I got lost looking at the peacocks.

I got lost looking at the peacocks.


“Leaves a Trail Behind Her” 36×48, oil on canvas

I wrote about how I got the title for this painting on instagram back in October. I told the story of how when I was a kid, okay not just a kid, a young adult too, my Dad used to say quite often, “Oh that Denise, she always leaves a trail behind her.” In other words, I was a mess. I’d open a granola bar and leave the wrapper on the counter, inches away from the trash. I’d use a pen and leave it out, the cap resting somewhere nearish but not easily discoverable. My clothes were rarely in drawers. In college, my roommates used to joke about how I’d sleep on the tiniest sliver of my bed, the rest taken up by books and whatever other materials I’d used that day. 

My kids do all these things now and probably to a lesser degree, and it drives me batshit crazy. What’s life without at least a dash of hypocrisy? Or maybe retribution. 

In my post, I said I like to think that all those trails led me somewhere. I think what I meant is that I think I may have learned, eventually, how to leave better trails– how to take up space with my voice and my art rather than all my trash, my discarded projects, my oblivion to who might come behind me. 

I may remember this the next time I pick up yet another ramen wrapper from the counter. I may, as I wipe the dust of the flavor packet remnants into the trash, think about what kind of other trails they will leave behind them, how we are not really so different at all. I might. 

I started thinking about this because someone purchased a print of “Leaves a Trail Behind Her” this morning and inquired about whether or not there had been a blog post about it. I sent her a screenshot of the original instagram post. She responded by telling me that she’d picked this piece because there were peacocks that lived in the rehab center where her dad resided a couple days before he passed away. She said he was very confused and sick at the time, but made her laugh when he said, “I got lost looking at the peacocks.”

I loved that. Maybe it’s okay to be messy and lost sometimes. Maybe the child becomes the parent before she’s ready or before she even realizes it.  Maybe the trails we leave are littered and overrun but take us somewhere worth going anyway.

 

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Written by Denise Hopkins

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“It seemed at first that bird would surely fall”

“It seemed at first that bird would surely fall”

I am currently on vacation in Florida with my family (minus one stepson away at college who is dearly missed). Instead of writing a new blog post for the week, I wanted to share something old. As I dug through my archives (which, turns out, actually takes longer than writing something new) I landed on a post from almost exactly seven years ago. It was day 100 of my 100 paintings in 100 days project, and I painted an eagle inspired by the poetry of my now dear friend, Butch.

It’s been a minute since I really looked back at the beginning, when I was just starting to paint seriously. The almost ten year old who jumped out of bed this morning, alert and ready at the words “boats’s ready, let’s go fishing,” was not quite three when I wrote that 100 day post. I was still toting him around on my hip and watching Buzz Lightyear on repeat from an actual DVD. There weren’t any other kids in my life. I was finding my way, paint stroke by paint stroke, completely unsure and unsteady and yet never more determined to see it all through. Without realizing it, I often take for granted the beginning of the story. The part where anything, especially disaster, was possible. For the first time that I can ever remember, I decided to pursue something despite what other people said or cautioned me against. I decided to listen to my own voice, quiet and timid, but persistent.

Reading it again, my friend’s poem still makes my eyes water. What a gift it was to me then and what a treasure it is to me now, seven years on the other side, still pulling out my paint and tools, just in case anything should decide to take flight.

Here’s the original post:

 

Day 100/100. It’s All About the Doing, July 9, 2015

 

100 days. Oh. My. God. And I don’t mean that in an in-vain kind of way. I mean it in the awe-struck, completely inadequate way. Not that I am so impressed by my own silly achievement as much as I am amazed at what a silly achievement can do for a person– take them from darkness into light. And all I had to do was paint? Are you kidding me?

I will never forget where I was almost three years ago. Wearing a baggy yellow nightgown, standing barefoot on the tile of my bathroom, hair dripping water on the ground. My marriage was ending and my newborn wouldn’t stop crying. I was looking down at the yellow cloth bunched around my middle and said these words to a friend on the phone: When I think about the rest of my life (i.e, when I picture it, envision it, “paint the scene”), I just don’t want to live it. In that moment, I was no artist. There was nothing I could do with the raw materials before me. I didn’t think I had anything to work with.

