Tales of the Festival


On a recent July weekend, I packed my artwork along with the shelter and accessories needed to create an event booth,  and got over to the Palo Alto Art Center for the annual ACGA Clay and Glass Festival.

Me: Artist #17 in a brilliantly located and lightly shaded spot along one of the main lanes, one of nearly 160 others.

Them: The collectors, students and assorted aficionados arriving in nice steady streams all day both days, the weather in the high 70s with a light breeze.

Here are some Tales:

Tales of Gladness

Rusty McBucket – I taught Beginning Ceramics to Joanie K. at the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center for precisely twelve weeks over a year ago.  She was on fire for clay in a way I recognized….reading everything in sight, buying nifty tools, signing up for Every. Single. Ceramics Opportunity. She still is. Joanie came by my booth with a small treasure she had collected for me many months before. On a beach in Ireland – Balbriggan to be exact – she encountered an incredible piece of romantically rusted metal and brought it home. She lovingly watched me unwrap it from its long travels. I was astounded and consider it a work of art in its own right.  If only rust could talk.

The Sounds of The Silencer –  My conetop beer and soda cans are usually prominently displayed in the front of my booth. That way they constantly provoke curiosity and comment. (One visitor this year even sort of yelled at me when I explained that everything she was looking at was 100% ceramic. “Get OUT!!!!” she exclaimed… and I took it as a compliment.) In an afternoon lull, a pensive younger man was enjoying and picking up many of the cans. After a bit of time, he looked up at me and I mentioned to him some feature or benefit, I can’t quite recall. He smiled and then gestured that he could not hear and could not speak. But he still wanted to ask me something. I don’t know why I kept talking as I was finding some paper and pen, but he was quicker. Out came a letter to explain his admiration which was also a request to donate to his organization, of which he was the President: The Association of Parents, Teachers and Counselors (APTC) at California School for the Deaf in Fremont for their first annual “Sip, Savor & Support” fundraiser to be held in San Francisco this November. In an instinctive move, I nodded my head and plucked the donation paperwork out of his hands, indicating YES!  I will be sending him and the APTC  the shot-up beer can he favored, The Silencer. Gives me chills.


Tales of Suffering

Breakage – Nothing was broken outright during the Festival, but I have to admit to a learned apprehension when folks innocently mis-handle my work. It’s not particularly delicate, any more, as I’ve learned to bolster clay’s weaknesses when being made to look like metal. But, it’s still ceramic and not metal and the fool-the-eye aspects quite often fool the handler so well that… You can read about how I learned this lesson the hard way  in “Hey This Handle’s Stuck.” No matter what I do – and I use Quake Hold on every lid and even “Hi I’m Not a Real Handle” hangtags on the sculptural affairs –  there are folks who just Go There: twisting and turning, bumping and grinding, tipping and toppling. It was enough that last May a wind gust luffed my booth sidewall and tumbled some heavier pieces down onto the handles of my pitchers and watering cans, ultimately taking out four of them. I discovered the last one’s subtle but fatal crack during this Festival and set it aside. Disheartening. So when someone comes along and grasps, flips or clunks a tad too offhandedly, I break out in hives. Hey, they’re vessels but not crockery!

Not that Cool Chick – OK this one stung. But I think it’s also hilarious.  So here goes: When I had stepped away from my booth for less than ten minutes, a quirky guy swooped in and asked my husband, “Hey! Where’s that Cool Chick? The one that makes all these?! I talked to her before. She’s SO COOL!”   He was still there poking around when I returned.  Now, when you are in the middle of a Clay and Glass Festival, you talk to all comers, and while most are delightful, there are some who merely pass for rational. With animated bullshit he proceeded to philosophize and elucidate. (It’s hard to get out of a buttonholer’s grasp when no-one else is coming around and you’ve just returned from a break.) He pontificated about What is Art and why he wouldn’t buy the “lonely” work in the booth directly across from me, but he would buy mine – which unsurprisingly he made no move to do. With another dollop of social cluelessness – possibly tinged with the bluntness of Asperger’s –  he also said, “Last year I couldn’t believe what a Cool Chick you were, but right now, you’ve just got a Mom Vibe.”  Must be my feet of clay.  I excused myself and got out of the Maggie May morning sun,


