Remembering Pat Renick, Monumental Artist

Monster-maker, advocate for artists, force of nature—artist Patricia Renick’s greatest creation might have been herself.

Constructed around the body of a helicopter that flew over Vietnam, it now squats like a samurai, menacing behind three horns. Its rotors fill the room. The creature’s name is Triceracopter, and it holds the space like a monster from the collective unconscious, a hybrid of primeval fight-or-flight impulse and present-day killing machine. It gives you a visceral glimmer of terror, but puzzles too, like you’re lost in some labyrinth with a minotaur.

Pat Renick takes a break in her studio circa 1975, while the art contemplates the maker.

Photograph by Laura Chapman

Meanwhile, the sculpture’s creator sits nearby, in a fiberglass self-portrait titled She Became What She Beheld. She has given herself the head of a triceratops, and holds in her hand the model used to create Triceracopter. The artist’s name is Patricia Renick, and she taught at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) from 1970 until 2001.

Smoothing dinosaur skin around a helicopter

Photograph by Laura Chapman

I met Renick once, briefly, in the mid-1990s. My roommate Ryan was a student in her Issues in Contemporary Art class. He knew that I wanted a cat and she needed someone to adopt a kitten. One day Renick swept from a car wearing a camel coat and one of the flamboyant, broad-brimmed boaters for which she was known, handed me a kitten and some cat accoutrement, said, “Have fun,” and disappeared. It was only much later, in 2014, seven years after her death, that I really felt like I got to know her. I was given a library school project to digitize papers and slides related to Triceracopter’s creation that are held at UC’s Archives and Rare Books Library. Renick and her companion, Laura Chapman, had meticulously documented its creation over three years in the ’70s. (The exhibit at Langsam includes photos of the artist at work.) As I fed slides into a scanner, I was drawn to these images of a small, tough-looking woman in overalls, molding a dinosaur from clay. It’s the look of sheer determination written on her face. And then the weird pull of the work itself.

Triceracopter isn’t the only dinosaur sculpture Renick made. In 1974, in response to the oil crisis, she formed a silver stegosaurus around the body of a ’63 VW Beetle. Stegowagenvolkssaurus is on display in NKU’s Steely library. It’s not as dark as Triceracopter, but it’s also overtly political, speaking out on Big Issues that are still stalking the American landscape today. They warn. And they play to the kid in us, these works, these giant toys that are the stuff of nightmares, sci-fi time travelers nesting amid the Brutalist modern campus architecture. We’re fragile beings in a room with monsters, they seem to say. And they have the power to show us the monsters we harbor inside.

Photograph by Laura Chapman

Photograph by Laura Chapman

Photograph by Laura Chapman

Just as Cincinnati art history had its Duveneck Era, we had a Renick Era, says Owen Findsen, “when monumental art was important.” Findsen was an art critic and reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer for 39 years. In 1979 he wrote that beside the painter Paul Chidlaw, Renick was one of the two most important Cincinnati artists of the ’70s, and probably the first in history to exhibit at all three of our art museums. Not only was she a woman in a male-dominated field, Findsen tells me, but Stegowagenvolkssaurus and Triceracopter went very much against the grain in that she was doing figurative work when other artists were exploring formal issues and conceptualism. “Pat Renick, Claes Oldenberg, who else was doing art that’s about something?” he asks. “She was going the opposite direction within the context of something that is very hard to do.” Findsen says Renick organized people: She established the first sculpture conference for women here in Cincinnati at a time when people were beginning to protest the under-representation of female artists in museums and galleries. Her work, mentorship of numerous artists, and tireless advocacy all earned her the nickname “Mother Art.”

As man-made fossils, the art draws us back to the time of its creation. She once said to Findsen, “I’d like to find a cave and put both works in it and seal them up for some future generation to find.” But then time is its own cave. Perhaps the moment has arrived for a new generation to rediscover them, and the woman who cast herself in the room with her greatest work.

Patricia Renick

Photograph by Laura Chapman

Patricia A. Renick was born in Lakeland, Florida, in 1932. Her family soon moved to Temple Terrace, outside of Tampa. Her mother owned a needlecraft studio and yarn shop. She divorced Renick’s father, who worked as a bursar for a shipping company, spent most of his time in Costa Rica, and in 1957 died and was buried at sea. It was a middle class upbringing, says Chapman, who is also from Tampa. She attended the same high school as Renick, who was an outstanding student and graduated in 1950.