I know I’ve written about this before, but it feels different because of the ever-growing distance between me and the woman in a frumpy yellow nightgown. Okay, I still wear it, and in most respects I’m still her, but my vision is broader and my hope more profound. I’m not a victim of circumstance, but an artist who designs a future. One little painting at a time.

100 paintings in 100 days, like all of my daily painting pursuits isn’t about the paintings but about the doing. Doing is power. I’m so glad I learned that.

I spent a long time trying to decide what I was going to do, but it wasn’t until I picked up the brush, figured out some mildly tech-y stuff, and just started that the figuring out part began. And it’s still happening. New opportunities keep presenting themselves like little imperfectly wrapped gifts from God-knows-where. But they didn’t start arriving until I started doing.

I envy artists who seem to have it all figured out. They’ve got their “thing” and they do it really well, market it precisely.

But my thing is a path. It’s a commitment to keep walking the twists and turns, embracing new directions and discoveries along the way. Taking some wrong turns. Occasionally getting lost. So my thing isn’t a thing; it’s a promise: I will keep doing this because I believe it will continue leading me to diverse somewheres.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone I’d met in 2009. On the patio at Pat O’Brien’s, I discussed Flannery O’Connor with him and his wife who were visiting from Arkansas. I never remembered his name until the email in which he reminded me of our conversation and some things I said that I don’t quite remember saying. It’s amazing how I can be more forthcoming and honest with certain strangers than I am with people I’ve known my whole life. I detest small talk which is what talking to strangers mostly is. But every once in a while you meet someone with whom there is no preamble, with whom heartfelt conversation is not the reward for hours or even years of mild pleasantries.

I’d like to share the whole email here because I’ve been trying to summarize it and not quite doing it justice. He included a poem at the end that makes me cry when I read it. It reminds me that saying “no” to the good things I don’t really want has allowed me to witness things I do want (maybe need?), the things that are more than just good but a good fit to boot.

So here it is:

Butch’s Letter

I’ll begin with apologies for such a lengthy email, not my normal style.

You may remember that some years ago, my wife and I had the accidental good fortune to meet you with some of your friends at Pat O’Brien’s, where the rather amazing coincidence of our mutual deep regard for the work of Flannery O’Connor was discovered.  I later read your Master’s thesis, and looked at the art on your website, as you had mentioned it to me.  I remember you saying then that you were feeling some urgency to find your artistic voice, that O’Connor had done so much in her thirty-nine years, and you felt the need to get moving in some similar way.  I also remember telling my wife that I thought you were, as Cormac McCarthy says, ‘Carrying the fire’, and that I hoped you didn’t let life get its confining arms too much around you, and pull you away from your true passion.

I retired from Entergy in early 2014, and had the very interesting task of figuring out what I wanted the next phase of my life to be about, after working for large companies for about 40 years.  I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to take that kind of look at things.  One thing that I remembered was a painting I had seen at your website showing a barefoot girl putting her toe in the water, trousers rolled, with the great T.S. Eliot poem.  I loved that painting, with its challenge and its courage.  Went to the website, and found….website gone. “Oh no,” I thought, “they got to her….the ‘numbers and normal’ people…got to her.”

Imagine my relief when I found your new, and excellent, website.  You could not imagine how deeply pained I was when I read your story, and of the suffering you had gone through.  You also cannot imagine how inspired I was by your determined course to be…and make a living being…an artist.  It has made such a difference for me as I have tried to go forward with this next phase.  I’ve always thought of myself as a person with a fair amount of courage, but you really expanded my sense of my own courage, especially relative to the artistic.

Now, I don’t fool myself that I am an artist, but over the years I’ve written a bunch of songs that I never had time to really do anything with.  I’ve started a book that I hope to complete, I don’t think it is art, but it may be a good story at that.  And at different times over the years, I’ve written some cowboy poetry that folks have found to be good and interesting.  I should probably say…I understand that cowboy poetry, at least as written by me, is to real poetry as, say, John Wayne as an actor is to Sir Lawrence Olivier.  But anyhow, it’s what I do sometimes.