Tales of Serendipity

The Trading Agent – Turns out the kid has been coming to art festivals since he was nine-months old, but I didn’t know that. He looked to be somewhere around 12 and had visited my booth at least twice, digging on the shot-up beer cans each time, all smiles. His enthusiasm was guilelessly genuine and when I remembered I had a stash of animal cracker pins with me, I offered him a choice of one. He took a tiger. Soon he came back – tiger pinned to his shirt – with his dad, who, as it turns out, was another festival artist. And we spoke of working out a trade to foster Ethan’s budding ceramics collection. I said I would come look when things wrapped for the day.  Before then, Ethan returned once more, this time with his mom, to cement the plan. Way to work the  ‘rents, kid! I asked what he was really interested in and when I walked over to the booth of Gerald Arrington, I carried those pieces with me. I’m enamored of how this trade transpired. I met a wonderful family and we both left the festival with treasures. Here’s mine, a very Zen-like indented thrown sphere, complete with hand-applied striations and an engaging rough/smooth surface. I love rocks and Gerry’s are perfection:


Unexpected Invitations If I don’t leave my studio and go where the enthusiasts are, I’ll likely never meet them…and they me! A premium quality festival like this affords premium opportunities, but they are still mostly related to chance. After two such serendipitous encounters, I am still shaking off the elated wonderment like a Golden Retriever after a swim in the pond. I will be acting upon them soon.

Derik Van Beers, whose work I’ve appreciated in the past at the Ceramics Annual of America, walked by, introduced himself and we talked a bit about his Roscoe Ceramic Gallery in Oakland, where he felt my beer cans would be a big hit in his front display cases. YES!!!!!  He later returned and bought one and then showed it round the Festival. I just need to box a variety of them up and get there on a Saturday afternoon sometime soon. In my personal campaign to blanket the SF Bay Area with my ceramic cans, I’m tiptoeing up on the East Bay.

And if that was not enough wonder, right after Derik departed,  here stood an open-eyed and lovely couple, speaking enthusiastically of their love of all kinds of teapots and how they collect them and, by the way,  they have this museum to house them all. A tiny flicker went off in my brain… might this be…? They continued with how they enjoyed my work, saw some of my larger gas cans as teapots (requisite spout/lid/handle/body) and wondered if,  when I made more,  since they didn’t quite see The One right then, would I be so kind as to email them some photos? And, oh, since they “get a lot of emails” if I don’t get a reply to just continue sending.  At that point he handed me his card with the email address, and yup, it was Sonny and Gloria Kamm of the Kamm Teapot Foundation. To be honest, the sculptural teapot tradition is SO strong and well done, I’ve never felt like a candidate, but if Gloria and Sonny say so….

–Liz Crain, who took a week and a half to absorb these Tales and balance them against the fact that she very nearly cancelled on this Festival this year – twice. Yes, there were extenuating circumstances she could point to, but at root was the fear of not being All That – The Cool Chick – and she managed to talk herself away from the ledge by getting her Inner Critic Scylla to agree to show up this one time as A Good Enough Artist. She’s happy to relate that she felt like her most genuine artist-self the entire time.


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Gleanings From My Tribe: Six Mugs, A Tumbler, Two Vases, One Bowl and A Grenade


Today I spent visiting a few other local ceramic artists in their cleaned up, Ready for Prime Time 2012 Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour habitats,  gleaning the fruits of the passion we hold in common. Since I hardly get out of my paddock, it was a deliciously freeing promenade and I came home with treasures and photos from most of my stops. Up top you see my new wardrobe of mugs, my personal theme this year. At the end of this post you’ll see the tumbler, bowl, vases and grenade.

What follows are short illustrated vignettes about each these folks…three of whom were participating in Open Studios for the very first time and ALL of whom are open Encore Weekend and of course would be willing to share their work by appointment all year long. (I didn’t ask them, I just know this.)

I had only this one day to get out there, since I participate in this 3-weekend Tour myself  and this wasn’t my weekend to be on. I mapped out a strategic travel itinerary like a seasoned Road Warrior for Art. I also announced to associated family and friends I was going it alone. May I recommend that? It makes for agile quality: timing, conversations and all the other decisions: Eat? Pee? See Everything on Every Shelf or Just Enjoy the Overview? It’s my own personal Artist Date, and dang if I ain’t good company to me!!!

