The Vision Quest of Philip Curtis
Perched on a swivel chair in the small living room of the Scottsdale home where he has lived since 1949, Philip Curtis is testing his vision. He opens one eye, then the other. He raises his hands in front of his face as if to read his palms. Then he lowers them and squints quizzically at a pole that a visiting photographer has left standing on a tripod across the room. "It's the damnedest thing," he says after a reflective pause. "I know that pole over there goes straight up. But to me it looks like a piece of bamboo--squiggly, kind of bumpy and wavy."
And who would know better than Curtis how things should appear? In the past 50 years, he has mixed the real and unreal into striking portrayals of social and psychological truths. His more than 500 paintings and scores of drawings and watercolors have led people to call him the dean--without the stuffiness--of Arizona artists. In the past 20 years, he has received just about every award the state and its art institutions have had to offer. And the ruckus hardly seems to be subsiding.
Late last month, Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center opened an exhibition featuring a broad selection of Curtis paintings borrowed from Valley collections. This month ASU's College of Art kicks off a campaign to endow a $250,000 scholarship fund in his name. And in the next few years, Phoenix Art Museum (PAM) plans to produce a major book to help spread Curtis' reputation beyond the region.
Yet, at 90, Curtis is trying to come to terms with the fact that he might be losing the very tools of his trade. In the past two years, macular degeneration, an incurable disorder of the retina--the layer of light-sensitive cells that serves much like a roll of film at the back of the eye--has been gradually stealing his ability to see and focus on things straight ahead. It struck his weaker left eye first. Then, early last January, it moved into his right, depriving him of the two tools he truly needs to continue painting.
Studies have linked the disease to genetic factors, smoking, diet and exposure to sun. Though doctors don't fully understand what triggers it, its effects are well-known. "The vision you lose isn't something that makes you completely blind," says Dr. Joan W. Miller, a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School who treated Curtis recently at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. "But you can lose all of your central vision, and with it the ability to read, drive a car, recognize a face, and, obviously in Phil's case, see what you're painting."
As victims depend increasingly on peripheral vision, they also lose the ability--essential to painters--to distinguish subtle details and contrasts of colors.
Because the disease is not fatal, there are no firm estimates of how many people it affects. It is thought to be the leading cause of severe vision loss in older Americans. Some doctors suspect that it strikes 25 percent of Americans older than 65. Professional estimates of the number of people affected range from the National Eye Institute's 1.7 million who are seriously affected to as many as 10 million others with less impairment.
About 90 percent of victims suffer from what doctors call the "dry" form of the disease--characterized by a thinning of the retina and a gradual buildup of deposits on it. Curtis is among the remaining 10 percent who suffer from the "wet" form, which causes far more rapid and severe vision loss.
"What usually happens in the wet form," says Miller, "is that new blood vessels grow in under the macula. They leak fluid, bleed and eventually subside. But in the process, scar tissue forms and destroys parts of that crucial central vision."
Miller has attempted to stem the spread of blood vessels in Curtis' eyes with an experimental radiation therapy. However, there are no guarantees of success, no known treatments to reverse the existing damage to Curtis' eyes, and no way for Curtis to know whether he will be able to complete the two paintings he was working on when his eyes went bad.
One of the uncompleted pictures sits on the easel in the small, north-lighted room that Curtis uses as a studio. He says he intended the scene--an island with a handful of figures isolated by varying blue shades of water and sky--to symbolize the human situation. Instead, it has become a reminder of his own predicament--marooned by eyes that can't direct his hands to paint.
Taking a seat on a stool in front of the easel, Curtis says that he had been working on the island scene and another painting late last year. "The two paintings were mostly finished, but I thought I could improve them with a couple of small changes."
Pausing a moment, he reaches out with his right hand and draws a line with his fingers across the scene's horizon. "I thought I could lower this horizon a bit. Then I wanted to change the figures on the island. There were too many of them and they just didn't seem to have the right balance." He points to a smudge of orangey brown in the foreground. "There was a dog there, but it wasn't the right dog. I like one with superiority, the right posture, and spaced just right. The dog, you know, is usually me in these pictures--kind of keeping an eye out. This one was too close to the surroundings.
