North Carolina is renowned as the crucible of what many ceramic artists, scholars, and collectors extol as arguably the most vital, diverse, and longest continuous pottery traditions in the United States. Featuring exhibitions, demonstrations, and participatory workshops by 14 outstanding artists selected from across the state, the North Carolina Folklife Demonstration Area at the 75th National Folk Festival will represent the breadth and depth of the state’s vibrant folk pottery traditions.
Extending from mountains to sea, with a historical concentration in the Piedmont, the state’s pottery heritage and contemporary practice is rooted in an array of communities and aesthetic characteristics, including: rich American Indian tribal traditions with ancient earthenware origins (contemporary Cherokee, Catawba, and Haliwa-Saponi coil vessels are often burnished or imprinted with designs); Moravian revival styles (plain and slip-decorated redware inspired by the work of mid-18th-century Moravian immigrants to the Winston-Salem area); Catawba Valley and Mountain region potteries (celebrated for their dynamic alkaline glazes, swirl-ware, and bold face jugs); and the famous Seagrove community of Randolph, Chatham, and Moore Counties, where pottery traditions date back to before the American Revolution. Potters from Seagrove, often called “the pottery capital of the United States” in recognition of its profusion of potteries, originally specialized in beautiful salt-glazed pots, but they embraced an increasingly eclectic range of styles following the introduction of East Asian techniques in the 1920s and ’30s. Today’s North Carolina pottery brilliantly incorporates global influences and appeals to an international market of collectors, galleries, and museums, while retaining powerful connections to family, place, and function.
Potters will demonstrate the various processes and technologies involved in the creation of finished work: digging and processing wild clay, hand-building and wheel-turning, glazing and decorating, kiln loading and wood firing stoneware, and even the excitement of a traditional kiln opening. Experts will discuss how geography, geology, family, and local culture (terroir) have shaped pottery making iterations and describe the remarkable historical transformation of these utilitarian objects, initially intended for storing and transporting food items, into aestheticized art objects of the highest caliber and acclaim.
Steven Edward Abee was born in Burke County in 1968 and graduated from East Burke High School in Icard, North Carolina. After graduation, several furniture and machinery jobs kept him busy by day while he attended Western Piedmont Community College at night. During this time, Abee befriended a co-worker with a passion for pottery, and he began to accompany him to some of influential potter Burlon Craig’s kiln openings. Inspired by what he saw, Abee became a serious collector and took up pottery repair as a hobby.
Before long, Abee had built his own makeshift wheel and began to try his hand at old-time methods that fascinated him. His first introduction to the wheel came from Michael Calhoon of Bolick’s Pottery in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Within a few years, Abee was working as a full-time potter with an electric wheel and a kick wheel, an electric kiln and a self-made underground groundhog kiln, and a pottery shop of his own.
Abee and his wife, Rita, currently live in the Cajah’s Mountain Community of Lenoir. Three or four times a year, the smoke boils from the Abee kiln, turning out a wide variety of wares. Abee makes face jugs, snake jugs, centerpieces, wig stands, vases, bowls, birdhouses, and wine decanters with goblets, as well as artistic figural pieces. His pieces range from miniatures to twelve-plus gallon vessels, with his swirled pieces drawing perhaps the most attention. Steve is dedicated to the old-time tradition of wood-firing, digging and mixing his own clay, and mixing his own glazes, while continuously exploring his personal creativity and style.
Chad Brown is a fifth-generation potter; his great-great grandfather was William Henry Chriscoe, whose original log cabin studio now resides in the Smithsonian Museum. Chad recently purchased a large tract of land in Moore County near Chriscoe’s kiln site, where he is building a large wood-burning kiln and log-constructed shed.
Chad was exposed to pottery around age five or six. His earliest memory of working with clay is with master potters Dot and Walter Auman. Chad recalls, “Dot told Momma that I should be a potter, since I stayed so interested all day long.” When Chad was nine, his grandfather, Graham Chriscoe, opened a pottery shop, and Chad absorbed a great deal from working with his grandparents.
