I’m not sure what to call Irmalinda’s Doll: A Volume of Drawn Thoughts (Author’s House, 2016) by Saugerties artist Valerie Owen. It’s definitely a book, emphatically an artist’s book. It comes close to being a graphic novel, but the plot doesn’t really manifest until a third of the way in. Up to page 30, I wandered uncertainly through the wash of dreamlike images and poetic speech balloons, alternately entranced and confused.
Actually, I first misread the subtitle as “A Volume of Dream Thoughts,” and I persist in suspecting that many of the images came from the author/artist’s nighttime unconscious. Plus on page 4, a cattish creature scratches its head with a humanoid finger and muses, “What’s the difference between a Dream & a Memory?” which seems like a relevant question. If any of the panels are sourced from Owen’s memory, she must have a strange and visionary life indeed.
Dream imagery is a familiar subject for writers and artists. Long dreams narrated in novels tend to lose me pretty fast, but scenes that take place within dreams — some of Carlos Casteneda’s adventures with the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan, for instance — can be compelling. Painters make good use of the incongruous juxtapositions of dreams, as in the dreamscapes of Salvador Dali. Owen marries these verbal and visual techniques in handsomely rendered pictures with words that almost make sense, defying the demands of narrative structure to carry the reader/viewer along on a bucking magic carpet ride.
Characters recur intermittently, reining in the attention when it threatens to stray due to the relative shortage of continuity. Old Dog, a cat named Billy Milk Mustache, a Chumash shaman, Fog-Face-Fowl, Cool Cucumber, Peachy Keen, Art Deity, Sky Coyote, and the nameless doll — they wind through the pages, sometimes accompanied by quotes from Keats, Goethe, Ramakrishna, Jane Roberts (the “Seth Speaks” channeler, I assume), and others. The plot leaps in unexpectedly when Irmalinda’s son Henry announces, “If little Sally hadn’t crawled under the house that day, she’d still be alive.” We learn from the back cover blurb that Sally’s doll, made by Irmalinda, “knows a secret, and Irmalinda’s memories and past are part of understanding their shared destiny.””
After page 30, the middle-aged Irmalinda and the stitch-faced doll are seen more often, as their intertwining stories, memories, and fantasies leap around in time, along with events such as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, a duel with a scorpion, and a conversation with a horsefly. Death, fate, and art are frequent themes. The illustrations vary from cartoonish to detailed and lush, careening back and forth from spontaneous to intricate, against sensuous pastel backgrounds.
There is a sense of freedom to these pages, a refusal to allow conventions of storytelling to distract from the integrity of a fertile and wide-ranging imagination. While in some cases, this approach can make text hard to absorb, here its liberating quality is passed on to the viewer. The spinning mind, trying to grasp what’s going on, is continuously flung into a sense of wonder, either through the arresting imagery or the frequently generated question, “Where did she ever get these ideas from?”
And it’s even better the second time through.
Valerie Owen exhibits her art at the Arts Upstairs Gallery, 60 Main Street, Phoenicia. Her book can be ordered at https://www.irmalindasdoll.com.