So when you spoke of your 100 days of art, I was quite intrigued, and encouraged, and a little challenged.  I decided that whereas I didn’t think I could do a poem or a song a day, I would do a piece of work each week while you were in your quest.  Easy to say, not so easy to do.  Started a poem but couldn’t finish it in a week….thought okay, a poem a month during this period.  Still not so easy…elderly parents, night teaching job, family illness, wonderful (in every respect) but time demanding grandson, resistance, lack of discipline, more resistance.  So finally I said to myself, is it too much to get at least this one poem finished within these hundred days????

This stuff is hard!  But I did finish it….or at least finished it for today…still got a couple of places that want a better poet, albeit a cowboy poet.

I’ve attached it here, and I hope you enjoy it.  It is dedicated to you, for your inspiration and example.  Helping me, and I’m sure others, have the courage to transcend the ‘numbers and the normal’.  I’m going to try.

All the best!  You’re in the home stretch!

 

               When She Took Wing to Fly

             Respectfully dedicated to Louisiana artist Denise Hopkins

Every day for ninety days, without a day of rest,

She walked the trail, and climbed the cliff, to reach that eagle’s nest.

She brought her paints, and canvas boards, and set them on the ledge,

And stood there humming while she worked, not two foot from the edge.

And come the dusk, she’d climb back down, and work her way on back.

Another painting on the walls, of her old tar-paper shack.

But each one spoke its special truth, of beauty, strength and grace,

Of work, and love, and life each day unfolding in that place.

Slim was out there sometimes, fixing fence and riding herd.

He’d watched her climb that cliff each day, to paint that sacred bird.

And being the good man that he was, he thought to help her out,

He’d tell her all about the jobs, where they was hiring thereabout.

‘Mrs. Rollins down at the hardware store is needin’ someone now,

To keep the books, mind the place, and manage the accounts.

They say the pay is pretty good, as it goes here in our town,

And you won’t have to climb no cliffs, or face no eagle down.’

‘Or over at the ‘No Quit Ranch’, the place I draw my pay

We could use a person just like you, to help run that crazy place.

And they tell me that our little school is growin’ awful fast.

I hear they’re needin’ someone to teach the writing and the math.’

But she just smiled, and said, ‘Well Slim, I know you mean the best,

And I must really be a sight to see, climbing up to reach that nest.

But I’ve taught in school, I’ve kept the books, I’ve even run a store.

Now those are things that just will never work for me no more.’

‘So it’s me and the eagle, face to face, I watch her standing guard.

I love each brushstroke that I make, though I’ve never worked so hard.

And there’s a little baby eagle, in that nest there in the sky.

I intend to paint him on the day that he takes wing to fly.’

Then one day she just stood there tired…discouraged…on that shelf.

‘What on Earth am I doing here?’ she wondered to herself.

Empty canvas, brushes dry, but still ready for some play,

And she’d made that promise to herself, ‘a painting every day’.

‘What would have been so bad,’ she thought, ‘to have just one day of rest?’

And right about that time she heard some noises from the nest.

The little eagle bird was hopping over to the side.

It shook its feathers, flapped its wings, then looked straight into her eyes.

And then without a speck of doubt, without a moment’s fear.

It lifted up and launched itself, straight out into the air.

She caught her breath, it seemed at first that bird would surely fall,

But it caught the wind, then soared and flew, beside that mountain wall.

She grabbed her brush, her boldest paints, wild strokes against the board.

Her heart told her she’d never really seen an eagle fly before.

She froze that moment in her mind, and throughout all her years,

She called it up each time she needed strength to calm her fears.

I guess she’s out there even now, painting on some shelf,

Selling some work every now and then, to make a living for herself.

Birds and sky and God and man, have felt her loving artist’s eye.

But that was the time….yes, that was the time….when she took wing to fly.

 

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Written by Denise Hopkins

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My favorite art book: let’s discuss!

