Saturday, October 30, 2010

Spirits in the Trees

A Tulane professor visiting the New Orleans gallery with her class this week asked me about George’s connection to voodoo. Although I’m sure she intended nothing of the sort, her question reminded me of the only negative comment we received in response to the 2008 Rodrigue exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

A woman wrote in, alarmed at George’s depictions of what she described as ‘voodoo and black magic.’ Although I tried to calm her down, I found it hard to deny this observation, simply because George explores all kinds of concepts on his canvas. I thought about The Traiteur and his belief in the Cajun folk healer, along with his frequent use of candles and a fairly visual, if not literal, painted mysticism.

(pictured, Spirits in the Trees, 1992, 33x23 inches, silkscreen edition of 85; notice the ghostly faces in the oak tree…)

I reassured her that he doesn’t advocate any sort of religion or worship through his art or otherwise, not even the Catholicism that was an inseparable part of his childhood in New Iberia, Louisiana.

From his earliest Cajun paintings, however, George explored the supernatural in his artwork. The Cajuns, he says, glow with an inner light, their culture shining out, defying what should be dark shadows beneath the oaks.

(pictured, Jambalaya, 1974, 36x24 inches, oil on canvas)

He paints the people as though they are ghosts, floating and yet locked into the landscape, framed by the trees and yet timeless, caught within their culture, unable to change or to move.

Perhaps his youth and his work in his father’s tomb business influenced this symbolism, as he remembers the crypts and their bodies floating above ground and even caught or trapped in the trees after a flood.

(pictured, A Safe Place Forever, 1984, 40x30, oil on canvas, from the book Bayou, which also includes the first Blue Dog painting)

The Blue Dog also emerges from its grave as a spirit, caught like the Cajun people in the oak tree, a symbol of south Louisiana.

(pictured, The Re-birth of Tiffany, 1993, 36x24, oil on linen)

George’s earliest related silkscreen is Spirits in the Trees, an original print created in 1992 and pictured in its main edition at the top of this post. This also was his first exposure to the split-font technique. He and his printer pulled the paper by hand while experimenting with added colors. This resulted in variegated backgrounds of these ‘split-font’ prints, so that in the case of Spirits in the Trees, the sky blends from one color to the next. As a result, each print in the split-font edition varies, leaving no two prints exactly alike.

(Spirits in the Trees Lilac, split-font edition of 13)

As described in the post “Blue Dog: The Silkscreens,” most of George’s prints are original images, meaning that they do not begin with paintings. In the case of Spirits in the Trees, for example, he started with a unique design on tracing paper. His printer cut the plates accordingly and then followed George’s instructions regarding color. The result is far more interesting than the average print. Indeed, it is best described as print-making as an art form.

(Spirits in the Trees Grey, split-font edition of 13)

In Spirits in the Trees, a simple Blue Dog sits on a grave in a controlled environment, no different than if it is Evangeline or a figure from Bodies. It is a shape no more or less strong than the oak tree, the moon, or even the sky as defined by that space between the bottom of the branches and the top of the bushes.

Without asking him (because even I don’t have the nerve), I’m sure that voodoo and spirits and the afterlife never entered his mind as George created this highly structured design. And yet, within the tree hide faces, easy to miss without a careful look. It’s unusual for George to include something so subtle; and therefore, it must be important. Having discussed with him many times topics such as spirituality and mysticism and the possibility of past lives, I can’t help but wonder if just maybe, even if it’s after the artistic fact, the spirits really are in his trees.

Happy Halloween-


Coming next week: “Swamp Women”

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Doctor on the Bayou

There was a time, other than The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, that doctors made house calls. A time before waiting rooms and diagnostic centers and ten minute speed-treating, when doctors traveled to homes in the middle of the night, held their patient’s hand, and worried alongside panicked relatives.

There was also a time before insurance, before emergency rooms and HMO’s, a time when doctors accepted not only modest payment, but also chickens and vegetables and home-cooked meals.