Learning technical skills in the traditional Seagrove fashion, Chad worked as a production thrower in at least twenty different shops over ten years. As Chad puts it, “You make two or three hundred of the same shape, and you get pretty good at it.” Potter Sherry Caldwell-Hohl describes working with Chad: “During the five years that he worked for me, I saw him grow, not just as a potter, but as a person dedicated to maintaining the heritage of Seagrove in his own work. Chad is known as one who speaks softly, but always has an astute approach to solving problems.”
Chad has assisted potter Sid Luck with the Traditional Arts Program for Students and also demonstrates on Saturdays at the North Carolina Pottery Center. Mark Hewitt, President of the Center’s Board, remarks, “Chad Brown has quietly established his presence as one of the most talented younger potters in Seagrove. We all enjoy Chad’s humor and good nature and know how much he contributes to the NCPC with his patient, insightful demonstrations and his warm, generous personality. His beautiful pots reflect who he is.”
Henry Crissman provides visitors with an opportunity to witness the onsite firing of a wood-fueled kiln, a tradition that lies at the heart of European American pottery traditions, such as those found throughout North Carolina. In 2014, Crissman received a National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) Graduate Student Fellowship to fund the construction of the Mobile Anagama, a wood-fired kiln mounted on a moveable trailer. The Mobile Anagama has taken to the road on a national tour to bring ceramics programming to host artists and institutions, introducing pottery to new venues, markets, and audiences. During the National Folk Festival, he will park the Anagama near the pottery demonstration area, giving visitors a first-hand look at the firing process.
Crissman received his BFA in Craft/Ceramics from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, where he taught ceramics classes to children in North End and was tasked with building a new kiln for his department in an artist-owned live/work space off campus. In 2012, he received a NCECA Regina Brown Undergraduate Student Fellowship to continue exploring the kiln’s building process and the impact it had on the nearby North End community. The fellowship culminated in a Subsidized Pottery Sale that challenged the neighborhood’s socioeconomic divide by selling $1 pots from the new kiln to a restricted clientele of local residents within a one-mile radius. With the construction of the Mobile Anagama, Crissman is able to take ceramic art directly to any community in the country.
By staging publicly accessible firings, kiln openings, and pottery sales, Crissman takes a hands-on approach to progressive arts education, challenging the socioeconomic boundaries of the art world and engaging participants in the craft process and the material world. To Crissman, art is “a key to unlock our cultural complexities, which allows us to critically access and reconfigure the structures of our world.”
Henry is currently an MFA Ceramics candidate at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.
Josh Floyd is the Artist-in-Residence at the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove. He has been making pots for over ten years. Josh characterizes his style as “striving to create beautiful and comfortable pots and aspiring to make work that will be used in the home, for coffee with friends or evening tea after a long day. I want my work to make it to the front of the cabinet and to survive a tumble about in the sink.”
Before moving to Seagrove in August 2014, Josh studied for two years as an Artist-in-Residence at the Cub Creek Foundation in Appomattox, Virginia, and worked two years as a studio and gallery assistant for Smicksburg Pottery in Pennsylvania. He has also served as a studio assistant at the Penland School of Craft. Prior to his two-year tenure as North Carolina Pottery Center’s Artist-in-Residence, Josh worked for the Laguna Clay Company in Byesville, Ohio, testing clays and glazes. Describing his inspirations for pottery, Josh says, “I am drawn to the patinas of old, rusted cars in a field, or old barns in some state of disrepair, but still standing. A fondness for the past certainly finds its way into my pots as I reference the crocks and jugs of early America. I am drawn not only to the simplicity and strength of the forms but to the ideas of local production and necessity. While industrial processes and societal norms have changed our needs, there is still a beauty in well-made handcrafted items that will stand the test of time. Referencing these forms is not a desire to copy them but to find my own voice within them.”
David and Deborah Garner’s studio stands just a short walk from the one stoplight in Seagrove. David’s own family has worked with clay for nearly 300 years. He couldn’t really tell you when he first saw a pot being turned – it was so long ago that he doesn’t remember. Garner has lived and worked around clay his entire life, but he still sharpens his skills with courses at UNC-Greensboro, Randolph Community College, and Montgomery Community College, and two years spent studying under a Japanese potter. Garner has also worked with Ben Owen, Sr. and Waymon Cole at J.B. Cole Pottery, one of the largest Seagrove shops, and even served as Seagrove’s mayor.