Both Chapman and Renick went on to Florida State University, where Renick showed an early penchant for working big, creating multi-story flights of fancy for the Homecoming dorm decoration contest. She won first place two years running with giant sculptures like the Rube Goldbergesque Hattercol, an assemblage that had moving parts and electric lights, depicting FSU’s then-mascot, Sammy the Seminole, forcing the Mad Hatter into a still while the Cheshire Cat sips liquor. The school paper noted Renick’s uncle was a professional cartoonist, and that “she could well follow in his footsteps, but instead she wants to be an art teacher in a high school.” Renick graduated with honors in 1954. Along with a degree in art education, she’d learned to weld, work with wood, solder, and slump glass. In short order she found a job teaching art and sculpture to 10th through 12th graders.

In the late ’50s, however, Renick’s life took a sudden, dark turn. One night she came home from the high school to the house where she lived with several other teachers. She’d been having trouble sleeping, and suddenly it felt like a spike had been driven into her head. Everything began to unravel. She thought the sound of a television was the voice of God. All night, her mind on fire, she wrote furiously, only to wake in the morning surrounded by pages of unintelligible scribbling. Her roommates called an ambulance, and she was taken to a private psychiatric hospital in Tarpon Springs, where, over the course of 13 months, she received a regimen of electroshock treatments. These were administered without muscle relaxants. She was given a shot of sodium pentothal and restrained, then the current was applied, sending her into a grand mal seizure. All of this comes from an account Renick wrote of the experience, among her papers at UC. The treatments left her “awake, exhausted, limp,” with a splitting headache. “My memory seemed to be erased. Thoughts would appear for a fleeting moment but become lost when I would try to speak . . . as if my mind would keep falling over a cliff.” Against doctors’ advice, she checked herself out. They told her that leaving meant almost certain suicide or life in a sanatorium. And certainly, teaching was out of the question.

Renick hid out in her mother’s house in Tampa, the drapes drawn tight, unable to recall many of the things we take for granted. “Like how to dial a phone, write a check, and what light to cross the street on,” she wrote.

Slowly she gained the self-confidence to go back into the world. She moved to Miami, where she socialized with artists, including the painter Margaret Lefranc Schoonover, who introduced her at a party in Coconut Grove to a young woman, a French medical student, Claude Perpere, who was visiting on a Fulbright Scholarship, and studying to become a plastic surgeon.

Photograph by Laura Chapman

Renick’s recent hospitalization puzzled Perpere because she didn’t appear to have a history of mental illness. One day they went to the beach together and the conversation turned to the recent disturbing episode in Renick’s life. Had she been taking anything, Perpere asked, prior to hospitalization? Renick said that her family physician had given her pills for weight loss. The French medical student told her she suspected that her schizophrenia-like symptoms had been caused by the drug. A call to Renick’s doctor confirmed the suspicion. Renick had been given an unlimited prescription of dextroamphetamine sulfate, or speed, and had doubled her dosage over time. (She was hardly alone. By the early 1960s, the U.S. was at the height of an amphetamine abuse epidemic. Amphetamine psychosis had been noted since the ’30s, but it was misdiagnosed as evidence of schizophrenia.)

Renick was incredulous. She had been led to believe that she was sick, doomed to relapse, or worse. Perpere had set her free.

In 1963, an importer-exporter friend invited her to travel around the world with him. With money from her mother, she visited Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Egypt, India, and Thailand. In her passport photo she’s thin, tan, beaming. She set off on her own, visiting Perpere in France and friends at a military base, then took a job in Vitry-le-François teaching the children of U.S. servicemen. After two years abroad she returned to the U.S., teaching shop to African-American boys at a segregated junior high for a time before applying to Ohio State University’s MFA sculpture program. Admission, she was chagrined to learn, required a year in their undergraduate program. So Renick found a work-around.