George Rodrigue painted Doctor on the Bayou in the early 1980s from his mother’s recollection of early twentieth century New Iberia, Louisiana. In the 1920s these doctors made house calls from a horse and buggy, attending to everything from the common cold to childbirth to major ailments and injuries.

They more likely traded their services for goods rather than money, and their dedication established them as folkloric and cultural heroes in the bayou country.

(pictured, Dr. Thomas Bryan Pugh, center, with his brothers)

For his painting, just as with his original Jolie Blonde of 1974, George created his subject from his imagination. So imagine his shock when Lawrence Pugh, a good friend and a long-time member of the New Orleans Gallery staff, brought him several photographs of his great grandfather, a country doctor from Napoleonville, Louisiana with a remarkable likeness to the doctor in the painting.

According to Lawrence, his great-grandfather was a miracle child, plucked from the floodwaters at age three by a slave during the Last Island hurricane of 1856.* Saved by an unnamed hero, he became a hero himself, the only coroner for many miles, living to age ninety-eight, and awarded by the community on the occasion of his fiftieth wedding anniversary with a brand new car, a Ford Model T.

(pictured, Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Bryan Pugh on their fiftieth wedding anniversary)

Like the distinguished Dr. Pugh, George’s Doctor on the Bayou knows local respect, reflected in his solitary, yet approachable and confident stance, prepared with his doctor’s bag for a house visit. In the painting, he stands not in shadow, but all in white, glowing like a ghost and framed within the dark oak tree, locked into Louisiana as an inseparable part of its culture. He stands on a dock where he could just as easily step onto a road as a river, reminding us that the Bayou Teche and the Mississippi River also transported these early physicians.

For the painting River Doctor 1800 (above), commissioned along with the two paintings below by a Baton Rouge Hospital in the mid 1980s, Rodrigue researched old Louisiana medical photographs. The doctor with his nurse and family rode the riverboat (visible in the distance) to small villages, caring for the people that lived along the river.

George again researched old photographs to paint General Practice 1900 (above), depicting a later phase in medical history when small hospitals, wooden structures, provided permanent offices and examining rooms, known as ‘country clinics,’ for physicians.

In the painting Modern Medicine (above), George compares the teamwork put forth by today’s Louisiana health care workers to that of a kids’ football team, including his sons, André (yellow helmet) and Jacques (red helmet). In the mid-1980s he found himself like most young fathers at his kids’ sporting events, and it was an easy connection for him to relate the team work of a hospital staff to the team spirit of a child’s football team.

Finally, I leave you with one last photo of a pensive Dr. Pugh, along with a quote from “Two Ways of Seeing a River” by his contemporary (and look-a-like) Mark Twain, who weighs in with an observant, if not depressing, look at the challenges, heroism, and controversy surrounding the medical profession of his day:

“No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” (1883)


*to learn more about Dr. Pugh’s story and the Last Island hurricane, see the book Last Days of Last Island: The Hurricane of 1856, Louisiana’s First Great Storm (Bill Dixon, 2009, University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

The original painting, Doctor on the Bayou, hangs in Lake Charles Memorial Hospital in Lake Charles, Louisiana. For information on the hospital’s ‘Art for the Soul Reception’ with George Rodrigue on November 11, 2010 contact Lake Charles Memorial Hospital.

George Rodrigue recently produced a fine art silkscreen of his original Doctor on the Bayou. For information contact Rodrigue Studio.

Coming this weekend: "Spirits in the Trees"

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Defining Success (Finding Fulfillment)

“If you help others, you will find the happiness you want. This is the secret they don’t tell you at school.” Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

How do we end up in our personal (and public) situations? How do children with big problems, those born into poverty, ignorance, and crime, find real happiness inside a box of paints or a piece of cake?

I saw them with my own eyes, two hundred K-3 kids at New Orleans College Prep, a public charter school for grades K-8, expanding soon to K-12, available tuition-free to all children in Orleans Parish, regardless of demographics. With dedicated and highly skilled teachers and a hands-on principal, this school instills a desire for college from day one with strict academics and discipline, a code of honor complete with advanced concepts and vocabulary, and a tremendous amount of fun, such as the zoo, sports, music lessons, art therapy, and dance.