The Garners opened Turn and Burn Pottery in 1985. Three years later, they began their longtime participation in the Village of Yesterday at the North Carolina State Fair. Together they draw inspiration from around the world, using a range of glazing and firing techniques like Japanese raku, wood-fired kilns, and salt, shino, and horsehair glazes. Their work has been so popular that they have seen three generations of customers in a family return to the shop. Although their work appears in museums and collections worldwide, their highest and favorite compliments come from folks that use their pots in their homes every day. The Garners keep their wares varied and changing as they explore the endless possibilities of clay, but one thing stays consistent: they sign each piece with a verse from Scripture.
Anna King and her husband, Terry King, are lifelong residents of Seagrove. While very young, they began a relationship with Dot and Walter Auman, potters and owners of the now legendary Seagrove Pottery, and consequently developed an intense interest in clay. The Aumans encouraged the Kings and eventually hired them in 1985. While working for Dot and Walter, they were instructed in most of the tasks required to run and maintain a traditional southern production pottery.
In 1987 Anna and Terry opened their first pottery on the site of the old Joe Owen Pottery, on Highway 705, “The Potter’s Highway,” south of Seagrove. Soon after, Anna was taken under the wing of master potter Charlie Owen, brother of Joe and Ben Owen, Sr. Anna and Terry have since built a studio closer to home as well as another studio called Southern Visions, also on Highway 705. Although the Kings use their creativity to produce functional, everyday pottery, their true talents emerge when making sculptural pottery. These pieces include hand-built lions, rams, chickens, and Noah’s arks, as well as wheel-thrown and altered jugs, face jugs, and grape cluster pitchers, creating highly collectable, one-of-a-kind pieces.
Anna and Terry’s daughter Crystal was “raised in clay,” exposed to the art of pottery making in Seagrove from a very early age. Since the age of nine, she often entertained herself in her parents’ pottery shop by making small animals.
At fourteen, Crystal was asked to make a replica of a well-known lion, originally created in the late 19th century. The enthusiastic response from collectors caused her to focus on hand-building other animals. “That first lion changed my life forever and helped me find my niche in the folk art realm,” Crystal says. “I feel that it was these early life experiences that shaped my unique style, and I want to stay true to that natural source.” By the time she graduated high school, it was an easy decision for her to pursue her passion for clay.
Most of Crystal’s sculptures are hand-painted under glazes and then dipped into overglazes that she mixes herself. Today she is best known for these hand-sculpted pieces, though she also turns functional wares on the wheel, such as bowls, pitchers, and vases. Crystal has played an important role in maintaining a handed-down pottery tradition and has grown to love her place in Seagrove’s ever-evolving legacy.
Sid Luck and his son Jason are the fifth and sixth generations of Lucks to dig, turn, and burn the local clay of Seagrove. Their ancestor, William Luck, owned the largest pottery shop in mid-1800s Seagrove, beginning a line of transmission that now includes Sid’s grandchildren. Even though Sid’s father never loved the craft, Sid says, “He had the attitude that this was something that had been in our family, and my brother and I needed to be exposed to it and see if we liked it. I, for some reason, just took to it like a duck to water.” Of seeing the tradition in the hands of his sons and grandchildren, Sid reflects, “I’m very, very proud and honored that they would feel that they ought to carry it on.”
Earlier generations of Luck potters supplemented their income by farming, but Sid took a different path: after serving in the Marines, he earned a degree in science education with a specialty in chemistry and taught high school chemistry in North Carolina and Florida, eventually setting in Seagrove. Pottery was never far from his mind, and he always kept a pottery wheel nearby “to keep my hand in.” By the mid-1970s, Seagrove had a growing reputation as a pottery destination. Sid took a fateful plunge and traded teaching for pottery. “I have never regretted it to this day,” he says.
Sid prefers to make utilitarian wares that are deeply rooted in local tradition. “I like doing functional things; I like carrying on the tradition I grew up with…. They just remind me of where I came from, I guess. I feel comfortable doing those things.”
