Text as Visual Language: Conversations with the Artists

Curator in Residence, Yvonne Osei, interviews four participants in Text as Visual Language, our cross-disciplinary exhibition, which closes on May 19, 2019. These responses by artists Clayton Petras, Amari Arrinell, Jennifer Lin and Sophie Lin give deeper insights to the relationship between text and visual language, as well as the caliber or artists and artworks currently on display at the Millstone Gallery.

Text as Visual Language is a juried cross-disciplinary exhibition that welcomes all works using text primarily as visual forms of expression. The exhibition was juried by Buzz Spector, internationally recognized artist and critical writer, Tate Foley, Assistant Professor of Art at Webster University and Pacia Elaine Anderson, St. Louis-based written and spoken word artist. The works discussed were in response to an open call for both artists and non-artists of all ages in the St. Louis region.

A selfie showing collaborators Jennifer Lin-Osborn and her daughter Sophie Lin-Osborn. Sophie is our youngest participant in the Text as Visual Language exhibition. She has also taken art classes at COCA in the past and will be taking the artist toolbox camp again this summer.

What inspired this mother-daughter collaboration and what does such collaboration lend to this project? 

For years, Sophie has shopped in the boys department because she liked the words on their clothes more than those featured on most girls t-shirts. When we saw the call for entries for Text as Visual Art, we wondered what kind of information we could collect if we looked at hundreds of t-shirts for boys and girls from mainstream retailers and see how we could call attention to how words on clothing can shape what we imagine, how we see ourselves and those around us, and how we grow our personal identity.

Was this your first time collaborating together and do you see yourselves doing more art collaborative projects in the future? 

We collaborate on our annual holiday card together—Sophie draws and I do the graphic design and photography. It usually takes about a month from start to finish. Yes, we plan on creating more pieces together in the future.

Beyond The T-Shirt” a collaborative piece by Jennifer and Sophie Lin-Osborn created by looking through 300 youth t-shirts online from mainstream retailers.

How were you drawn to exploring T-shirts (unisex and ordinary articles of clothing that hold commonplace in society)? What prompted you to dissect the captions that T-shirts designs carry, what they communicate and the impact they have on a culture? 

T-shirts seemingly can be unisex often for adults, but often they are clearly separated for girls and boys in stores. Even a girls shirt that says, “adventure,” might be in pink or purple instead of red or blue. So if you like the word “adventure” and the color red, you have to go to the boys department, and that just didn’t make sense to Sophie (even when she was in kindergarten). For this piece, we looked through over 300 t-shirts online from retailers such as Target, Old Navy, Gap, H&M, Gymboree, Crazy 8, and J. Crew. When seen collectively, it became apparent how phrases on boy t-shirts generally convey ideas of games, science, adventure, the epic, and being fearless. Girl t-shirts tend to focus on kindness, love, imagination, friendship, and being happy. Sophie and I wanted to communicate that these traditional and separate gender roles that companies perpetuate are much more interconnected than we allow them to be. Girls and boys can be loving, fearless, and kind all in the same day. Also we liked how the personal identity of both the t-shirt wearer and viewer are affected by the words and phrases further highlighting the complexity of relationships.

Were there any particular T-shirt caption/s that stood out to you that you would like to discuss?

One of the girls t-shirt says, “I’m Possible,” while in contrast one of the boy t-shirt says, “We Are The Future.” The girl shirt is positive in meaning, but it conveys a bit of hesitancy and uncertainty—it’s not exactly an assertive statement. The boy t-shirt is definitive and straightforward—actively owning that the person who wears that shirt is the future. Sophie and I thought about how it would be interpreted if a boy wore the “I’m Possible” shirt and a girl wore the “We Are The Future” shirt. In some ways in today’s American “girl power” culture, it might be more the norm for a girl to wear either shirt, but not necessarily for a boy. These gender role expectations for youth can be challenging. 

How did Sophie choose what captions to illustrate for the poster you both created and what would you want your audience to take away from this work?

Sophie drew images of boys acting out the girl t-shirt phrases and girls acting out the boy t-shirt phrases. She picked phrases that were somewhat active, conveyed emotion, or were funny like, “I love you more than rainbows, pizza, and unicorns.” For this work, Sophie and I want people to see how common objects such as a t-shirt have a much larger impact on identity than we might think. Just as many of us carefully shape our public image on social media these days, text on clothes has an immediate impact for the wearer and the viewer. As youth develop their identities of who they are and who they want to be, they may want to think more critically about how those phrases on their t-shirts can spark imagination or reaffirm tradition.


Fortune 001 (Every good friend once was a stranger.)” by Amari Arrimdell is the first of his Fortune 500 series on view at the Millstone Gallery till May 19, 2019.

The photograph in the exhibition forms part of a lager series. What inspired your “Fortune 500” series? How does your photograph relate to the premise of “Text as Visual Language”?

I’m a very visual person. So when I received a fortune that correlates with an image that I have taken, I decide to put the two together. COCA’s Text as Visual Language exhibit celebrates the work of artists that have incorporated text in their work. Text plays a significant role in a variety of my works and I believe that the piece in the exhibit tells a complete story using only a picture and seven words.

What sparked your interest in adapting fortunes derived from fortune cookies in your work and what is the relevance of them in your photographs?

In the early months of 2018, I received a fortune that said, “Your most memorable dream will come true.” I held onto that fortune as a constant reminder. In June 2018, I placed 14th in the 2018 National Speech and Debate Associations’ annual national tournament. The tournament is the largest academic competition in the world. By gracing the national stage, I accomplished my most memorable dream. Since that moment, I have saved every fortune I receive. People often say “a picture is worth 1000 words,” but by adding fortunes to the pictures I take, I tell a more complete story.