My favorite art book: let’s discuss!


Art and Fear was published in 1993. I was twelve years old, and very busy decorating my latest journal with collages of teen heart throbs I’d cut out from drugstore magazines. I wanted to be a talk show host when I grew up. I knew two artists– my mom’s brother and her aunt (who much later would become my mentor), but I didn’t think much of either art or artists. I had no idea that I would become one, and, even now, when someone calls me that or I have to answer what “I do,” I have to fight the part of me that feels silly applying that title to myself. 

I encountered the book in 2002 when it was assigned to me in college by my painting professor. I don’t remember having any big feelings about it then, but somehow the paperback made it through every move, every apartment, every house, every decluttering where boxes upon boxes of other books ended up at Goodwill. 

I reopened it a few years ago, and to my absolute delight and astonishment, it spoke with a forceful precision into my newfound life as an artist. It named and then validated my fears. It took what felt ineffable and put it into direct and beautiful sentences that made me wonder what I thought was so complicated after all. As I scribbled notes in the margin and avoided the temptation to highlight every sentence, it both comforted and challenged me. 

Now, I carry it with me in my purse. I pull it out in waiting rooms, and in lines. I open it when I am stuck and frustrated, ready not only to throw in the towel, but to shred it into tiny pieces with which to wipe my many tears, then scatter those ashes onto the tombstone of my easel. I open it when I am happy that I get to do the thing I once thought impossible to do. I open it all the time. I keep it at the ready. 

Does this super cool photo I made my husband take prove how much I like this book?

 

And now, I really want to discuss it. With you. 

It’s been brewing for quite some time– if you are an artist (of any kind) I would love to invite you to an artist book club at the gallery in which Art and Fear will be the first book. I would love to sit around with our favorite beverages, maybe a shared snack or two, and chat about the “perils (and rewards) of artmaking.” If this interests you at all, but you are not local to the Mississippi coast, I’m also considering an additional zoom version of the book club as well.

You can click below to let me know you’re interested in joining (either in-person or virtual) so I can work with you to figure out the best days/times to meet. I think people are at their bests when they are connected with others and able to learn from them. I’m jazzed.

Written by Denise Hopkins

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Draw the line.

Draw the line.

What’s something you like that a lot of other people don’t?

I was asked this question in an interview recently. It took me a minute, but I landed on cutting the grass. There’s so much I like about it– the smell, the exercise, the heat, the music pouring into my ears from my headphones, the discoveries– a grasshopper or frog moving quickly out of the way, a weed/flower I’d never noticed before. But what I think I like most is the lines. Those glorious rows the lawnmower makes and the way they slowly start to take over an entire lawn. It is so satisfying. 

Let’s talk lines.

I think I’ve liked lines, particularly making them, for as long as I can remember.  I used to live within walking distance to the Tchefuncte River, and when life felt most beyond my control, I’d walk over to it and stare into the place where the water met the sky. In that space, the trees, usually dripping with Spanish moss, reached upward, but their reflections shone clear on the surface of the brown, still water. They were between two great and expansive mysteries. There was so much above and below them.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you then why that sight was reassuring to me and why I started painting large abstracts with lines through the center shortly thereafter (even though most of my work was and still is representational), but I think now I can. 

The line is a separation, a marker, a definite in the sea of infinite. Where the river touches the sky there is an explosion of finite grass and trees, leaves, and light. Above that and the sky goes on forever, beyond what we can know or see. Below, and the water holds its own depth and mystery. I have lived many of my days and many of my hours in the past or in the future and in all the things that hum around the here and now. I have wished for things never to come and pined for times long gone. 

And I’ve learned how to spend more and more time in the present– that line between what has been and what will be. When I look at horizons, I see precision surrounded by mystery, and I feel safe. 

What would Jesus do?