"Simple changes, but not easy, really. Because once you start rearranging one part of a painting, you affect all of it. And before you know it, you're reworking or radically changing parts that might have seemed all right."
That's what happened here. Curtis had taken a break from refining it around last Christmas. He knew his eye was weakening. When he picked up his brush again, a week or so later, he found that the vision in his good, right eye had deteriorated dramatically. He couldn't see his hand. Straight lines appeared wavy. And he couldn't make out the tip of his brush.
"I knew it was loaded with color, but I couldn't see where the color began or ended. When I tried to look at my hand and my brush, they appeared and disappeared, blinking on and off. Sort of there and not there. And if I moved my head or eyes, it would change. Nothing stayed still. There were holes in my vision--like worms had eaten into it."
He kept painting, hoping to find a way to see around the holes. But the image only got blotchier. He tried using bigger brushes, but they filled the surface of his painting with the emphatic kinds of brush strokes and textures that he has worked most of his career to eliminate from his paintings. In no time at all, the picture was stuck between an idea he liked and an image he couldn't see well enough to finish.
He experiments with different ways to cope with his eyes. Not long ago he began using a televisionlike system to enlarge what he reads. And he might try painting with a pair of telescopic glasses.
"But the painting is frustrating. I haven't gotten far enough with my experiments to resolve anything." He shakes his head. "It's odd; seeing is a very difficult, magical thing that happens in the brain. I used to think I knew something about it. But I'm not sure about any of it anymore."
Friends say that for much of the past 50 years, painting has been more than a career to Curtis. It has been his salvation and freedom from the physical trap of an already recalcitrant body. When he was 16 years old, out hunting with a buddy, he fell through the ice of a snow-covered Michigan lake. He clambered out, and his clothes froze in the bitter air.
His friend built a fire, but the damage was done. Within a few days, he came down with rheumatic fever. He stayed down for a year. As he grew older, the rheumatic germ developed into a crippling case of rheumatoid arthritis. By the 1940s, for a time he wore an upper-body cast, to keep his spine from curling over on itself. His hips and knees and other joints stiffened. And he could barely turn his neck.
Painting let his mind get out and move around. Curtis counts the accident as a blessing. "It helped to send me in a direction I had some talent for, but might not have discovered. Sometimes I think that if I had been a normal 16-year-old, maybe I would have become distracted by the usual things that grab boys that age."
It made him more contemplative. And the boredom of convalescence taught him to rely on his own wits for diversions. His first inclination was to put them to work as a writer. Yet in his sophomore year at Michigan's Albion College, he took an art class from a young teacher who had been trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, and was hooked.
"Painting was a real revelation to me. I don't know that it was any less demanding than writing. But I was attracted to it in a way that I wasn't attracted to writing. With writing, I felt that every word had to be exactly right. And the very nature of words demanded that meanings be more resolute, precisely spelled out. In a way, painting was another, more flexible way for me to tell the kinds of stories that interested me."
The 40 Curtis paintings in the ASU exhibition reveal that he's more of a riddler than a narrator. His premise--with nods to Shakespeare and Freud--is that all the mind is a stage. The stage he sets is the Victorian one of his remembered childhood. The players are turn-of-the-century props and people in period costumes. The backdrops are often landscapes--usually the brooding forests of his Michigan childhood or the expansive desert he has lived in for the past half-century. And his autumnal colors have a distinctly yesteryear glow. It's a bittersweet world of remnants--of people and things that have come and gone, and returned again distorted by the refraction of Curtis' memory and imagination.
The combined emptiness and spectacles in Curtis' paintings also play up the sense that you are peering into a doldrum that has been broken by sudden daydreams and thrilling diversions. The doors and windows of houses in his paintings are usually thrown open, so you can see and move through them. Sometimes, paintings appear within paintings. Old trees, billboards, furniture, windows, buildings and doors lie bleaching and peeling in the sun. Clothing, curtains, hair and banners appear to be furled and buffeted by silent gusts of wind. Circus and band performances and parades are under way. Yet silence pervades everything. People stand alone in crowds, their mouths closed, eyes averted. Snapshot, they are poised to act, frozen in time.
"I'm always struck when his works are successful about how conscious he can make you about the poignancy of memory," says Harry Rand, a curator of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History who is contributing an essay to PAM's upcoming book about Curtis. "His paintings are about a certain ricocheting of time and how memory works on us."
