Smooth Seas

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 27 (1000×300)

Text Art

So, here's a thing: One of the Kindle app's great, semi-hidden features is its ability to share quotes from favorite books. Simply highlight a bit of text and, voila, you have the option to push that quote out to any and all social media. And, to make that share even more attractive to your followers, there's a built-in ability to place your chosen text over a selection of colored backgrounds. In other words, this is a quote-sharing optimized for social media.

Like this. Also, this is a great book and ought to be mandatory reading for all Americans right now.

But that's nothing new. Text as art has been around for decades, if not centuries. Hell, you could argue it's been around for millennia and I wouldn't doubt you. The only thing that has changed is the speed at which it's available and to how many people. Oh, and how quickly you can process that image into something tangible to put on your wall. Call it the curse of print-on-demand.


My roommate and I had a quote from Clerks pinned on the back of the door to our dorm room; my friend's office received a decoration-intervention in the form of quote after quote from popular songs pinned up over the blank walls. (The bridge from Pearl Jam's Black had pride of place, naturally.)

Were we to decorate those same spaces today, I'm not sure we'd take the time to make all those text-as-art pieces by hand. Why bother when we could just print them in less time and with more artistry? Call it the curse of Pinterest and Instagram.


The trouble with having so much text-as-art available so readily and so quickly is that it pushes even the most inspiring expressions towards cliche. What I mean is, language naturally inclines towards cliche - anything that is true will be repeated over and over until it loses the power it once had. (I've written about this before, here.)

However, the rise of low-cost, D.I.Y. printing and tools like, well, Amazon's Kindle App, means that something new is happening. Expressions are becoming cliche before they have even had time to become overused.

Text Needed

When a book gets into my head, I'll often surf the web for images of whatever it (the book) has dredged out of my memory and subconscious. Not for specific images, but for images that remind me of what I have read, thereby creating a self-reinventing cycle of inspiration and memory. In this case, I had read several books in a row about the golden age of sail and its related whaling and exploratory missions.

Searching for images related to "stove by a whale" lead me through a rabbit hole of nautical themes and images to land at "a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor." What a great quote. Fantastic mental image, easily applied to all kinds of situations, and alliterative to boot. Only, I was tired of it already and I had only just found it.

I mean…

It sounded too twee, too forcibly inspirational. It sounded like something designed by committee in an advertising executive's boardroom. Something designed to be posted on walls in white, "handwritten" font, over beautiful photographs of the sunlight chasing through ocean waves. Ew.

Smooth Seas

We're so focussed on the sales pitch, the pithy motto, and the perfect tagline that we run the risk of over-selling the product. What I realized was that I wasn't really tired of the phrase itself, I was tired of the fact that I knew what kind of images would be placed under it before I even searched. And that was the real cliche, not the quote (which is attributed to FDR although I can't find a source), but the overtly inspirational setting.

If there's a solution to this, it's to call for more originality in text design and art-text and, more importantly, to seek it out. Because I'm sure that somewhere out there, there is a fantastic, original, inspired piece of art featuring this quote and that is anything but cliche. (1000×100)


Several sources cite Franklin D. Roosevelt as the origin of this quote, but, suspiciously, none of them give a date or the circumstances under which he might have said it. At least one source says that there are much older versions of the sentiment contained in African proverbs, but there is no source for those either.

Out of curiosity, I ran a few searches in various English-language corpus and found only a few references to the sentence and, of the 42 that I found, while several attributed the quote to FDR, again, none had a source or origin. Not even the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations had this one listed under his name, so, uh, I’m going with apocryphal for this one. FDR may have said it, but it’s doubtful he originated the term or else the source would have been a lot easier to find. (1000×100)

Notable Events of 1945

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Art Text Art

As I’ve mentioned before, my absolute favorite piece of text as art comes from Martin Creed, who’s Work No. 203: Everything is Going to Be Alright, which is just a single string of the titular words worked in white neon capital letters.

(Image courtesy of

This piece runs a close second:

For the second piece, I have no idea who made it. My less than stellar Google-fu gets me back to design firm DEUTSCHE & JAPANER but I don’t know if they made it or just borrowed it. The lyrics are, of course, from Biggie.

But both pieces serve as an antithesis to today’s main essay. After all, what’s more permanent than neon and brass?

Next time: Soapbox. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.