The real trick is getting out there as early as possible. Studios are open 11-5; be at the first one as soon after 11 as you can! (But,  too early can be awkward.) Happy Hour everywhere is 1-3, so see if you can get to most places before then, or be prepared to swim upstream through the crowds and maybe not have that intimate artist chat. I did the best I could with the timing because I had a 50 mile loop to execute. I only got mildly lost twice, no, three times, the downside of no-one riding Navigator/Shotgun, I guess.




First stop: Andrea Dana-McCullough, Artist # 265 ( she’s on the left in the photo.) Her love of carving through colored layers onto her pieces (sgraffito) is augmented nicely by her love of insects. I was on a personal quest for a Bug/Beetle Mug, which I found in snappy blue on white. It’s the upper right mug in my lead-off photo. When I got home I washed and began drinking from each vessel in the order I’d acquired it today. Andrea’s was first and I was sorely tempted to just stay put. I have one other piece of hers, a small tray, and these won’t be the last!









At the farthest reaches of my loop was Travis Adams, Artist # 279. He has the entire back work area and yard of the fabulous Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center STUFFED with his amazing range of work. It was a massive effort and looked wonderful. I had to have one of his grenades – see last photo – and then a dangerously drooly crawl-glazed bowl (also below) caught my eye and a sweet little teadust mug – middle left up top. Travis has also SO generously displayed not only my own OS postcard, but the conetop Travis Beer can I traded him for one of his rat sculptures earlier this year. That’s what he’s holding in the photo. My Tribe…I think I’ll keep them!




Looking happily occupied with visitors (back to the camera) is Mattie Leeds, who along with wife Melissa, are Artist Studio #289. There is no shortage of things to see here on this Bonny Doon land, the penultimate  lifelong ceramic artist habitat. From slightly unbelievable shard-pile mosaic installations, to a formal display room, to the working rooms and kilns, it’s huge and worth the trip. It’s lovely that you can wander the cavernous multi-level inside and outside as long as you like. I didn’t buy a Mattie Mug…I have in the past. Instead we spoke of his recently child-proofed studio (!) and of the piece I REALLY want….







My heart has an all-or-nothing thing for this big – as in five feet tall – lidded vase which Mattie created as a demo at Cabrillo College. The size and form are phenomenal, but the Asian bird and bamboo painting is even better. Such intimacy and skill on such a huge work! Yep, it’s all I wanted to take home. How?  Where? *SIGH*










Another lovely artist habitat up by the wilds of UCSC and Pogonip is that of Jeannine Niehaus,  Artist #240. The yard, the teahouse and her sure-handed thrown and slip-decorated pieces all play well together. Since I have a fall birthday, I was thinking of her bright maple leaf decorations on a little sumpin’ sumpin’….I know….a mug!!!! How about TWO? (Middle right and back in the top photo.) Jeannine never stopped long enough to pose; her yard was full of aficionados. (I waited until they briefly cleared from her teahouse deck to take this shot.) She was cheerfully watering her bedding plants and chatting the while and setting a fine example of how to genuinely represent.








Just look at the smiling Hank Scott, Artist #235 at Saltwater Pottery! He’s a first-timer to Open Studios, but obviously NOT to pottery and decorating. With a clear palette and style, I think he’s found a lively following. I bought one vase for me (short with red dots) and one for my mom (creamy with bamboo), both seen below. His late 1800s home is a well-restored Santa Cruz original and  it was SRO by the time I was there. I think he might feel encouraged!







So….the one photo op I did not get to take was with Geof Nicastro, Artist #163 and Rocky Lewycky, Artist #162. They both are showing in the expansive space behind Clay Creation on Soquel Avenue and have a wide and sympatico offering. I was just settling in for a spell and selecting a blue impressed cylinder mug of Geof’s (seen at the top left) when a huge crowd descended upon the two – I’m talking a couple dozen folks on a bus tour! Lucky Geof and Rocky! –  I held my mug close, pressed money into Geof’s hands and left through the back path in the hedge. Sometimes it’s like that! Love you two, and here’s to a fruitful Encore Weekend! I toast your creativity. SO wanted a panoramic shot….take one and send it to me….I’ll include it here.