Curtis' work has always attracted psychologists, psychiatrists and other observers of the mind.
What comes through in his paintings, says Phoenix psychologist Stanford Perlman, who discovered Curtis' paintings more than 20 years ago, is that memory is more than an act of preservation. It's "an act of imagination. We embellish, discard and rework our history. We turn memory into fiction and then believe it is truth all the time. And we define ourselves this way."
Perlman says that what makes Curtis' paintings so powerful is that they can be read as dreams. "They don't open up to easy interpretations. They aren't facile. And you cannot approach them and produce some facile response in yourself and be satisfied. You have to have time to look at them and feel whatever you're going to feel."
"There's no question that they continually present enigmas," says Susan Ehrlich, an art historian from the University of Southern California who is also contributing to PAM's book. "The effect of that is to draw you in and make you part of the dialogue. The image doesn't tell you everything, but it sets up questions that often raise only more questions. You begin wondering who these people in his pictures are, and what's their relationship to one another."
For instance, why are they waving goodbye to the little girl who appears in his 1961 "Farewell"? What's the man doing bobbing along in his 1979 "Tub at Sea"? Who is the man in his 1995 "Nude Bust"? Why does Curtis scatter so many empty chairs in his landscapes? And why do so many of his spectacles, parades, circuses and concerts appear to be taking place in such desolate surroundings?
Longtime observers and collectors of Curtis' pictures say that the feelings his images arouse are often as in-between as the five masked people riding in an open-air elevator in "The Lift."
"He never leads you to think or feel you can go one way or another," says Rudy Turk, former director of ASU's art museum. "It's always bitter and sweet, sadness and charm; and there aren't many easy ways out of the predicaments he paints."
People are constantly spinning interpretations of his paintings. A psychologist once told Curtis he found half a dozen different ones on a single painting.
Yet Curtis avoids offering any definitive accounts. And he has even been known to compound the confusion. When Phoenix attorney Bud Jacobson, who has collected Curtis' paintings since the 1950s, asked him whether the people in the painting's open-air elevator were headed up or down, Curtis replied, "Bud, how the hell do I know? For all I know, they could be stuck."
Curtis was born and raised in Jackson, Michigan, then an agricultural town about 90 miles from Detroit. Like other Midwestern towns of the day, Jackson was making the turn-of-the-century shift to manufacturing. Curtis says it specialized in corsets and a handful of long-forgotten cars. Except for a few paintings in the local library, the town was devoid of art. Yet there was plenty of other food for visual thought.
Curtis was attracted to the prim formality of Victorian attire, and the ornamental flourishes of the era's carriages, circus and fire wagons, gazebos and bandstands. He says he saw in the wooden towers, cupolas, balconies and whimsical intricacies of the houses the almost magical ability of skilled craftsmen to transform hard materials into lyrical expressions.
As time wore on, he came to see Victorian things and images in somewhat darker terms. "I wrote about this once and remember thinking that the change began in my mind around 1930. I was home from school or somewhere and went with my father to visit his brother Will. He was dying and lived in a large Victorian house that still had all of the trappings of the 1890s." Curtis says that compared with his childhood memory of the place, the rooms seemed depressingly small, the upholstery worn. The parlor still had the organ he remembered, but his aunt no longer played it. And his uncle, who had always seemed to be a big man, out of scale in the small rooms, was withered and weak.
"I remember what a shock it was to see that and the look on my father's face. A few days after we were there, my uncle died. So, I began to see the Victorian as a symbol of death and loss. It obviously has other meanings for me, too, but there is a sadness about it that's part of my pictures."
Curtis left Albion College in 1930--the beginning of the Great Depression--thinking he ought to find a more reliable career than painting. He studied law--his father's profession--for a year. But it was a lost cause. Art was his thing. So, in 1932, he drove east and, unannounced, talked his way into the Yale School of Fine Arts. Yale was a bastion of Beaux Arts training whose approach, Curtis says, was "predictable and formulaic." Yet its Renaissance-based lessons in painterly composition and design stuck with him.
He came away with a love for the cool, understated humanity of Piero della Francesca's paintings, and "the understanding that the primary purpose of everything in a painting is to keep your eyes from straying beyond the frame or into the corners. It's all a matter of balance. I became very conscious of how pictures came together, how they were built and organized."