In a school in which more than eighty percent of their parents lack a high school diploma, these students have their eyes set on college and their hearts set on the person sitting next to them.

One little boy grabbed my hand to show me not only his own painting, but also that of several of his friends. They painted hearts and sunshine and flowers. Their dogs weren’t just blue, but also purple and yellow and red. When I told one child, “Look at your painting! You’re an artist!,” she smiled big and opened her arms wide,

“We’re all artists, Ms. Wendy!”

I spent much of this week thinking about growing older and about life’s circumstances. I should have been born twenty years earlier, I thought to myself as I toasted John Bullard, a dear friend and the former director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, who recently retired after thirty-seven years.

Looking around the room, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing there, why I was included among this distinguished group. I fought back thoughts of losing my friends, so many of them approaching seventy, eighty, and even ninety, and all of them significant contributors to the arts in the New Orleans community.

(pictured, cakes for the students of NOCP, donated by New Orleans' culinary artists: Chef Matt Murphy and Chef Thomas McGovern of M Bistro at the Ritz-Carlton, and Chef Ziggy Cichowski of the Maple Street Patisserie)

This aging conundrum weighed on my mind since presenting a lecture the day before to The Freedom Foundation of Valley Forge. With their modest budget these dedicated Americans, most of them senior citizens, devote their efforts to sending at least one student a year to school in Washington D.C. They speak of changing our community, instilling a sense of pride in young people so that they appreciate our country and understand the importance of practicing and preserving its values:

“…To share with others our appreciation of the benefits and obligations of freedom…” from the “Bill of Responsibilities” of the Freedom Foundation of Valley Forge.

George and I ended our week with a painting demonstration and lecture for the Louisiana Art Educator’s Association during their fall conference in Baton Rouge. The two hundred teachers from all levels came from around the state for a weekend devoted to (according to their flyer) “altering our ideas and passions as a necessary continuous process of growth, both personally and professionally.”

You are my favorite type of audience, I told them, as George painted for an hour alongside me. They already understand Louisiana terms such as loup-garou and Jolie Blonde, and their art knowledge opens my discussion of Rodrigue to comparisons with Degas, Picasso, and others, along with an easy understanding of his academic roots, namely the 1960s art scene.

These teachers share the arts with their students. They are the administrators of our goals through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. Without them, none of it works.

(pictured, art supplies donated to New Orleans College Prep by Forum 35 and the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts)

What did we do with our time before we had a foundation? I asked George Rodrigue this week.

“Book tours and museum shows,” he reminded me.

Oh yeah, I forgot.


I was surprised when a friend of my sister’s asked her recently,

“Are you ever jealous of Wendy?”

My sister explained the closeness of our relationship and the fact that we share each other’s good fortune ( my great relief, sighs Aunt Wendy):

“No, I’m not jealous” Heather said, “and besides, she’s tired all of the time!”

*Sprinkled throughout this post: photographs from our afternoon at New Orleans College Prep

*Special thanks to Forum 35 of Baton Rouge, Char Thian of the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, Chef Matt Murphy and Chef Thomas McGovern of M Bistro, Chef Ziggy Cichowski of the Maple Street Patisserie, our wonderful GRFA staff and interns, and the many volunteers that helped us create a special afternoon for students at NOCP

Coming later this week: “Doctor on the Bayou”

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Passionless Style?

We took a short trip to New York this week as we met with publishers and celebrated the launch of Deb Shriver’s elegant tribute to New Orleans, Stealing Magnolias. With only a few hours to explore the city, I found myself once again with my museum pal Emer*, this time at the Morgan Library.

Far from the contemporary abstract art I hoped to see at the Museum of Modern Art (which was closed), we encountered Edgar Degas’s drawings, a classical and familiar art history nook for us both.

