Unmasked At Last

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The artist and his wife exited the Southern Pacific railroad station, stepped onto Franklin Street and hailed a taxi. Take us to the new university, please, the artist asked.

Where? the cab driver asked.

"Texas State University for Negroes."

The driver still had no idea. The artist pulled out a piece of paper with the address and read it aloud.

Oh, yeah, the driver said. You mean out there.

The ride to the Third Ward was depressing. Clapboard houses fronted sewage-filled ditches. Barefoot children ran everywhere. Grim faces hurried nowhere, sweating in the soupy heat. The taxi stopped before a low, humble structure. The artist and his wife got out. Their feet and luggage stuck to the potholed asphalt of the parking lot.

Fairchild Hall was the only permanent edifice on the dusty campus. The one air-conditioned room belonged to the university president, R. O'Hare Lanier. The artist slowly made his way to this oasis of luxury. Lanier welcomed the man, who, at the urging of civic leader Susan McAshan, had been hired to establish an art department. After sharing ice water from sparkling crystal glasses, the artist was directed to his temporary living quarters in a doctor's home.

Art was not the doctor's favorite subject. Many blacks felt that painting pictures was a waste of time. Better to teach a practical profession, one that would provide a service and a steady, honest wage. Even white artists had trouble earning a living; how could a black man hope to survive? And the new university itself -- that was even more of a problem. Soon the doctor's disgust boiled over in an exchange later described in the book Black Art in Houston.

"Why did you come to Houston?" he demanded. "Why do you want to undermine the Negro race? Why would you want to keep Negroes separated? Don't you know how hard Negroes have fought for equal rights and equal education? Don't you know that the Texas State University for Negroes was built to provide 'separate but equal' facilities, to keep Negroes out of the state university? What right do you foreigners have coming to Texas and undermining the work of all good Negro citizens?"

The artist itched to respond, but he held his tongue. Why even attempt to explain that in order to teach art, he must create a sense of pride and identity in his students? He needed to change images of poverty into dignity. To remove blinders and rip down veils. To touch the ancestral earth of Mother Africa. To understand new truths.

The artist was John Biggers. The year was 1949 -- when black art in Houston was born.

Of course, Houston had always had black artists, just as every big and small Southern town had. White folks liked to call them self-taught. Their work was called folk art. Their virtuosity will never be known; they remain anonymous. Public schools had art instructors like Alice Webb, Horathel Hall and Fanny Holman, who taught in obscurity. But Biggers had formal training. He had a doctorate from Penn State University. He was operating under the same definitions as the mainstream. He could not be marginalized.

In 1950, sculptor Carroll Simms, the first black graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, joined Biggers's fledgling art department. Fifty-two years later, Texas State University for Negroes has become Texas Southern University. Fairchild Hall has been joined by dozens of other buildings. The most magnificent is the University Museum. It comprises the south wing of Fairchild Hall, an extension of the original. Soft light filters down from the majestic ceiling through the dry, cool air. Even the massive Biggers mural Web of Life is swallowed by the expanse.

The primary story of African-American art in Houston is right here. Biggers accomplished his goals, and more, before he died in January 2001 at age 76. When Houston's Museum of Fine Arts bought its first Biggers, he could not accept the award that went with it -- the museum allowed blacks in only on certain days. Today, young black artists such as Angelbert Metoyer and Trenton Doyle Hancock have achieved tremendous "mainstream" success before the age of 30.

Biggers, by way of his richly nuanced paintings, drawings and murals, has become a giant.

But his students -- and the students of his students -- have made Houston one of the best-kept secrets in African-American art.

"People have this vision of art being New York and Los Angeles, or coming from the East Coast," says Alvia Wardlaw, a Yates High School product who is now director of the TSU museum and an MFA curator. "But it's really starting to happen for us now." Wardlaw notes that Houstonian Robert Pruitt is headed to Maine's renowned Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Trenton Doyle Hancock twice was in New York's Whitney Biennial. "And there are so many others. People are going to start taking note."