However, from 1935, when he left Yale, to 1947, when he moved to Arizona for good, he made little use of the lessons. Fresh out of Yale, he landed a job supervising mural projects for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project in New York. The "project," as it was known, had been devised as a Depression-era relief program, to give artists useful work in hard times. The effect of its more than 100 community art centers and activities in more than 1,000 American towns and cities was to extend big-city culture to people and places that had never seen or heard it.
Late in 1936, when Holger Cahill, head of the project, asked Curtis to establish an art center in Phoenix, he jumped at the chance. "I thought this art-center business might be a way of curing the American art disease, where little towns--like the one I'd grown up in--all over the country had nothing, and New York had everything." He says Phoenix "was culturally impoverished as hell when I got here. There were a couple of sketch and charcoal clubs in town. And other than those, the only outlet for artists was the state fair."
The federally funded art center changed that almost overnight. And, in the process, it planted the seeds for the Phoenix Art Museum and Curtis' eventual career here as a painter. Curtis opened the center in 1937 in a building that Mrs. Dwight Heard had donated to Planned Parenthood, at Seventh Street and Adams. Working with the talented Arizona painter Lew Davis and a handful of other artists, he generated a slew of educational and exhibition programs which quickly made the center one of the exemplary sites in the nation--the place that Cahill sent Eleanor Roosevelt in the late 1930s when she asked to see a federal art center in action. Curtis and his gang of artists designed the interiors of at least one new building then going up at ASU. The center also sponsored classes for children and adults, and hosted a constant stream of exhibitions, ranging from violins and how to make them to weaving, and Indian basketry and pottery.
"Every week or so we had a new show of paintings that the WPA had collected from artists all over the country," says Curtis. "These were shows that traveled everywhere and for the first time gave Americans a pretty good look at what their own artists were doing."
"If you go way back to those days and see what Phil and that center did," says Jim Ballinger, director of Phoenix Art Museum, "you'd have to say that that was the real beginning of the museum."
It was also the beginning of the circle of friends and patrons who later supported Curtis as a painter. After two years of cultural proselytizing, Curtis, recently married to Marjorie Yaeger, left to help develop another federal art center in Des Moines, Iowa--which also grew into a museum. He enrolled for a short time at Harvard, with the idea of becoming a museum curator. He spent World War II in Washington, D.C., with the Office of Strategic Services--the forerunner of the CIA--and a congressional committee on health. By war's end, his progressing case of arthritis and the cold, damp East had taken a toll on his own health. What's more, he felt it was time to start painting again.
"I was about to turn 40, which at the time seemed to be pretty old. All through the war, whenever I could find time on the job, I had tried to paint a little. I didn't do much, but I did a lot of work in my head, thinking through ideas about what I wanted to paint and how I'd approach it. So I felt I didn't have to do a lot of experimenting to get going again. And I sort of knew what I wanted to say."
He also knew that he needed an out-of-the-way place to say it. "He needed both physical space and mental space," says Heather Lineberry, who curated ASU's exhibition. "He was aware of the kinds of pressures that New York put on friends of his, like Philip Guston, to change their style every year to try and meet the market. He really wanted to get away from that."
In many respects, Phoenix was the perfect cultural desert. "He was smart enough to know that he wouldn't have to deal with any cultural establishment or rules out here," says Rachel Ellis, who owns the house on Cattle Track that Curtis has rented since 1949. "There just weren't any. But there was plenty of freedom to paint the kinds of things he wanted to paint. There was plenty of room to work, and it didn't cost him too much money to do it."
The deal was sweetened a bit by the presence of Dick Griffith, a world-champion rodeo stunt rider living down at the end of Cattle Track.
"When Curtis first came here, he walked with sticks on his arms," recalls Ellis. "His back was immobile. He had a miserable bloody time. And painting was the one damn thing that he could do without a lot of fuss. And anything or anybody who could get his mind off all that was a big help. For Philip, going down to Griffith's practice ring and watching him jump over his Buick while standing astride two horses was absolutely the real deal."