“There was a print maker there, a wonderful, eccentric character, and he said, ‘Honey, you just come over and be an MFA student in my print-making program. Then you can do whatever you want,’ ” recalls Chapman. Renick worked in the print studio creating what she called “graphic sculpture” by applying printed silks to three-dimensional forms. At her master’s thesis show in 1969, after two years at OSU, she exhibited farcical figures, some round-bottomed like Weebles, others balanced comically on classical columns, with etchings or stretched silk prints for faces. Her work explored politics, sociology, and current events, including campus suicides. Some of the pieces, like Triceracopter and Stegowagenvolkssaurus later, mixed the biological with the mechanical. “I am particularly fascinated with relationships,” her artist statement read. “Relationships between the past and the present, our inner feelings and outer appearances, and the thin line between having control and being controlled.”

“Pat was a real feminist, so the idea of the classical wouldn’t have appealed to her even if she had gone through atelier training,” says Maureen Bloomfield, editor of The Artist’s Magazine. Chapman, however, doesn’t think Renick regarded herself as a feminist so much as “an advocate for artists and the equitable treatment of artists.” Either way, art and academia in the late ’60s and 1970s were still male-dominated fields; the sexual revolution was in full swing; and Renick was a gay woman making sculpture at a time when the field was viewed as the near-exclusive province of men. Women weren’t seen as physical or strong enough.

Renick got a job teaching at DAAP, but was soon hanging out at downtown galleries. She managed to show her work to the owner of one of the chicest, Closson’s, overseen by Phyllis Weston, on Fourth Street. “And [the owner] went crazy about her work,” Chapman says. “He really liked it, which of course swiveled Phyllis’s head.” With favorable reviews and support from Weston, as well as UC president Warren Bennis (who Renick nicknamed “The Silver Fox”), her local reputation grew rapidly. She showed at the Taft. And then came an invitation from the Cincinnati Art Museum. For this, she wanted to create something big.

Stegowagenvolkssaurus came to Renick, “at a toy counter in a dime store, [while] looking at model kits,” she told Cincinnati Magazine in 1978. She bought two kits, a dinosaur and a car, and fit them into a single form, creating the maquette, or scale model from which a sculptor works. She took an unpaid leave of absence beginning in the spring of 1973 to complete the piece, soliciting donations of a VW Beetle, fiberglass, and modeling clay. She molded the form for its fiberglass body by carrying thousands of pounds of hot clay from her kitchen in roasting pans to a tent attached to the garage at her house on Probasco in Clifton. By fall she was working under heaters with kitchen utensils. A Detroit automotive modeler named Ron Martin heard her lecture in Michigan, became curious about her project, and offered to teach her automotive modeling techniques. By the time she was ready to bring in professionals to help with the fiberglass molds, it had started to snow, forcing her to move the project to a fabrication shop. At the 11th hour, museum staff realized that the piece was too big to get into the gallery, so she re-engineered the work just as she neared completion. One hour before the show opened, in February 1974, the great, gray dinosaur was fully in place on its platform.

Renick’s Stegowagenvolkssaurus

Photograph by Owen Findsen

Stegowagenvolkssaurus, with its sleek form and canny smirk, was a hit. Its image was picked up by the Associated Press, making national news, a meme before memes were a thing. After the Cincinnati Art Museum it showed at the CAC, then hit the road to the Chicago Federal Center in the summer of 1975.

Jim Farr, a.k.a. “Dauber,” is a pin-stripe maestro who has custom-painted hot rods for Pete Rose and Jack Roush. He has worked on Stegowagenvolkssaurus twice: When its left rear foot was scuffed during installation in the CAC, he was called in to airbrush the damage. Years later, he was involved in the sculpture’s repair and restoration for Steely Library—the work had been damaged, then lost after disassembly in Chicago. (Only Renick’s frantic letters and threat of a lawsuit had gotten it back.) Farr liked that Renick’s exuberant personality ran counter to the stuffiness of the art scene. They became friends. Renick remains an inspiration to him and “frankly, to a lot of people,” Farr says. “She really booted a lot of people in the ass and inspired them to do real quality work, to be imaginative.”

Farr has shown his own paintings at galleries all over town, but would get his framing done at Michaels, he says, “because that’s what I could afford. It’s a very, very difficult town to make it in if you’re an artist.”