Last stop:  the engaging Jasper Marino, Artist #149, holding the two pieces I bought from him, both variants of his dense, graffiti-influenced  calligraphy. The mug is up front in the top shot and the tumbler on the left rear down below. (Oh, and time to switch to drinking out of my  Jasper mug.) We had a few moments in his very personal space to talk about self-perceptions and what next-level functioning might entail. “Thoughts become things, baby!”









So, that’s a full day touring the environs of eight ceramic artists in my tribe on the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County’s annual Open Studios Art Tour. We are rich beyond belief here in the Fifth Most Artistic Locale in the US.




~Liz Crain, who is proud to be associated with these fellow ceramic artists and the many more she couldn’t get to either because there is still only one of her (dang it!) or because they are holding Open Studios at the same time she is. Tribe, just the same! Oh, and notice everything hunted and gathered today – even the grenade –  was thrown on a potter’s wheel, which Liz does not do herself, but profoundly appreciates.

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Making A Press-Molded Wad Pot, A Pictorial/Instructional Essay

Oh boy! Wet clay, fresh out of the bag! The smell of it reminds me of vacations by Sierra lakes and rivers. Decomposed granite, water and rotting organics, mmmmmMMM!  This bag of lovely Sandstone Buff is from Quyle Kilns in the California Motherlode town of Murphys, so my nose is right on.

Fresh clay like this is sticky, mushy and makes great slime if you get it wetter. It takes any impression, any shape and, if it’s not piled too high or too thick – or if it’s supported – it holds as it dries. We’re not sure just how humans began to take advantage of the fact that clay changes in the fire,  but we know  that raw clay lined many Neolithic holes in the ground or baskets, the world over, and accidentally got baked hard. This particular feature of wet clay is a not-so-hidden agenda in the Beginning Ceramic Handbuilding class I’m currently teaching. First Project, after all the intros, handouts, clay studio tour and ground rules? The Press-Molded Wad Pot.

Forgive me a few more words and then onto the eye candy.

This way of using fresh clay is so obvious it’s almost NOT a clay handbuilding Official Method. At best it gets a sidebar or an “Also Try This” mention in the dozens of  books and websites I consulted for deeper understanding. Sometimes that mention is in the Coiling chapter, sometimes in the Slab working chapter. It doesn’t really get respect.

It deserves better and I’m giving it that because it’s a fabulous and supportive (pun intended) way to get comfortable with the forming properties of clay besides making lumpy mudpies. It  lets clay be clay and learners be learners. It directs attention to good clay skill-building: evenness, surfaces, top edges and drying, but keeps some training wheels on to help a thoughtful ceramic artist have the full experience AND a successful result. Here’s a pictorial walk through the only thing I’ve ever heard it called besides simple press molding: A Wad Pot.



Get yourself some wet clay, about 5 pounds, any kind. Find a container with an even top rim, without undercuts – so your pot or bowl will slide straight out of it and not get caught – like this “Popcorn Bucket” from the local dollar store. You can also use traditional plaster or wood slump molds. You’ll need  some thin plastic if your container isn’t made of something porous that will release the clay. Gather a few rounded sticks or spoons as smoothing devices besides your fingers. And start in.

Open that bag of clay and inhale deeply, just because. If you need to, line your mold with the thin plastic. Don’t worry about how wrinkled or folded it is, that’s part of the texture the finished pot will enjoy. (And a little secret: you can remove this wrinkling later by smoothing the outside if you’re called to it.)

Grab a random-sized pinch of clay, maybe the size of a golf ball. Mush it around (aka: kneading). Pat it into a flattened shape,  1/2″ or  less thick and place it at the bottom of your mold. Do this over and over, lining the bottom and sides of your mold. Pressing the edges of each piece into the others, smoothing and linking the surface only as much as you want. Feel where the thick and thin places are and adjust accordingly. You will go back over it all when the mold is completely lined.