Marjorie Curtis recalls that when they returned here in 1947, they stayed with friends, then moved into Zane Grey's old place, called the Tiger's Jungle, on Indian School Road. "The house was made of chicken wire and spit. It didn't have a kitchen, but we borrowed a hot plate and an electric roaster. There was a sink, and the water from it ran out into a little grove in the back."
From the late 1940s until 1960, when they separated (still friends), Marjorie worked a variety of jobs to support Phil while he painted. He painted every morning, when the light was best--a practice he followed right up until the eye trouble hit.
"He has been very strict about that," says John Armstrong, an art consultant and fine-art printer who has curated three exhibitions of Curtis paintings over the years. "I've often had the feeling that if he doesn't paint every day, he probably feels he hasn't done the right thing."
Armstrong says that Curtis also has been an astute handler of his own isolation. "Many of us who like to think of ourselves as artists imagine ourselves in big white rooms with a lot of glass and light--a place to paint big paintings. But Phil never had that interest. He chose a small room. Not because his subjects needed to be small necessarily. But because he didn't want to have people around talking to him while he paints."
Curtis has a couple of other painting habits and rituals. His ideas for paintings come fast, but he has always worked them up into pictures slowly, meticulously. His peak output in the 1960s was 10 to 15 paintings a year. But more recently he has averaged about six a year. He can't start work unless his studio floor is clean. He dates his paintings according to when he begins, not finishes, them. And his year begins in spring, at Easter, rather than in January. "Quite a while ago, I noticed that my best working period was spring and summer. The longer light of summer has always made me feel hopeful. Fall is when the light starts changing."
Phoenix Art Museum's sampling of Curtis paintings from the 1930s and 1940s (on view year-round) show him initially following the Stuart Davis and Charles Sheeler path of modernism, building semiabstract scenes out of tightly drawn geometric slabs. Works in the ASU exhibition indicate that as he settled into his subject in the 1950s, his approach gradually turned against the modern grain.
Instead of brushing or pouring pigments thickly into abstractions, as advanced New York painters of the day were doing, he refined the surfaces of his pictures. He resorted to the Renaissance method of painting oils on sanded, gesso-covered boards, to eliminate the texture of woven canvas. He didn't want anything to remind viewers of the here and now. And he fussed to make his brushwork disappear, so his completed images would appear as though they had been made purely from ideas rather than pigments.
"Little Juggler I," from 1956, was the last painting in which he experimented with applying paint thickly using a palette knife. After that, he stuck to small, fine-haired brushes to hone the distinctly unreal realities that have become his trademark.
His big break came in 1960, when Lewis Ruskin, a former Chicago drugstore king who sat on several Phoenix cultural boards, convinced nine other Phoenicians to join a trust to support Curtis for three years.
"The deal was fairly simple," recalls Bud Jacobson, who was part of the group. "Each of us put up $2,500 so that Phil could make enough pictures to have a decent show. He had been working like a dog to sell pictures for $300 or $500. And I think Ruskin thought--wrongly, we now know--that Phil's health might limit his career."
Curtis says he initially wasn't sure about the arrangement. He worried that members of the trust might want to have a say in what he painted. But no such strings were attached. The plan was simply for Curtis to paint and not sell for three years. At the end of that period, the trust would find a place to show and sell the work. Money made from the show's first-night sales would go to repay the investors. If sales didn't equal the investment, the trustees would forget the debt. And each patron could buy a painting for a nominal few hundred bucks.
It was one of Curtis' most productive periods. With assured income, he painted more than 40 pictures--including "Farewell" and several other of his finest works. He had a show at Phoenix Art Museum in 1963. And a year later, he was exhibiting in New York.
"Ruskin was a pretty smart businessman," says Curtis. "So, toward the end of those three years, he said I needed a gallery. I told him it had to be in New York, at Knoedler." Knoedler at the time was one of the city's prestigious, old-time galleries. It featured paintings on velvet-lined walls, but usually not ones by unknown Americans. "Ruskin called Coe Kerr, who ran Knoedler," says Curtis, "and invited him out. I think Kerr said something like, 'We never do that sort of thing.' But Ruskin told him to think it over. He'd call him back. And when he did, a week or so later, Kerr agreed."