After absorbing the pottery traditions of his family and community in his youth, Jason Luck is taking the tradition to a new level, developing original glaze formulas and experimenting with some of the more rustic and unpredictable effects of groundhog kilns that appeal to contemporary buyers. He describes growing up in a pottery: “It sort of organically grew … the pottery, the wheels were there, it was sort of inevitable you’d end up making something. You learn these things when you’re so young, the process of learning is lost. You don’t really know how you learned it; you don’t really know what you’re looking for anymore. And it becomes kind of innate, or sort of second nature. I know when I make a nice whiskey jug; I know when it’s a good shape. And what I like is not exactly what Dad likes, and [my brother] Matthew’s got a whole different ideal of beauty when it comes to pottery, so it’s hard to describe … but generally speaking, it’s going to be somewhat symmetrical, it’s going to be relatively smooth, and it’s not going to be thick.”
Jason shared his father’s interest in the science of the pottery process, and the Lucks’ famous “crawdad slip” – a glaze created from clay dug from the family pond – began as Jason’s chemistry class project. He helped build the Lucks’ groundhog kiln, using bricks salvaged from his great-grandfather’s abandoned kiln on the old family homeplace. Although currently practicing law in Charleston, South Carolina, Jason returns to Seagrove frequently to turn pottery and supervise the burning of the wood-fired kiln. “The best forms are the old forms my ancestors made,” he explains. “I don’t see any way to improve them. I do, however, like to play with the formula a little bit.”
Senora Lynch remembers: “An elder man once said to me, ‘You notice how everything’s coming back to our people. You’re doing pottery, he’s doing stone carving, he’s doing woodcarving, she’s making baskets.’ He says, ‘It’s in our roots. They cut down the trees but they don’t remove the roots. It comes back.’”
Senora Lynch, born in Philadelphia, returned to the Piedmont homeland of her Haliwa-Saponi tribe after the death of her father in the late 1960s. Her mother settled her and her siblings near their grandfather, James William Mills, a man well known for his skill. It was not long before elders began to see Mills’s talent emerging in his granddaughter Senora too.
At ease with elders and a good listener, at fourteen Lynch was told to help assist a pottery class for seniors. She loved the clay, and though pottery traditions did not play a role in community life, she heard the old women recalling being taught to coil clay in their childhoods, and she remembered that her grandmother smoked a clay pipe. Senora felt the pull of the clay for the next fifteen years, and then she sat down to learn her craft.
Lynch’s reputation now reaches far beyond the borders of tribe, state, and nation. She has earned respect from fellow American Indian artists for the strength and true form of her pots, and for the exquisite designs that etch their surfaces. In 2007, Lynch was a recipient of the prestigious North Carolina Heritage Award. “I think my pottery is a combination of tradition and modern,” she explains. “I’m telling the story about our tribe like it would have been done long ago, but in a different way.” Her designs draw inspiration from the North Carolina landscape, from her American Indian tradition, her steadfast Christian faith, and the visions that come to her in dreams. She says simply, “My heart is in my hands, and my hands are on my pots.”
When Tara McCoy went to high school on the Qualla Boundary, she took full advantage of the arts and crafts classes available. She learned pottery, finger weaving, beadwork, silverwork, and other arts. Jewelry was her favorite, and she laughs to remember that she liked pottery least of all.
Tara began making miniature clay vessels while she stayed at home with her young children. Producing miniatures from tiny coils of clay is time-consuming and exacting. Tara wanted to make larger vessels but couldn’t quite get the knack of it, until she took a Pottery Guild class that taught the older style of making stamped pottery. Her grandmother had made that kind of pottery; Tara still has some carved paddles. With practice, Tara is now able to produce much larger pieces, but she never cared for stamping designs into her pots, preferring the smooth, shiny look produced by burnishing the surface with a stone. Inspired by the work of Pottery Guild founder Joel Queen, Tara incises designs into the clay surface and embeds small pieces of coral and turquoise into the pattern. Her designs combine images from Cherokee archeological sources with ideas gleaned from modern house design magazines, and also recall her earlier interest in jewelry making. She remarks, “I think with my shapes, I try to keep them simple, but traditional. But then it’s kind of modern. A lot of it’s just learning your own style.”
Renowned Cherokee potter Amanda Swimmer helped Tara as she learned her craft, and fired her first pots for her. Since that time, Tara has experimented with her own fire pit, noting such elements as the day’s heat, humidity, and breezes as critical factors in pit firing.