In the Gospel of John, when the rule-obsessed and duplicitous Pharisees are asking Jesus whether they should stone a woman (supposedly caught in an act requiring another person who is notably absent from the makeshift trial), instead of answering them right away, Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the ground, the dirt, the earth. I have often wondered what he may have written, what kind of lines he drew with his hand, and if he just needed a second to connect to the here and now instead of all that surrounded it. I find this simple image of him one of the most interesting and compelling displays of his humanity in all of the gospel stories. I am fascinated by it and why the author chose to include it but not a description of what he wrote. The story ends without the condemnation the Pharisees are thirsty for. They can neither condemn the woman nor Jesus. Not one stone is cast. You are not above or beyond this woman, I think he somehow tells them by stooping down and making marks into the ground.

Roads Travelled

Timelines, horizon lines, the dash between our birth and death dates. The lines we draw to make words and the way they cut into the vastness of a piece of paper. Our signatures or names carved into a tree or the sand at the beach. We are here. We are now. We exist. And it still matters in all that vast mystery that surrounds it. 

Below is a gallery of my abstract line paintings from over the years. They began in 2015. I’ll admit when I went through my archives to find them, I thought I’d have four or five. Turns out I’ve been working on this more often than I’d realized. 

I’ve been making paintings about this for years now, and I don’t have any intention of stopping. I’m not switching careers into lawn care, and I won’t cut your grass (my yard gives me all the satisfaction I need) but I would love to chat with you about the lines and marks you make and see. I would love to know which ones inspire or intrigue you. I would love to draw a line between us.

Written by Denise Hopkins

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Watchless.

Watchless.

 

“Today” by Mary Oliver 

Today I’m flying low and I’m

not saying a word.

I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

 

The world goes on as it must,

the bees in the garden rumbling a little,

the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.

And so forth.

 

But I’m taking the day off.

Quiet as a feather.

I hardly move though really I’m traveling

a terrific distance.

 

Stillness. One of the doors

into the temple.

 

A door into the temple opened for me unexpectedly:

Way back in long-lost May, I was playing basketball with my oldest stepson (he will be more than happy to tell you that he beat me) when, scrambling for a loose ball, I cracked my Apple watch on the pavement. It didn’t seem like the end of the world, just a scratch, and I’m not very particular about such things. But then the watch started activating the emergency call system without being prompted. It would start beeping menacingly and counting down from five. Sometimes I could get it to stop, and a few times it went right on ahead and called 911, and I had to profusely apologize for wasting the dispatcher’s time. I quickly decided just to turn it off (which also activated the emergency call system). I think it was trying to break up with me. 

It’s been about one fully watchless week. After a long walk with my husband on a quick anniversary trip, we joked that while he had 20,000 steps, I had none. Without a means to measure them, certainly they could not exist. Without a watch, was I even a person at all? Did passerbys just see a man walking down a path chatting to some invisible force just to his right? 

As fate would have it, a business outside our hotel posted this sign on the sidewalk we passed each day of our trip, another reminder that time does not need to be incessantly watched over, managed or even observed. 

It’s been a full week of not knowing how many steps I’ve taken, miles I’ve walked or run, how many calories I’ve burned. It’s been a week of not getting texts on my wrist and then whispering a response into it. I’ve been slower to respond. I’ve missed things.

But for all I’ve missed, I’ve gained perhaps twice as much. I’m noticing the gifts this little change has offered to me–  enjoying a walk instead of the numbers it grants me at the end, working intuitively on a painting rather than setting timers for how long a certain part should take me. 

I wrote recently about how I memorized Mary Oliver’s “When I am Among the Trees” and what a joy having those words stored inside me has been and how often I access them. I have repeated to myself daily the end of that poem, even more so since breaking the watch: “And you too have come into the world to do this/to go easy/to be filled with light/ and to shine.” Instead of measuring all the things a watch can, I’m using this line as my ruler– if I am doing these three things, it does not matter the miles, the emails, the to do’s, the social media posts (or the number of likes and comments). If I, too, have come into the world to do these things (and I think we all have) they supersede all else, releasing me of the burden to constantly do more. 

The poem that begins this post is written into the background of the painting that you also see at the start. I think “Today” is up next for me to memorize. So that I can cling to it when I’m all bustle and no stillness.