Fortune 015 (A day without smiling is a day wasted.) by Amari Arrimdel from his ongoing “Fortune 500” series.

The inscription “Everyone good friend once was a stranger.” is superimposed on the eyes of the two subjects in your photograph, interrupting our gaze and obscuring their identity. What guides the placement of text and imagery and the general composition of your work?

The individuals in the original picture have many mutual friends but had never met. The two met at a New Year’s party and instantly formed a bond. Once strangers, the two instantly formed a good friendship. I chose to make the individuals in my pieces anonymous to further focus on the fortune. I enjoy privacy, so I use fortunes to simultaneously obscure one’s identity and make a point.

Where do you see your work going in the near future?

The image currently on display, as well as ones not in the exhibition are a part of a larger project entitled “Fortune 500”. This project I will be comprised of 500 images that incorporate fortunes. One of my 2019 goals was to have my work on display in a gallery. With COCA’s Text as Visual Language exhibit that goal was accomplished. I look forward to having my work published. Currently, I have my sights set on small galleries, a book release and parties to showcase my work.

You mentioned that the goal is to create 500 of these works to complete the “Fortune 500” series, how many of the works have you completed to date? Are there any other art projects you are working on alongside this project?

To date, I have completed 26 works for my “Fortune 500” series. In addition to working on my “Fortune 500” series, I’m currently working on two project’s entitled “Black Women Smiling” and” Black & White Summer”. “Black Women Smiling” is meant to display the intelligence, beauty and complexity of women who are apart of the African diaspora. In a world where the “angry black woman” stereotype still exists, I hope this project shines a light on a community undeserving of the label “angry”. Yet, so very deserving of all love, support and praise. “Black & White Summer” is meant to capture timeless summer moments. This project will be shot entirely on black and white film in different states and countries.


Video stills from “Please Respond”, a video displayed on iPhone 5S by Clayton Petras on view at the Millstone Gallery till May 19, 2019.

How does the medium of animation elevate the content and context of your work?

In this piece, animation acts as a facilitator of both narrative and as a window into the syntax of the language of text messaging. It allows me to play with both what a text message conversation looks like and how we come to terms with this immediate connection to those around us. It also allows me to bring elements of a text conversation we don’t see, like the forming of a message or the things we type but don’t send. Additionally, by using animation I can play with fictionalizing this world, adding elements such as expanding thought bubbles or hand written text transforming into the type font we are accustomed to.

There are many modes of communication including writing letters, sending emails and face-to-face interactions. What relevance did the mode of text messaging have to visually express the relationship between your mother and yourself? 

The use of text messaging was born out of the stress of the problem it originates from. For my mother, it seemed there was a distance in text messaging that inhibited her communication with me that other modes of communication like FaceTime or a call wouldn’t have for her. As she would send text messages to me about needing to talk on the phone, or sometimes messages like “Please Respond,” I began to see our text conversations as a microcosm of our sometimes strained relationship; a tether between us that I didn’t want to break, but also something that allowed me to have distance from the issues between us.

There is a feeling of eavesdropping on a personal conversation when one interacts with your artwork. Is this feeling something you welcome and what led you to display your work on an iPhone?

Certainly, I understand that the work has a sense of voyeurism for the viewer. Phones become an extension of the people who use them, containing our lives from the conversations with our friends, to movie tickets, to our credit card information. I originally toyed with this piece as a projected work, and while this gave a sense of scale to the viewer, it felt wrong. I like the idea more of letting the viewer into a small personal interaction; one that may even make them uncomfortable, sad, or anxious, replicating the feelings I sometimes have with these conversations.

The repetition of the text “Please Respond” in your video and also the title for the piece seems to transcend mere words. It takes on a visual energy and evokes emotion. Can you shed light on how you decided to treat some of the texts in your work and what you hope to convey with this work?

 The phrase “Please Respond” came about naturally as you see in the piece, coming in a text chain with my Mom. I often struggle with the concept of being a caretaker, knowing that it both is and isn’t my job as a son. The phrase simultaneously plays on those two levels for me as well. On the one hand, it’s a cry out from a mother experiencing loneliness and on the other it’s a son trying to live his life and start his own family and not wanting to be weighed down. I realize that part of this work involves taking a look at myself as being selfish, and that I may come off as cold. But as much as this piece speaks to the relationship between a mother and son, the elements that it also talks about is the relationship between someone with mental illness like bi-polar disorder and the family it affects. I want to bring these conversations to the forefront. Text messaging became a vehicle for that.

In your video work, you expose the viewer to a text box revealing the formulation of thoughts and the immediacy involved in instant text messaging. Through animation, portions of these text messages were erased, contents rephrased and edited before the viewer’s eyes. Could you discuss the relevance of text and imagery in relation to the formal treatment and conceptual underpinnings of your work?

These animation tools of erasure and rearrangement play a crucial role in the previously mentioned “fictional” element of the work. To say they aren’t part of the actual text chain would be true; however, I would argue that the truth revealed in the rearrangement is something I view as the intentions behind the texts, or the true feelings of the two parties involved. Erasure also plays a key part in the representation of my mother lost memory. A symptom of her Parkinson’s disease is that she becomes forgetful of things, conversations we’ve had or when we last spoke, escalating this feeling of loneliness. On the other side in the formation of the texts, I play with rearrangement and rewriting as a look into how we form a message through this mode of communication. We are able to edit in real time, checking our impulses before saying them. So the things we may have said in person and regretted, instead are thought out on a screen. This is shown through the handwriting and erasure before that send button is pushed.





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