Art historian Samella Lewis of Los Angeles, author of books such as African American Art and Artists, says she has been discovering unknown black Houston artists for years. "It's definitely a best-kept secret," says Lewis. "There is a very rich array of people living there. Artists have come and gone in Houston, lived and died, and the museums and collectors across the country still don't know who they are."

New York gallery owner Michael Rosenfeld discovered Houston's vibrant interest in black art when his "African-American Masterworks" exhibit at TSU drew far greater crowds than any other stop on its tour. "That shows a hunger in Houston that doesn't exist in other cities," he says.

Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFA, says the area's relative obscurity extends to all genres of fine art. He blames this on a local economy dominated by the wholesale-oriented businesses of petroleum, agriculture and the port, which "do not communicate on a regular basis with broad audiences," he says. "Instead these industries sell goods and services to other industries. This inexperience in advertising, public relations and marketing is the heart of the city's inability to make itself known to the world."

This underdog status shows itself in the lack of a traditional African-American museum as found in most other major cities. Even Wilberforce, Ohio, established the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, before the term "African-American" was in vogue. This changing reality is reflected in plans for Houston to fill the void. Backers hope to expand the definition of the "African-American museum" to include paintings and sculpture, as well as history, the performing arts and literary and media contributions.

Ironically, the absence of such an institution is a primary reason for Houston's cornucopia of talent. Numerous black-oriented collectives, organizations and coalitions have sprouted to provide opportunities for artists to gain experience and exposure. Houston's grass roots grow deep. They stretch across Texas and beyond, attracting talent.

"For me personally, in my early days, it was even better," says Jesse Lott. "It was a smaller pool. You could be a bigger fish." Not much money -- and no shows -- were needed. "You could show work in a bar on the corner and sell two or three pieces. You could go out, cut a stick off a tree and turn it into 50 or 60 bucks. That was big then. A job, working, it could take you a week to get 50 bucks."

Lott, who is "almost 60," is unconcerned with such formalities as lists of the many mainstream galleries exhibiting his work. What he wants is for his artwork to be lived with and felt. That is his impact, his success. "Some people's definition of black art is very narrow," Lott says. "The key to that [definition] is whether or not the color of the artist can be determined by looking at the work. Art itself is a difficult phenomenon to categorize. Some people make art using images that are black. Some people make art about subjects that black people are interested in. Seeing is believing. Looks can be deceiving."

Lott is primarily a sculptor, taking scraps of wood, metal or anything else he can find and fashioning them into pictures and creatures that can amaze, frighten or inspire. Lott -- along with artists such as George Smith, Floyd Newsum, Michelle Barnes, Kermit Oliver and Bert Long -- was among the first generation of locals to blossom after Biggers and Simms laid the foundation. Lott says great art has always been here for those who look for it. "To some people, it still doesn't exist. It's like the tree that fell in the forest," he says. "For a long time… your work wasn't in museums and it wasn't in galleries. So you could just go into your garage, turn on the light and look all the way back to 1950. When you look at 20 years of your work, all at one time, that's how you take a step forward. So it was a hidden benefit. Now, you do something and somebody wants it. That seems like a blessing, but at the same time it's a pimp slap."

Biggers refused to be slapped around. He sometimes butted heads with the TSU administration, which routinely ignored his requisitions for simple art materials after he first arrived. Biggers also preferred not to work with art dealers or galleries, instead working directly with individuals. That's one reason why Biggers's work never got the same level of national recognition as artists like Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence.

"When I first met him, 20 years ago, it was amazing, because I didn't know he was a great artist. Then I suddenly realized just what he was," says Robert Galloway, a physician who established a short-lived African-American museum downtown in 1988. "One day he called me up and said, 'Hey, Bob, I'm getting ready to leave TSU, they're gonna kick me out, so you better come get some of my work 'cause they're gonna go cheap.' I went over to his house and he pulled out these masterpieces from his closet. I almost cried. I said, 'I'll take those five.' I didn't know what I had until years later." Those works have since been shown at the MFA, the former Transco Tower and other venues.