Ben Owen III’s pottery studio is outfitted with all the modern equipment a contemporary potter could need, but the Owen name is no newcomer to the clay. The studio overlooks the dirt-floored Seagrove pottery that his father, Ben Owen, Jr., and grandfather, Ben Owen, Sr., operated before him – three generations in a North Carolina family pottery tradition stretching back to the mid-18th century. Despite the impact of the Industrial Revolution on small craft business, James Owen and his brother Rufus, father of Ben Owen, Sr., continued to produce functional handmade pottery in their Seagrove community, most notably for the Jugtown Pottery, a working pottery established by Jacques and Juliana Busbee near Seagrove almost a century ago that helped revitalize the region’s fading utilitarian pottery tradition. Ben Owen III, now possibly the ninth generation of Owen potters, keeps the tradition going strong in a world of mass production.
Owen pays homage to his family’s traditional aesthetic, while exploring his own unique styles and forms. He experiments with new glazes and firing techniques, using different kilns and temperatures to achieve a wide range of color and texture. Owen is guided by his grandfather’s philosophy of simplicity in shape and form, while he casts his net wide for new inspiration across space and time. The principles of Asian pottery greatly influenced his grandfather’s work, and Ben Owen III has deepened that connection with immersive trips to Japan to glean new understanding of the social power of a pot in a community’s everyday life.
Owen received the 2004 North Carolina Living Treasure award, and his work has been collected by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.; the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Art in Alfred, New York, and the Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is the host of Pottery Live! on UNC-TV, an annual live television event celebrating the history of pottery in the state.
Original Owens Pottery, located in the Seagrove/Westmoore area of Moore County, is the oldest pottery shop in continuous operation in North Carolina. Operated by Boyd Owens, one of a long line of Owens family potters spanning three centuries, the shop continues to thrive and grow. Famous for the Owens red glaze, the pottery produces traditional dinnerware, new lines of decorative items, and tableware designed for children. All the clay used is local and processed at the shop with clay mills that have been in use since the early 1900s. Likewise, all glaze formulas are original and formulated at the shop.
When he was twelve, Boyd’s older brothers, Vernon and Bobby, left home to work as potters at Jugtown. Boyd stayed with his father, Melvin “M.L.” Owens, learning all aspects of the family business, and in 1975 Melvin turned the business over to him; Boyd now runs it with his sister Nancy. According to her brother Vernon, who now owns Jugtown, Nancy first began turning pots and production dinnerware before she started grade school. Like Boyd, she assisted her father at the family pottery throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Today Nancy remains the principal potter for Boyd, working closely with him on all aspects of the business, including decorating pots with skilled brushwork. She has raised her own two children, Laurie Ann and Gary Kyle, in a pottery milieu.
The Owens Pottery operated by Boyd and Nancy is situated on the same spot as their grandfather James H. Owens’s shop. Now expanded and renovated, their family business thrives with a loyal customer base that returns again and again for the mugs, soup bowls, pie plates, candlesticks, pitchers and casseroles that line the shelves. The incandescent glow of red-glazed Owens ware at Christmastime has become part of many families’ traditions.
Established in 1972 by Hal and Eleanor Pugh, New Salem Pottery is situated on a historical tract of land in north-central Randolph County, North Carolina. Settled in 1766 by Quakers, and purchased by the Pugh family in 1939, the location and the existence of large beds of earthenware clay have made the property ideally suited for a pottery. For the past 225 years there have been seven documented potters working there; William Dennis (b. 1769) and his son Thomas (b. 1791) were the earliest. William, a Quaker opposed to slavery, apprenticed George Newby, a twelve-year-old African American, to learn the pottery trade in 1813. The William Dennis pottery kiln and house site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hal’s own Piedmont red clay roots go back to the mid-18th century, when his Quaker ancestors first settled in the area.
Hal and Eleanor produce a variety of slip-decorated and plain redware. With a combined total of over 70 years of work at the wheel, the Pughs not only make original pieces but likewise replicate earthenware pottery from the 16th through the 20th centuries, specializing in the reproduction of 18th and 19th century slip-decorated and plain earthenware. They have worked as consultants to archaeologists concerning historic ceramic techniques and processes.