So, fast forward to a finished top rim edge, smoothed and strengthened, a bit of drying and an un-molding. Here’s what you’ve got:


See all those great creases and wrinkles? Leave them alone for a great natural surface…or smooth them with a rib if you must. Press the bottom in a little so it will sit evenly and sign it.

I’m thinking you left the outside alone, so here’s the bisque fired version, wrinkles intact.




What serves to decorate this kind of pot and honor it’s hard-won (or is it hard-left-alone?) surface texture? How about a patina wash: thinned iron oxide wash brushed on and then lightly sponged off to leave it mostly in the cracks? It’s OK to glaze the smooth inside if you like. And that would look like this:


So, there you have it. An awesome and supportive first project for beginners….or anyone else needing a fairly assured way to make a pot. And quickly!

Variations are legion. Use different mold shapes. (Just make sure your clay will release easily.)  Use evenly rounded wads or coils or “floils” – flattened coils. Smooth the outside cracks. Add stuff to the top rim. Change the shape of the pot once it’s unmolded: square it up, push out from the inside, you know what to do. Don’t smooth the inside as much. Add handles or a top rim edging. The beat goes on.

As I finally get to posting this, my class is 2/3 over and going quite nicely. The second and third projects: Traditional Coiled Pueblo Pots and Pinched Japanese Style Teabowls have been introduced and students are working to finish and decorate to suit. More on the rest of the whole experience soon, of course.

Happy Clay Trails.


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You Cannot Fly Into Flying: Beginning Anything in Real Spacetime


You cannot tightrope walk by watching this YouTube clip. (But the person who created it is learning!)

You cannot watch and watch and watch,  read and read and read, talk and talk and talk, think and think and think about tightrope walking and say you are actually doing it.

The doing of the thing is the thing and that happens in Spacetime. And as that link you just read past will tell you, “Spacetimes are the arenas where all physical events take place.” Where you and your physical body are located right here, right now.  HERE = the 3 to 24 (it’s debatable) spatial dimensions.  NOW = the 1 temporal dimension (apparent agreement.)

OK, the watching, reading, talking and thinking will help line yourself up right for the doing, especially if you try to be fully present as you watch closely, read the right sources, talk to the right crowds, think about it in an associative and retentive  manner, and maybe – or even especially – run through the related physical motions. They will most certainly lead you to better observations, reading material,  conversations and cognitions galore.

Rehearsals, all!

And if they lead you to the doing part,  you might be so well-rehearsed in mind, body and spirit, you surprise yourself with how simple and honest it feels. Honey, that’s good rehearsing! As Olympic Gold Medal figure skater Scott Hamilton has reportedly said, it’s also “skating stupid.”  The doing falls out of you because you have successfully absorbed the Preparatory. The watching, reading, talking, thinking, even the pantomiming, have transitioned you to the Repertory.

Preparatory. That’s  still where I’m at with designing my Beginning Ceramic Handbuilding class.  The actions I’m involved with right now are definitely not the real teaching. All this gathering, editing, organizing and questioning are totally necessary to manage a good run when the time comes. If you want more of what’s going into that, my recent two posts here and here do some pretty elegant expository hand-wringing about “my process,” such as it is.

There is, however, a larger motivation for aligning myself with the vital differences between preparatory/repertory – or theory/practice – and that’s because the students who will come to study with me will experience their own version of it. How can I guide them as they transit the continuum from hearing, reading, watching, etc. to doing?

We both know that all the talking and reading and showing and sharing we do are but the foundational intro or interlude to touching the clay and moving it around with intention. Hell, we all can practice the valuable Coeleen Kiebert exercise of physically assuming the positions of our pots and sculptures, but it’s ONLY when we mold, pound, coil, pinch, carve, smooth, sponge, brush that we deeply know what this clay stuff is for ourselves.

Some of these beginners will undoubtedly run gladly off in many directions, full of joyful assumptions.  Wanting to do it all at once perfectly,  attempting to swallow the clay universe in one gulp.  Acting as if Spacetime didn’t include the sequential time part. That’s where I think the heart of my guide role is: pacing the doing. Intertwining the cognitive with the active in our tiny corner of the Wide World of Clay. Supplying a studied but ultimately idiosyncratic version of a sequential scaffold for them to climb around on, lift by lift.