For Renick, there was tension between being a working artist and teaching. “I remember her commenting that a lot of the male professors at DAAP really didn’t care for her very much,” says Farr. “Hell, she didn’t take crap off any man.” There was resentment by some, one of Renick’s former colleagues told me, because she was strong-willed, and because she was simply producing more art than most, gaining recognition, and making connections outside the school—connections that were in fact useful for DAAP. Still, Renick wasn’t one to let petty rivalries bother her.

With a check for the damages to Stego-wagenvolkssaurus in hand, and America’s bicentennial approaching, Renick set to work on a piece that would turn out to be even more monumental.

“I had an idea for a sculpture bearing on the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the more ambitious concept of a triceratops combined with a helicopter,” she recalled in a 2003 interview with Chapman for Sculpture magazine. “I did not see the work as a celebration, but as a cautionary tale, an expression of hope for the end of war. War is a dichotomy. It seduces the dream-self through heroic fantasy while threatening the physical self with extinction.” Renick was intent to step up her own game as well. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do another large work,” she said. “I didn’t want to be one of those rocking chair people on the front porch of the future, saddened by what might have been.”

She created the maquette, wrote letters in search of donations of materials and studio space, and requested a personal leave to complete the work. When her request was rebuffed, Renick resigned from DAAP. In her letter to Foster Wygant, dean of UC’s Department of Education, who had made a big deal about her accomplishment as an artist when she was hired, she wrote: “It is ironic that a department and a college which claim to place great value on creativity should be so threatened by it.”

Now Renick brought her powers of persuasion to bear, most notably on the U.S. Army. After a series of exchanges, a salvaged chopper was found. And the Army, perhaps recognizing the wisdom of an end to war, agreed to donate and ship it at taxpayer expense to Renick’s front door.

One afternoon in May 1975, a flatbed semi pulled up to 343 Probasco Street bearing the airframe of an OH-6A Cayuse helicopter that had been damaged in Vietnam. The Cayuse had been a scout, flown as a decoy over dense jungle concealing Viet Cong fighters in order to draw fire and by their muzzle flashes, expose enemy locations to bombers. It was an airborne Trojan horse of sorts, the gift of an easy target that conceals Death From Above. Along with a scrapped helicopter, the house became a depot of materials including barrels of Hetron, a resin used in creating fiberglass forms, and automotive modeling clay.

Maggie Moschell teaches art to fourth graders in the Mason school district. As a student from 1974 to 1978 in DAAP’s art education program, she had Renick as a teacher and later worked as her teaching assistant.

“It was a weird time to be in art school,” Moschell says. “We’d go to Chicago for a weekend and you’d walk into an empty gallery and there’d be a string across the wall. You had to guess if that was the artwork. And if it was, you’d have to guess why you were supposed to admire it.”

Renick talked Moschell into riding to Detroit in a rented truck to pick up four tons of donated clay. As they and a couple of other students sat in the cargo compartment with the door rolled up, Renick suggested a game to pass the time. She bet them that if they waved at fellow motorists, the people in shoddier cars would be more inclined to wave back. They kept score with hash marks in the dirt on the back of the truck. It was an ethnographic experiment in friendliness. Renick was a student of human nature with a sense of playfulness, and, Moschell says, an intense, infectious enthusiasm that enabled her to sell military men on the value of incorporating a war machine into contemporary sculpture, as well as students, craftsmen, and local companies on the value of being involved in a compelling, ambitious project.

“She asked questions that weren’t rude, but were deeper than what people typically asked during conversations,” says Moschell. “She was intensely curious. She wanted to know how others felt, what they thought about, what they were doing, and it was so genuine and so rare to have someone focus on you like that, that people just gravitated to her.”

Never mind that they had to move a mountain of cold clay with their bare hands and arrived at their Detroit hotel exhausted. It was worth the adventure.

Renick secured a studio in the Strietmann Biscuit building at the southeast corner of 12th and Central Parkway. She painted the walls white and plotted Triceracopter’s lines on the wall with black tape. The helicopter was brought up the freight elevator and placed on a platform. Constance McClure, who also had a studio in the Strietmann, remembers that the roof leaked. While she and Renick were friendly, they didn’t talk much. Renick had this intensity and focus, McClure recalls, and was a perfectionist.