We all know Degas’s ballerinas and horses, and those of us in New Orleans especially are familiar with the cotton exchange, which he painted during his visit here in 1873.

However, I was surprised to see in his sketches studies of the old masters, especially Michelangelo, the same drawings that inspired and indeed educated George Rodrigue as an art student. Both artists copied the old masters to understand the human figure.

(pictured, a Rodrigue sketch from 1965; for more images and history see the post “The Nude Figure”)

In addition, like Rodrigue, Degas (1834-1917) rarely took commissions, preferring his own passionate direction over the dictated instructions of someone else.

This independence lead him to experiment with various mediums, including print-making. After last week’s visit with artist Woody Gwyn in Galisteo, New Mexico, I did not expect our impromptu discussion of monotypes to pay off so quickly. However, as Gwyn explained, it was Degas who embraced this medium with enthusiasm, adding paint to his prints and creating a form of mixed media. In the piece below, for example, he embellished (in 1885) with pastel a lithograph he originally printed in 1877.

This reminded me in turn of George’s mixed medias. He paints on silkscreens, occasionally revisiting and reworking prints from years back, exchanging his easel and palette for the fun of garage walls and paint-from-the-can.

Furthermore, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between Degas’s ballerinas and Rodrigue's Blue Dog, and their effects on each artist's career. After years of painting, both artists achieved fame when the public embraced their new subjects.

(Degas's Yellow Ballerina)

(Rodrigue's Hawaiian Blues, 1998, 36x63; for the story of this painting see the post "Blue Dog Man")

As with an earlier post on Picasso*(who was an avid collector of Degas’s monotypes and mixed medias), I do not presume to connect the styles of Rodrigue and Degas. However, there are certain similarities regarding their interests and artistic development that did cross my mind as I viewed the Morgan’s collection.

Following the Degas drawings, Emer encouraged me to view the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition across the hall, specifically his black-and-white drawings of 1961-1968 (the same years George attended art school in Lafayette and Los Angeles).

“Come on, Wendy. They’re just plain fun,” she said, in her expressive Irish accent.

It’s ironic that my passion for George’s paintings does not spill over to Pop Art in general. I’ve seen lots of this style over the years and studied most if not all of the relevant artists. However, in all honesty I’m far more excited about the ballerinas. Maybe Lichtenstein himself unwittingly described the reason when he said of his own work,

“The passionless style is my passion.”

Despite the fact that it included five times the number of pieces, Emer and I blew through the show much faster than the Degas exhibition. There’s not a lot to study, not much to say beyond the overall clever and (certainly at the time) innovative concept.

Lichtenstein used both stencils and common household window screens to create his dot patterns. I find this form of ‘cheating’ intriguing, even refreshing, especially since he also copied his images from cartoons and advertisements he found in newspapers. According to the artist, he appreciated cartoons for their

“startling quality of visual shorthand and their sense of cliché.”

Hey, I like cliché too! And this candor, the willingness of Lichtenstein to admit his insensitivity and “sort of mindless drawing,” ironically renewed my interest … and my passion.


*Emer introduced me to the Morgan several years ago, when an installation of Chopin original scores interspersed with small Delacroix canvases and passages from George Sand left me swooning. For a related post see “The Muse”

*for a Met Museum adventure with Emer, see the post “Miniatures and Manuscripts”

pictured above, a Rodrigue canvas, one of those 'rare commissions,' 2009

coming next week: “Doctor on the Bayou”

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Artist Friends: A Pilgrimage

“… a sweep of red carnelian-colored hills lying at the foot of the mountains came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and in that depression was Santa Fe, at last!”*

This month we crossed the country for the second time this year, unable to resist the American West and especially the draw of Santa Fe. George sketched, photographed, and designed, inspired by the place and its people, in particular a journey to Galisteo, an artist’s community thirty miles south of the New Mexico capital.

