Soft comforts for a newly not-me world

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Maybe it’s a blanket, or perhaps a stuffed animal, but an infant’s intimate connection with a chosen soft object ushers them into childhood. D.W. Winnicott, English pediatrician and psychoanalyst specializing in object relations, argued that these relationships are important “transitional phenomena” that mark many of the intermediary positions in which infants are developmentally located.1 Our early lives remain under-theorized, which makes Violet Costello’s dive into the imaginative, liminal stages of infancy and toddlerhood a much-needed investigation.

In Costello’s Getting Big sculptural series, surreal forms precariously dance above the heads of toddler gures. Some of these forms are warped versions of familiar figures, such as Spongebob or Gumby, while others are less identi able but still reference some figurative element—a distorted animal face, perhaps, or an inexplicable leg. Like a strange take on a cartoon thought bubble, the artist’s placement of these forms above the heads of these toddlers suggest that we are looking at the physical representation of an imagined form. The reference to children’s toys here, however, begs further consideration of the role stuffed objects play in early childhood development. The forms above each figure extend their height, often with a sense of upward movement, often through linear forms pointing skyward or upward-facing animal ears, taking up the space that infants will grow into as they become children.

One of D.W. Winnicott’s key texts on object relations, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” notes that an infant’s attachment to a teddy bear or similar object marks an important in-between life stage, seen through their understanding of their chosen object as not part of their bodies (“not me”), yet not fully understood as a part of external life either. 2

The object is as much a product of the infant’s imagination as it is a manufactured toy. As such, an infant’s relationship with a chosen stuffed animal marks the lack of full distinction between their inner self and external reality. Winnicott emphasizes the singularity of this relationship. Infants tend not to share these objects, and subject them to love, hatred, and aggression.

Likewise, Costello resists idealizing this life stage. She does not portray the toddlers as rosy-cheeked and contented, but a blend of sweet, awkward, crying, and monstrous. The worlds Costello constructs in her series of paintings similarly present un-idealized portrayals of older infants or toddlers, and fuse together the real and imagined worlds in which early development places us. The artist refrains from creating scenes that reference a particular time period in the hopes of tweaking early memories of intergenerational viewers. Critically, Costello works to tweak our own long-lost memories of the transitional phase in which each of us moved beyond our inner life into culture, and slowly into the understanding that external forces shape our lives—that we are embedded in a cultural context. The relationship between the sculpture series and painting series marks that early step along the surreal process where we may comprehend there is an inner and outer life, but cannot yet distinguish what’s imagined and what’s real.

Prelinguistic imagination has yet to be well researched, but Costello’s creative speculations suggest there is much le to explore. My own teddy bear has now endured more days forgotten than remembered. But, Cocoa’s omnipresence in my bedroom makes me wonder if we ever completely stop needing comfort and help comprehending the outer world. Even after we have gotten big.

Carolyn Jervis is an Edmonton-based art writer, curator, and cultural worker. Carolyn has a Master of Arts degree in Art History, Critical Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia. She has worked extensively in local galleries and arts organizations, and has written for national and local publications, including C Magazine and SNAPline, as well as exhibition monographs and catalogue essays for galleries in Canada and Germany. In her current position as Art Gallery Coordinator, Carolyn is organizing the opening and inaugural exhibitions for MacEwan University’s first public gallery, which opens in October 2017.

1. D.W. Winnicott, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” in Playing and Reality (New York: Routledge, 1971), 5.

2. Ibid., 2-3.

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