Their pottery has been displayed and used by galleries, historic sites, the film industry, and living history museums throughout the United States and abroad. The Pughs and their work have appeared in several publications, including Ceramics Monthly, Clay and Glazes for the Artist Potter, Our State Magazine, The Living Tradition, and Ceramics in America.
Every piece that Catawba Indian potter Caroleen Sanders makes comes from the same clay. “I haven’t made pieces other than that of Catawba River clay,” she says. “My clay is that powerful to me – there’s a spiritual connection to the past and my people.” Sanders still digs the clay herself, shaping it into elegant vessels that express her Catawba heritage and her own unique sensibilities.
Sanders’s mother used the same Catawba River clay, trading her pots for milk and clothing to support her family. Pottery meant heritage, but it also meant sustenance. Growing up on the Catawba Indian Nation Reservation in South Carolina, Caroleen was kept from playing with Catawba River clay – it was too serious and sacred for frivolous use – but was later given some of the material by her uncle, Earl Robbins, who challenged her to make something of it herself. Sanders then began a lifetime dedication to the river’s clay and the ancient lineage of Catawba pottery.
Catawba pottery is the oldest continuous pottery tradition in North America, possibly dating to as early as 2,400 BCE. Of the 2,100 Catawba Nation members, approximately fifty are practicing potters. Working the clay of the Catawba River connects Sanders to both her ancestors and her living community. “I wouldn’t want to be guilty of not passing this on…. It’s who we are and if it wasn’t for the clay, no one would know who the Catawba are – the history speaks.”
Sanders will occasionally deviate from traditional Catawba forms when she incorporates sunflower motifs, original designs, and human sculptures into her work, but her modern designs are just as respected by the tribe as her traditional forms. She has sculpted the likenesses of several tribal leaders, honoring her community with old and new techniques. Pottery is “the cultural glue that holds the Catawba Nation together,” she says.
At least nine generations of potters in his family worked the clay before Joel Queen touched its earthy potential. He keeps in touch with these ancestors through the vessels that pass through his hands. He is one of only a few artists to have opened his own gallery on the Qualla Boundary, which he keeps filled with huge and splendid works in clay, wood, metal, and stone. His work is prolific and powerful. “As a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, I feel I have a responsibility to keep Cherokee art alive,” Joel says. “I live to teach others about my art and the Cherokee culture. Prejudice drives me to educate. It is my passion to break the stereotype that has been placed upon Native art. I strive to link all cultures together through art. My goal is to create art so that people can see their past and future in my creations.”
Queen’s grandmother Ethel Bigmeet taught visiting anthropologists how traditional Cherokee fired their coiled pots in earthen pits. His MFA thesis from Western Carolina University is centered on her and her work. Joel thinks about his ancestors always, as he tasks himself with the kinds of artistic challenges they faced. How should he hand prepare the clay so that its consistency is smooth enough not to blast apart in the fierce heat of the kiln, yet rough enough to provide wall strength for a pot large enough to hold the weight of a man? Joel delights in asking such questions, and he answers them with breathtaking creations that challenge status quo understandings of both traditional Cherokee art and of Indian artists.
Joel was taught in all artistic media during his high school days in Cherokee. Carving in wood and stone held special appeal. Like so many young Cherokee artists, Joel turned a summer stint as guide at Cherokee’s tourist-oriented Oconoluftee Village into an apprenticeship with master carvers.Joel continues to dig and process his own clay from the branch behind his gallery, even for the enormous coil pots that testify to the strength of his mind and body. Modeled upon archaeological remains recently excavated on Cherokee lands, these pots are thought to have served as burial urns, for they are large enough to hold an adult human. Joel will smooth, incise, or bejewel the surfaces of his pots, before firing at temperatures that exceed those normally used for tourist ware. The higher temperatures melt the silicate in the clay and render the surface impermeable to water (a feature that is useful for cooking pots, but one that is irrelevant for the display functions of contemporary artistic pottery production). But the means, for Joel, are the ends: To understand the beauty, meaning, and presence of a traditional Cherokee pot is to accept the ancient evaluative criteria of the elders. Otherwise, it just won’t hold water.
Learn more about the potters and their work.
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