We also enjoyed, thanks to the connections of our friends and collectors Chris and Don Sanders, a private tour of the hidden treasures below the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe. Our guide, Abigail, shared with us life-size horses by Deborah Butterfield, thickly-painted landscapes by Wayne Thiebaud (famous for his paintings of petit fours and hors d’oeuvres), and the real prize, an original Alfred Stieglitz photograph (below) of his long-time lover, Georgia O’Keeffe (a photograph valued at more than one million dollars).

In Galisteo we visited Woody Gwyn, an artist who paints landscapes and, ironically, seascapes within the 18th century hacienda he shares with his wife Diana. We found him working on a long narrow canvas (one foot by fourteen feet) of Bixby Bridge and the Pacific Coast, an area well known to us on California’s Highway One, and a seemingly odd choice within this land-locked, historic Spanish colonial town.

The Gwyns are the third family in three hundred years to own the Doris-Ortiz hacienda. Built in 1703, its rafters originated with the church built on the same site in 1675. The new structure began as a Spanish trading post, followed by a dance hall and casino, and when the Comanche Indians raided Galisteo in 1712, the women and children hid in the house’s courtyard during the battle. In 1846 the structure became a U.S. cavalry outpost, followed by a general store and finally a bar, popular with movie stars in the 1950s.

Most notable, Archbishop Lamy (1814-1888) made the arduous journey from Lyon, France to Galisteo, New Mexico during the mid-1800s. He lived in a modest room within this same house as he supervised construction of the new church, located just across the street, the only asphalt today in Galisteo, a road paved in the 1940s to ensure safe travel of the atomic bomb to the Trinity site.

“When you live here, you understand we’re all very temporary and it’s just our turn to take care of things,” explained Diana.

This history envelops Woody Gwyn, along with other artists, reminding them daily that they are part of a bigger landscape. (pictured, George Rodrigue and Woody Gwyn)

In Woody’s case, this legacy runs beyond the borders of the town and the span of his lifetime, echoing the Northern Renaissance and prompting my comment,
You do realize, Woody, no one paints like this anymore.

“Yeah,” he replied, “all my best friends have been dead now for hundreds of years.”

(I watched George pick up a disposable make-up applicator from Gwyn’s easel. “No brushes,” he mumbled.)

(pictured above, an oil painting from 2010 by Woody Gwyn, 72x72 inches; “I live a life of sensory deprivation,” says Gwyn)

We enjoyed an impromptu discussion of monotypes, editions of one, a process perfected by the impressionist Edgar Degas. To create the prints, Degas used not only oil paints, but also watercolor and gouache, achieving 'a unique atmospheric quality.'

“It’s a bastard medium,” explained Gwyn. “It’s not a painting but it is a painting; it’s not a print but it is a print.” 

“Kinda fun; like going fishing. You either catch something or you don’t.” -WG

From the Gwyn home, we crossed the dirt road to Priscilla Hoback’s hacienda. A painter and sculptor, Hoback moved to Galisteo in the 1970s. She mines her own clay and colors, firing her heavy wall pieces inside a kiln she made herself, located within the walls of her three hundred year old house.

(pictured, White Spirit Horse by Priscilla Hoback, 36x43 inches)

She lives with her dogs, birds, and horses, surrounded by life and activity in a town of two hundred people, more than half of which are artists:

“It’s just what a girl needs: a house, a studio, and a barn.” -PH

George and I have known Priscilla for years, first through her mother Rosalea Murphy (of Pink Adobe fame, and a wonderful artist in her own right; story here), and in recent years through both her artwork and her friendship. We are enthusiastic collectors of her clay creations, which hang on both the interior and exterior walls of our house. (pictured, George Rodrigue and Priscilla Hoback)

She talks not only about her own work, but also of Woody’s, her ‘poker buddy,’ a ‘fantastic character,’ pointing out his paintings hanging throughout her house, along with those of another Galisteo friend and artist, Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), who gifted her with small paintings of green birds. (pictured, Don Sanders looking at paintings by Priscilla’s friends)

She questions George about his work, and I sit on the side and watch these artistic friends show genuine interest in each other’s projects.