I’m already shopping for a new watch, but I’m not in a rush to buy it. When I do settle in on one, I’m going to take off many of the notifications I’ve previously relied on. I’m going to have a healthier watch relationship. If before I was a stalker to time, now I want to let it do its thing as I do mine. Mindful of but not obsessed with it. 

I would love to know where you find quiet, how you slow down, and if anything has ever shown you that not measuring might be the easiest route to joy

Written by Denise Hopkins

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Think like an artist

Think like an artist

 

Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

 

I referenced this poem briefly in a recent post. Having taught high schoolers both art and poetry, it both makes me laugh and it speaks to me. Deeply. 

And not because I find myself so far removed from the students’ obsession with deeper or, worse, hidden meanings, but because I find the impulses so familiar. What is the one thing I can reduce this to and thus eliminate it all together, letting what it means be what it is.

The Power of “I See”

It was art that helped me with this inclination to reduce. Namely, a professor who at critiques where we would sit in a circle and discuss everyone’s work, made us begin each statement with “I see.” This liberated us completely from having to say anything particularly profound (every self-conscious nineteen year old’s worst fear). All we had to do was name something we were looking at, and the simpler and more objective the statement the better. For example, my professor preferred we say things like, “I see a bright red red circle in the top corner and a smaller one of a very similar but not exactly the same red in the bottom” instead of “I see a sun and I see beauty.” The first comment gets us to look at the parts of the painting in relation to each other. The second makes an obvious statement followed by a judgment. 

It was like a silly version of “Simon Says,” and we struggled, often beginning our sentences with “I like” and not “I see” which would trigger a do over. I tried this with my own students during the six years that I taught. They struggled too, but insistence on “I see” eventually led us to discover design elements we’d not noticed before. One person would inevitably see something that made us say “Aha!” 

I see a series of vertical lines

I see muted colors

I see triangles everywhere

I see big strokes in the foreground and tiny ones in the background

I see thick black lines

I see organic shapes.

It didn’t matter what you said as long as it wasn’t a value statement or a recitation of what was obvious– I see a bowl of fruit when that was overtly the subject matter– and everyone could do it.

I tried to use this same technique with the poems I taught. My students always wanted to jump ahead to what a poem meant, as though it were a math problem to be solved. If I had been able to give them an equation, many of them would have gladly and joyfully accepted as they eagerly plugged in symbols and rhymes into the variables to arrive at that blessed “deeper meaning.” 

Instead of saying things like “this poem means we should live life to the fullest,” I’d project the poem onto the smart board and ask for “I see” statements: “I see four stanzas with two lines in each” or “I see images of cold in the first and last stanza and ones of warmth in the middle” or “I see a question mark at the end and notice it is the only punctuation.” Once we observed, we saw more. We appreciated more. We had more to discuss. We saw more not of the one thing the poem “meant” but more of its beauty, more of its nuance, more of its contours. We could behold it.

I realize now that the key to appreciating or excavating any work of art is just to pay close attention to it, setting aside our expectations and assumptions as best that we can.

Now I use “I see” (or try to) for more than art and poetry. I use it for understanding my kids– I see folded arms or a sly smile. This is just information. And I’m just gathering it. I use it when I read something I don’t fully understand. I used it last night when the oldest showed me a ballet on youtube that diverged from the conventions we typically associate with ballet. Instead of immediately jumping to “I don’t get it,” I thought about what I was seeing. The contrast in the bodies, the unusual shapes they were making.

“I see” can take me from ungrounded speculation and assumption to sincere curiosity. It takes me from recklessly jumping to conclusions to being observant, open minded, and curious. 

I wonder what would happen if I always started with “I see” instead of “I know” or “I think.” I wonder what would happen if I treated difficult topics or conversations like an art or poetry critique, looking first to observe, next to make connections, and last to make any value judgments or conclusions. 

I share this because I think I am the best version of myself when I think like an artist– leaning into curiosity, openness, and discovery. I think I’m the best version of myself when I trust that my observations (when they are particularly astute and when they are simple) will lead me somewhere worth going.

Does this make sense to you? Do you ever think like an artist? I would love to know your thoughts.

Written by Denise Hopkins

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