Working with automotive modeling clay demands meticulousness. Renick set about shaping a dinosaur and smoothing its skin around the helicopter, creating the form that would then be used as a mold for its final, fiberglass hull. She had to scramble and rebuild the beast’s nose after the scaly surface she created (using casts of crackled shingles found on the roof) collapsed. Spare helicopter parts were requisitioned from the National Guard to replace a missing section of the helicopter’s tail. With the help of fiberglass technician Thomas Backsheider, she gave the form a coat of epoxy resin and sprayed fiberglass over this to create cavity molds, which were woolly at the gaps where the shell-like molds were designed to break away. The interior of these final molds received another layer of resin and the final fiberglass that became the Triceracopter you see today. To create the mold for Self-Portrait: She Became What She Beheld, Renick made a mold of her own body. As the cast hardened, she found herself trapped, and had to call out for Chapman to cut her free. The work was sanded, painted, and given a seductive sheen for its star turn at the CAC on December 15, 1977.

She Became What She Beheld was Renick’s companion to Triceracopter. Both are in the Langsam Library at UC today.

Photograph by Owen Findsen

Triceracopter had taken Renick two years to complete. In the spring of ’77, when Owen Findsen paid her a visit, she told him that she felt changed by the challenges of its creation, changed by solving problems, both physical and logistical, including getting her hands on a helicopter in the first place. When she told people what she was going to do, she added, “everybody thought I was crazy.”

Being told she was crazy was nothing new to Renick. Her misdiagnosis two decades earlier was still very much on her mind. In the 1980s, as her work became more personal, she set out to deal directly with the experience, even traveling to the site of her 13-month hospitalization.

In August 1981, she snapped a photo of the hospital, and later wrote about the experience of returning to the “elegant and stately building bathed in intense light, submerged in summer-time stillness.” The hospital stood on the banks of a river, Renick’s own personal Lethe, a source of loss and death she felt only narrowly to have escaped. Two friends she made in the hospital later committed suicide. Her friend Jack called her with the news that a woman named Margaret had hanged herself. And then, two years later, Jack took his own life with a drug overdose. In Renick’s typed first draft of her remembrance, she crossed out a sentence saying she was numbed by the news, then “outraged at the psychiatrists for not knowing Jack’s state of mind.” The next words she did not cross out: “I too had entertained thoughts of suicide in the early days after leaving the hospital.”

As Renick delved more deeply into her personal experience she created a set of boats—Life Boats, which hang in DAAP’s central atrium today. Next came 2068 Series, a cycle of female forms strapped onto boat-like sarcophagi, attached to machinery. One figure has many faces, as though turning her head rapidly, another the head of the Statue of Liberty, another a diving helmet, and so on. The “2068” refers to Renick’s hospital case number.

It’s no stretch to suggest that the experience of having to crawl back from the brink of trauma had annealed an already strong artistic will. “Trauma has a way of altering one’s perceptions of self and attitudes about others,” Renick wrote in a coda to her remembrance of returning to the hospital. “To heal the psyche, there must first be a willingness to let go of the hurt and challenge the fear of adventuring beyond the security of a limited reality.” How she processed her experience offers a window into what drove her as an artist, art advocate, and teacher. Being misdiagnosed doesn’t, for example, leave you with an inclination to trust blindly.

DAAP MFA alumni, sculptor, Fulbright Scholar, and Distinguished Professor Michael Johnson is pretty certain he wouldn’t be talking to me from his office at the University of Puget Sound were it not for Renick. She was his teacher, mentor, friend, and confidante. In the classroom Johnson still tries to channel Renick.

“Pat was a listener,” Johnson says. “In order to be an effective communicator or teacher you have to be an effective listener, and teaching is a compromise. It’s not directing a person. It’s helping someone direct themselves. I think that was one of her greatest gifts, one that she was able to apply to every aspect of her life.” Renick taught him that the most important thing an artist can do is “trust yourself, trust what you know and understand most intimately. That’s the most important place from which to start making work.” Johnson thinks that her experience led her to become the person she was, a woman turning darkness and self-doubt into raw, extroverted enthusiasm. She had, he says, this “drive to unshackle people.”

Renick said something similar to Chapman in that 2003 interview in Sculpture. “Perhaps because I came to art relatively late in life, and cherish the freedoms it offers, I’m most frightened by power in the hands of people who seem to thrive on tearing the wings off dreams.”