It’s a similar scene of friendship and art back in Santa Fe, where we join Doug Magnus for a tour of his workshop, studying the equipment and processes used to create his handmade designs in gold, silver and turquoise. (pictured, ‘the vault’ at Magnus Studios)

Indeed before we leave Galisteo, Priscilla supports her old friend,

“Have you seen Magnus? There’s a show of his paintings in Santa Fe this afternoon.”

We meet up with the jeweler, who seems embarrassed by his ‘vintage’ paintings:

“You have to keep it up," he explains. "Painting is one of those things you can lose; I have to feel comfortable with the brushstroke. These are those kinds of paintings, the ones I created after I hadn’t picked up my brush in a long time.”

George and I love them, and we bought one, a painting of an adobe house in the snow, foreshadowing the Christmas holidays we’ll spend in Santa Fe this December.

(pictured, George Rodrigue holding a painting by Doug Magnus, Doug Magnus, Wendy, Chris and Don Sanders holding a photograph by Dana Waldon, another talented artist-friend, who also shot this picture)

It is in Santa Fe that George experiences artistic camaraderie. He admires these artists, their works, and their techniques. He gets lost in discussions of kilns, photography, and turquoise, almost shy when Woody suggests they work on monotypes together during our next visit, or when Priscilla hints (with obvious admiration) for signed copies of his latest books.

He feels understood here in a way that eludes him in south Louisiana, an area where, perhaps just because it’s home, the Blue Dog as a concept supersedes the Blue Dog as a piece of art, where public familiarity and misunderstanding blur the artistic, symbolic, and even civic intent of his work as far back as his Landscapes and Cajun Paintings, and where the Blue Dog Man overpowers the curious, intense, small-town (at heart), down-to-earth and devoted (always) friend, George Rodrigue.


*Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather, 1927

to learn more about Rodrigue’s Santa Fe history and paintings, see the post “Rosalea Murphy, the Pink Adobe, and Paintings of Evergreen Lake"

unless otherwise noted, all photographs in this post are by George Rodrigue, October 2010

pictured above, a casual shot during a modeling session (notice the couch in the first image in this post, a working design); although this photograph probably won't result in a painting, it is George's favorite, he says, because I look like my mother...

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Big Dog in Texas

“This is where we lose the mountains,”

George Rodrigue observed about sixty miles west of Amarillo.

We’re crossing Texas again, the return trip of a journey begun in June. Unlike the drive west through Houston and Fort Stockton, we’re traveling the northern route, passing some of our favorite sites including Graffiti (1974), ten buried cadillacs just outside of Amarillo, an art installation wedged (with room to spare) between cotton fields and cattle feedlots.

This is the gateway to my favorite stretch of American road, three hundred and forty miles on Hwy 287 between Amarillo and Fort Worth. I take the wheel here, wanting the responsibility of rolling slowly through near-deserted West Texas towns.

It was late afternoon, and we made the mistake of trading Willy’s Place for the Saints Radio Network.* Following the game, we drove in silence.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked George.
“The road.” He replied.

Responsible for photographs, George indulged not only his visual passions but also mine, especially when it came to grain silos. Unlike the stark Bernd and Hilla Becher images that first alerted me to the large metal structures, his images include the sky and surroundings, the sun and shadows, the pervasive bigness of Texas.

He rolled down the window and, although the sun still shined, we smelled the rain awaiting us near Shreveport, a warm, almost attic-type musty scent (foreign to central California) that reminds us of home.
“Where’s that antique shop?” George wondered aloud, “the one where we bought the metal signs for Café Tee George?”

We remembered the restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana that burned more than ten years ago.

“In Quanah,” I replied, “another sixty miles. As I recall, there’s a fantastic silo across the street.”


*the Saints lost to Arizona, 30-20. Recalling better days, visit the posts “Who Dat?!” and “A Happiness Epidemic”

-all photographs by George Rodrigue, October 2010

-The Amarillo Museum of Art hosts a major Rodrigue exhibition, late summer 2012

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