Art dealer Eugene Foney remembers a French art dealer new to Houston asking to handle some of Biggers's work. Biggers gave him several pieces. A few days later, the dealer returned them. "The guy told Dr. Biggers that there was a lot of interest in his work, but that unnamed people had told him he shouldn't be handling Biggers's art," Foney remembers.

Michelle Barnes says that problem persisted for years. "There were not a lot of places to show what I wanted to produce. There was a real lack of support, even in my family, in terms of helping me carve out the time and the space to produce…So I wanted to create an environment to support the art that I knew was out there."

Things have changed. Kermit Oliver will be the subject of an upcoming show at the MFA. Barnes's Community Artists' Collective, housed in a Midtown building on Elgin, is raising money to expand throughout the block. Floyd Newsum teaches at the University of Houston - Downtown. George Smith is a professor at Rice.

Lott's work is also out there. "I haven't integrated into the art community; the art community has integrated with me," Lott says. "I haven't changed what I'm doing. The door was barred when I got there. Now the door is open, but not because I opened it." He explains that black art has now proved to be a good seller. "Once, it was a category of restriction, and you were put into that category to be limited. Now, you're put there so people can make money."

Lott and many of his contemporaries emphasize the importance of "collectorship," developing a network of people who consistently buy art. "It's the body of work that people are impressed with, not the person," Lott says. "Collectors are the ones who present work to the curators and the public and keep the legacy going."

Smith, Graham & Company floats atop the city on the 69th floor of Chase Tower. The investment management firm controls more than $2 billion. Pension fund clients include Houston municipal employees, Hermann Hospital, Continental, Dynegy, Reliant and public employees across the nation.

The first thing visitors see at Smith Graham is art. It's visible from outside the glass front door. The lobby is filled with African art enclosed in transparent cases. The deeper you go into the offices, the more art you see. Most of the paintings are Biggers's; the firm commissioned the artist before it opened in 1990. Founder Gerald Smith is a graduate of Texas Southern University. While earning his pinstripes in New York City during the go-go 1980s, he caught the collecting bug. He has since amassed a huge collection of early Houston art, including 15 Biggers originals.

"I always viewed art as something you can enjoy, and you can also view it as a long-term investment as well. Being a guy with an investment background, clearly that's part of this," Smith says. "There are other assets that you put away in a vault or something, but you can't enjoy it…There's a quality of life that art brings to all of us."

When Smith says "all of us," he means it. "The biggest collectors of African art are Europeans, primarily, not black folks. Why is that? Because the art does transcend," he says. African art can command prices ranging beyond $1 million. "I had a dealer that just flew in the other day to show me a couple pieces. A nice Chokwe mask; he wanted $50,000 for it."

No African-American artists command such amounts. "I've seen a Bearden collage offered at over $500,000," Smith says. "I've seen some Archibald Motleys in that price range. And they should be. They probably should be more. John Biggers's pieces should be more. And they will be."

You can't put a price on history, however. Smith talks about his collection from the Nok tribe of Africa, terra-cottas more than 2,000 years old. "My kids, they said, 'Dad, this stuff was born before Jesus Christ! And it was done by black folk! And this stuff is beautiful!' We have no idea that we have such a legacy, such history."

Smith's love of this legacy is why he is chairing the effort to build the new museum. Shortly after taking office in 1998, Mayor Lee Brown decided Houston should have a world-class institution dedicated to black art. The mayor assembled an 80-member advisory panel and asked Smith to spearhead the fund-raising. The group separated from the city to incorporate as a private nonprofit organization. It has raised $500,000 from five corporate donors -- Chase, American General, Compaq, Enron and Ocean Energy -- to locate a site and begin design of the museum.