Friedrich Nietzsche (that’s him painted by Edvard Munch in 1906 in the top illustration) said it brilliantly, “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; you cannot fly into flying.”

Clay work taught me patience and presence. Well, not so much taught as forced them upon me, as I was definitely of the Fly Into Flying bent as a newbie. My endless groundings and crashes lasted years more than perhaps needed. Could  I have spent more time on effective Preparation? Could I have had better scaffolding? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Because of my experiences, I don’t expect to save any artist from their personal process. But I do believe the least I can do as their flight instructor is to shed a bright and true spotlight onto the highwire act and the ladder up to it in our spacetime arena and encourage them to give it a real try.

Class Nuts and Bolts: 6 Thursdays, 2-5pm, Session I: Feb 23 to March 29, Session II (with different techniques and projects): April 12 – May 17. Held at the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center, 9341 Mill Street, Ben Lomond, CA,  831-3364ART.

If you’re so inclined, you can call or register online at www.MountainArtCenter.org. Class is $180 for Members/$200 Non-Members.

Next time: Those visual aids! (Yes, I know I promised them last post and the post before. Clay takes an uncertain amount of time and they’re just not done yet! Think I would know by now, do ya?)



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Crouching Teacher, Hidden Student: Crafting an Excellent Clay Handbuilding Class

Step right up and lookee here: I said YES when the enthusiastic folks at the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center asked me if I would  be so kind –  and organized! –  as to offer a structured series of Beginning Handbuilding classes. That was a few months ago and now, here they come in just a few weeks. I better get this figured out.

I got thrown into the briarpatch at the outset, because in order to write not one course description but three of them  – Short, Long and For the Press – I needed to have my raw concepts of what these classes would be about aligned with my personal take on the ginormous field of ceramics. Nothing like starting right in.

Just what do Adult Beginners or Re-Newers want? Or need? What do I have to offer them? Could I parse this out and still keep it meaningful, soulful and artistic, for us both?

How much does my editing, formatting and delivery of this wide-ranging subject affect outcomes? I concluded it was puh-lenty and I would do well to start back at my own beginning, boil it down to the bare-boned basics and embellish prettily from there.

So what you see to the left is my long-time method of distilling knowledge: get a side table, dedicate it to the topic at hand, and proceed over the ensuing unfocused weeks to pile it high with everything which might be valuable to that cause. (It’s also how I wrote my college term papers, so I guess there’s a workable precedent in force.)

Supposedly Right-Brained Creatives respond better to horizontal, visual, tactile piled-up available information – as opposed to vertical files behind cabinet drawer-fronts –  and I agree: when I have a thought, a pertinent quote, a book, an article, a snippet of anything I suspect might be useful, I just throw it here, feeling rich and capable.

In good time, I will comb through the cornucopia and discover the inherent order there. Yes, I have a goal in mind, but the only way I realize it is to plow through and let it grab me. Inevitably the outcome is so much richer and denser than what I thought I was creating.

These stacks are certain to contain my decade-plus collection of notes and handouts from my stable of teachers too. Some of them have had genius ways of simplifying and Explaining It All….or genius techniques, genius timetables, and genius projects which I can freely channel, if not outright copy. I bow to those who gave this kind of effort before me, and I reap the harvest of their cultivation. Nobody comes out of nowhere.

And that’s really all there is to it. I’m no expert. I’m just someone who’s studied how to share and how to be a guide and to deliver substance. I’ve got some ideas on what sorts of things are good to know in the beginning and what sorts of things might logically follow.  I have theories on how to engage learners and how to aid them in discovering their own realizations and about how to foster the creative process as it relates to clay. Beyond that, what happens is what happens and I mean to stay awake to it. I’m a Hidden Student inside a Crouching Teacher.

Class Nuts and Bolts: It meets 6 Thursdays, 2-5pm, Session I: Feb 23 to March 29, Session II: April 12 – May 17 held at the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center, 9341 Mill Street, Ben Lomond, CA,  831-3364ART.

If you’re so inclined, you can call or register online at www.MountainArtCenter.org. Class is $180 for Members/$200 Non-Members.

Next Time: A discussion of the super slo mo similarities between an illustrated ceramic process and cooking shows.

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