Renick’s passion for organizing and promoting artists led her to mount, with the help of Chapman and a few others, the first sculpture conference for women artists. In 1987 the National Sculpture Conference: Works by Women was itself a monumental work, gathering the major female practitioners in the field. Maya Lin, who endured conservatives’ ire as the Asian-American creator of the Vietnam Memorial, was there. So was African-American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, as well as Clyde Connell, Dorothy Dehner, Claire Falkenstein, Sue Fuller, and Claire Zeisler. Over 1,200 participants attended seminars, presentations, and panels at a four-day celebration of women artists at the Sabin Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati, with concurrent shows and happenings in museums, galleries, parks, and public spaces across the city.

Despite the fact that she had small children at the time, local stone sculptor Karen Heyl knew she had to be there. Heyl also works on a large scale, creating stone sculptures and bas reliefs that have been commissioned for installation across the country. She first met Renick, whom she admired, at the conference. They became friends, finding common ground in Renick’s 2068 Series—Heyl had spent time in a convent where she, too, had been assigned a number.

“That just blew her apart when she found out I could identify with that feeling,” Heyl says. “I admired her because she was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.”

The conference was a boost for Heyl at a time when she needed it. “Just to understand that we were all pushing against the same walls,” she says. Those walls were cultural, and started with the assumption that sculpture was a male preserve. It was a long-standing attitude encountered by an earlier artist of monumental works, Louise Nevelson, who was honored in absentia at the sculpture conference. (An example of Nevelson’s work stands outside the Main Library downtown, at the corner of Eighth and Walnut.) “They said, ‘Louise you can’t be a sculptor,’” says Heyl. “And she said, ‘Why not?’ ‘Because it takes balls to be a sculptor.’ And so she goes, ‘Well, if that’s all it takes, I’ve got balls.’”

Renick’s influence, while hard to quantify, can still be seen today. Certainly, The National Sculpture Conference: Works by Women raised national awareness of the local arts scene that she loved, says CAC Exhibition Coordinator David Dillon, once also a student in Renick’s Issues in Contemporary Arts class. But it stretches beyond simple awareness, too.

After the Strietmann Biscuit building was bought by an owner less sympathetic to artists, Renick, Chapman, and another artist, McCrystal Wood, purchased a building in Brighton, in the West End. If there is a single part of town where Renick’s spirit is most tangible, it’s there, in Brighton’s tiny arts district, where she worked and often hosted parties in a first-floor studio. Sitting just south of Central Parkway, which was once the bed of the Miami-Erie Canal, Brighton was cut off, literally overlooked by people headed downtown. Renick petitioned the city to have a connector put in, across from the Mockbee, creating Brighton Triangle. The move was part of her local installation of 30-Module Sphere, which she designed for a sculpture exhibition at Chicago’s Navy Pier and had built by Brighton metal fabrication company Young & Bertke. The connector, Dillon says, could be seen as a metaphor for Renick’s drive to bring people to the arts. And the sculpture, when I pass it now, is a literal reflection of Renick’s unbreakable sphere of influence. Constructed of stainless steel triangles, it shimmers with the passing life of the city.

When Renick died in May 2007 from complications during a surgery, she left some 900 works of art, ranging from monumental sculptures to models, miniatures, prints, drawings, and jewelry. Mother Art’s studio went quiet. According to her wishes, Chapman distributed Renick’s ashes in glassine envelopes among her friends. They released her into the world, in exotic locales, over waterfalls, in the gardens of famous artists. And they kept her close to home, feeding her to trees in their yards, keeping her in studios or office drawers beside their tools. Jim Farr attached an envelope to Stegowagenvolkssaurus’s dashboard. And Chapman buried the 2068 Series ceremonially on a friend’s property in New Richmond, by the river. I imagine those forms being unearthed one day and raising much speculation among the archaeologists of the future.

One other thing that Michael Johnson said sticks with me, from a recollection of the phone calls he and Renick had right up to the end of her life. They spoke often, catching each other up on what was going on in their lives and work.

“She would always talk to me about making these things in the studio of your mind,” he recalled. “ ‘Don’t think about the inability to do something or the liability of doing something out here. Make it inside. Make it in your mind. Think about it. Dream about it. And that’s how you’re going to find a solution.’ ”

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