a great work when I see it. Pardon my change in metaphor, but be prepared for quite a ride! The book is A Whistling Season by Ivan Doig.

7 Responses to “Ivan Doig Paints with Words by Pat Shaer”

  1. 1 patbshaer August 5, 2007 at 6:35 am

    Thanks for the sharing. I respond to visual art but most often it does not move me in the strong way language does. While I’ve always, read that as since memory began in pre-talking days, used something to create “art,” my strongest memory is of wanting to read.

    My parents were imigrants and I the way long last of 5 kids.
    I was to be the all-real-American kid. I realized that my parents were finding out things by reading…I watched them read all the newspapers, and we got ’em all. My thoughts were “you don’t have to tell me, just show me how to read and I’ll do it myself.” But that bit of education was designated for school time so that I would not be ahead of my peers.

    Once I learned the tricks and about the library…well, I was both in heaven and hell. I could not read fast enough and often enough. Though an English major in college, it has taken a lifetime of circuitous mental travels to “see” everything various writers mean. But it is such fun.

    Likewise, the same with art. Once I understand the artists thought process at the time, even the most obscure becomes reasonable. And I can appreciate the art.

    Sorta long, but you’ve just learned lots about me.


  2. 2 clairan August 4, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    I also love Doig’s writing — although I’ve never been to the places he writes about, I feel as if I have! The writing is so very detailed and vivid.

    To answer June’s question, in many ways I think I am more inspired by words than visuals and often need to think about the words before I create a piece — sometimes it’s just a title, and more often it’s writing about the feelings evoked by something I’m working on that gives me the ability to choose well when I’m putting a piece together. I actually don’t “think” much when I’m actually creating a piece.

  3. 3 Terry August 4, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    I can only add a “me too”–Ivan Doig is one of my most favorite writers as well, and say that his writing seems some of the most “visual” I can think of, but perhaps it is because he writes about country that I know so well and his stories are so much like the stories of my family. I recently reread “This House of Sky” and was once again struck by the beauty and harshness of that landscape that comes through his writing. And, to answer June’s question, yes, I think I am inspired by words as well as visuals, but when I think of it, it is probably writing that takes me back to a place I have actually seen and experienced with my own eyes at some point.

  4. 4 Diane August 3, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Ivan Doig is one of my all-time favorite authors, and one of the many reasons is his truly artistic use of language. I’m very glad to see you feature a review about him here.

  5. 5 Kristin Freeman August 2, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    You have shared the writing of one of my most favorite authors. I have read every work he has published, including this recent book. Ivan Doig captures every small detail of the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains with his descriptions. When I visited Choteau, a small town in the area of his trilogy, it was then in 1992 so similar to the pictures I had formed in my mind as I read his words in each of those books.
    Words often come easily for me when thinking of a design idea to stitch or create in fabric. From those words I begin to see the images and in this process I follow a much different road than the one described by June. As I read or as I write the images begin to show up on the screen in my brain and then I can paint, or sketch and plan for the creating in fiber which is my passion.
    The process we each find to get to the place of making the work is individual, and of necessity, I believe, should resonate with the creator dwelling within each of us as artist.
    Thank you for a return visit to the words of Ivan Doig. Just what I needed today to get my focus on creating and writing churning into operation to begin the four day vacation I have given myself in the studio.

  6. 6 Olga August 2, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    I find that textual language, sound, the visual, and the tactile are like neighbours, in that they communicate over the garden fence but never really know what is going on inside each other’s houses – although they have a jolly good guess based on what they themselves do and what they experience.

    I am inspired to write by things I see, and I am inspired to draw, design, create in textile by what I read and hear, but each is distinct and can never quite replace the other.

  7. 7 june August 2, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Pat and all,

    I’m wondering how many of you get inspired by words or verbal descriptions rather than by visuals. I don’t normally respond to language in the same way I respond to things I’m seeing, but finally, I respond rather to the emotional resonances of visuals rather than either language or immediate visions. I often find that later, words become important (as well as useful) in dealing with my art, but initially, it’s generally a gut response.

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