What happened next has become one of the great stories in Phoenix cocktail-party gossip and art marketing. "The night of the opening," says Jacobson, "I took the Kerrs by the museum a little early. Coe was really taken with the paintings. I think the museum's director, F.M. Hinkhouse, was still hammering a few of them up on the wall. Hink had these little price signs under the paintings, like $300 and $400 and $500, and I remember watching Coe Kerr as he went around with a pen and added another zero to many of the prices. Hinkhouse thought Kerr was crazy. Nobody in Phoenix had ever paid that kind of money for a painting."
Yet Kerr, with his New York moxie, was betting that someone would. And he turned out to be right. More than enough paintings were sold to repay the investors and give Curtis' career the market boost it needed. He exhibited with Kerr in New York for several years after that, and for a short time at a gallery in Switzerland. Then he decided he could do just as well by selling his work out of his house to people he knew. He limited sales to a handful of pictures each year--securing a reasonable tax category and assuring a long-term supply of pictures. ("The pictures he kept in his vault were really his retirement account," says a friend.)
By keeping his market so close to home, Curtis never had to seek support or recognition elsewhere. So, in effect, his success confined his renown.
Since 1990, he and supporters have attempted to change that. He showed that year with the now-defunct Marilyn Butler Gallery, in Scottsdale. Shortly afterward, friends self-published a catalogue documenting all of his paintings through 1991. A documentary movie about his life was sponsored by PAM. And since 1994, he has showed at the Riva Yares Gallery, in Scottsdale and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Still, in the overall scheme of cultural things, he remains relatively unknown.
David Rubin, PAM's curator of 20th-century art, who is coordinating the museum's book about Curtis, points out that of the four scholars contributing to the book, only Rand was familiar with Curtis' work before being asked to write about it. Rubin and others associated with the project say that the challenge of winning a broader audience and respect for Curtis' work lies in convincing people to think outside the easy categories and isms that have been heaped on it over the years. He has been called a Magical Realist, a folk painter, a Magritte of the Old West, and a surrealist who has painted 30 or 40 years too late. "The problem with these categories is that they usually aren't made by the artists themselves," says Rand. "They are made by spectators who can be more or less accurate."
Rand says that surrealism may have made Curtis' work possible by giving him the freedom to experiment as he has. But the tag otherwise misses the mark. He points out that Curtis has avoided the neurotic emphasis of much surrealist painting. And instead of painting general psychological states--as the surrealists did--Curtis has concentrated on his own experiences and memories.
Ehrlich agrees. She thinks the surrealist label fits only to the extent that Curtis has painted in a manner that reminds people of Magritte, Dali and friends. "Twenty years ago, art historians might have thought this mattered," she says. "But current thinking about the use of pre-existing styles has changed. In fact, looking back over the century, one can almost think that there's a mark of integrity about an artist who pursues his own path, whether or not his style is in or out of fashion."
What hasn't changed is the unpredictability of the factors that assure long-term artistic fame. Or the steep odds against achieving artistic immortality.
"I used to joke that about 4 percent of the world's art from the past survives," says Charles Parkhurst, former assistant director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., and a friend of Curtis'. "And of that 4 percent, only about 4 percent is worth saving."
Curators generally agree that all great art begins as local, then moves outside its place and time. Repeatedly seen, questioned, responded to and written about, it snowballs through the years, gathering layers of consciousness and consensus about its merit. And instead of shedding the dialect, mood, expression and values of its original setting, great work carries them intact and offers them up as key ingredients of its authenticity and identity.
What it boils down to, says Parkhurst, is an artist's ability "to touch upon the essential tendencies of thought in the period and place in which he works. Of course, the other part of the equation is whether that tendency of mind continues to coincide with the attitudes begetting the future, even as we speak." He says the ultimate verdict on Curtis' work is impossible to predict. But what's clear is "it comes with a definitive point of view and a steadfast vision."
"And when he gets it right," says Rand, "he's done something that nobody else has ever done. Not Tanguy. Not Magritte. Not Max Ernst. And certainly not any other American."
"A Procession: Paintings by Philip C. Curtis" continues through Sunday, January 4, 1998, at Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center, 10th Street and Mill in Tempe. ASU's College of Fine Arts is holding a dinner and auction for the Curtis Graduate Fellowship on Saturday, October 25. For more details, see the Visual Art listing in Thrills.
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