Doig’s work is fascinating to some, familiar to Montanans

Ivan Doig knew that greatness lay in pushing it. As a writer who didn’t believe in writer’s block, Ivan would sit at his typewriter for a minimum of eight hours a day, working. And while typewriters aren’t most Montanans’ tool of choice, we do understand you can’t walk away from a project as soon as Plan A gets blocked. Doig’s work showcases Montanans’ determination and sometime hardheadedness.

Montana State University celebrated Doig in mid-September with a symposium that wrapped up in White Sulphur Springs and Ringling, where Ivan Doig grew up and drew much of his inspiration.  

Once in Meagher County, the conversations there didn’t stay purely literary. Those in attendance weren’t there because they found Doig’s 16 or so published books fascinating, but because they found them familiar.

While waiting for Gordon Doig, Ivan Doig’s cousin, to speak about their upbringing, we were chatting with some of the people having lunch down at the Red Barn in White Sulphur Springs. The diners bragged about how young they were when they first got their licenses in order to get to work. One lady insisted when she was a kid, you didn’t even need a license. If you were big enough to reach the pedals, off you went.

Multiple people got caught up in one-upping each other on when they started contributing to work on the farm or ranch. A common first job was driving the tractor, starting as young as age 6, because it was the only task they were big enough to do.

“If you’re living on the ranch, you’re working on the ranch,” one woman said of her childhood. It rolled off the tongue. You could tell she may have heard this from Mom and Dad more than once.

Doug Rand at 2 Basset Brewery. Photo by Ben Goertzen

We asked Doug Rand what he does now and he told us nothing, that he’s retired. However, he reassured us that he worked hard enough his entire life that he doesn’t have to feel guilty watching people go to work from his porch now.

But Montanans’ definition of nothing is a little different than most. Ben, our photographer, pressed Doug further on what he does now and he revealed that he works on building birdhouses almost every day. Due to an injury, he can’t lift a lot of weight anymore. So, as a retired architect, he’s continues to work designing smaller homes for winged residents.

Everyone recalled their childhoods on ranches and farms with fondness and appreciation. And so it wasn’t a surprise that laughter filled the room when one out-of-state attendee asked whether “child labor” helped or hindered Ivan, giving him no time to be a kid.

Everyone there explained it would have been embarrassing if you weren’t doing some kind of work.  When she asked Gordon if they had any fun he had a short response.

“Some of us did,” he said, to a roar of laughter.

The room was filled to the brim with Montanans. Faces had wrinkles drawn in by weather and wear but mostly smiles. Fingers didn’t straighten all the way out anymore, but they still worked. Strangers in the room acted like friends, because, similar to the familiarity with scenes described in Doig’s work, those in attendance could all find common ground on what it was like to grow up in Montana half a century ago. There was also a hope that connected everyone there that the next generation might become as determined and hard headed as those that have raised them.

“Work is its own city,” was Ivan’s simple way of explaining it. And while he’s no longer here to explain, his work is. So if this generation does forget what this state is made of, they can always just pick up one of Doig’s books and be reminded.

-Andie Creel

Ivan Doig – wood engraving print by James G. Todd, 1988. Permission to use is granted by the artist.

More work by Ben Goertzen can be found at