Irene Johnson, the project's planning director, says the museum will go far beyond traditional limitations. It will include fine arts, history and genealogy, as well as the performing, media and literary arts. She explains the effort to take it beyond the typical cold "mausoleum" atmosphere of a museum. "Wouldn't it be great to take down that barrier and make it a more welcoming, invited-into-the-home experience? That Afrocentric feeling of coming into the home and wrapping your arms around a person."

There have been at least two previous efforts to establish a Houston African-American museum. In 1971, philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil led an effort that refurbished two Fifth Ward theaters into space for a black art exhibition and performing arts production.

After the show, organizers felt it would be a shame to let these two new spaces go to waste, says Ellena Huckaby, who worked with Dominique de Menil on the project. Huckaby, now an MFA trustee, and others started a movement for a Black Arts Center in the theaters. It thrived briefly before being overwhelmed by logistical and financial demands.

In 1988, Margaret Burroughs, an artist and founder of the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago, gave a Houston speech that inspired Galloway to lead another effort for a museum. "I didn't know what I was doing, but I was fueled by a tremendous passion," says Galloway, who became a physician after his mother discouraged him from pursuing art as a career. "It was the same as medicine for me. I considered the absence of art the same as a disease."

The exhibition space was a suite in a downtown building Galloway owned at 2101 Crawford. The first exhibit was from the TSU School of Art. After a few years of hand-to-mouth existence, the museum was forced to close.

The new incarnation of the museum is proposed to be in a much more visible place, like Hermann Park. Those involved in the project are intent on acquiring Museum District land. "It's important to have synergies with the other museums and be part of the cultural landscape. We also want to be part of a single destination…," says project director Johnson. "You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location."

The Friends of Hermann Park group, however, is concerned about protection, protection, protection. Museum organizers presented plans for a building in the area of the Garden Center. The proposal would actually create more greenspace -- the Friends' sacred cow -- by developing land that now sits unusable, covered with scrub behind a chain-link fence. Still, the Friends are not receptive.

"We need to be careful how we define the word 'unused,' " says Roksan Okan-Vick, the executive director of Friends. "Despite the institutional nature of the park, it still is a park. It needs to have places of respite. You don't need to do an activity every time you're in the park." Strangely, Okan-Vick volunteered that the Friends have their own vision for the same area, although "it's not to a point where we are able to fulfill [that vision] yet."

The Friends are concerned about how the museum proposal could affect future planning for the park. "It is a precedent," Okan-Vick says. "It is worthwhile, but then how can we argue that the next one is not?"

Smith and other organizers take pains at this point not to put a price tag on the museum project, but an institution of the scale they are planning could cost in the neighborhood of $50 million to build, staff and outfit with art. Leaders insist that figure is not out of reach -- organizers have influential backing. "Funding will not be an issue," says Marzio, the MFA director.

"It will complete that 50-year cycle from TSU," says Robbie Lee, owner of the Black Heritage Gallery on Almeda. "It will complete what Biggers started."

Lee started her gallery about the same time the TV miniseries Roots premiered. The show caused a surge in black pride that helped launch her business. Now hers is one of at least a half-dozen Houston galleries specializing in African-American art.

The Black Heritage Gallery is not one of those highfalutin places that make visitors uncomfortable. It's packed with the work of mostly Houston artists, some of it costing thousands of dollars, much more of it within the reach of the average consumer.

Her gallery covers several thousand square feet, but she still doesn't have enough space to show everything. Many locals have important historical artifacts stored away, but no place to donate them. "When these people pass away, there are a lot of treasures we're losing," she says. Why not give them to the MFA? "To be stored in the basement?" she asks rhetorically. "The MFA is not into slave documents and shackles and scales that weigh cotton. These are the memories that we have. I have things that should be in museums…"

Lee retreats to a back room and returns with a yellowed book, Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes, published in 1886. It includes the ditty "The 10 Little Niggers":

Ten little nigger boys went out to dine

One choked his little self, and then there were nine.

"This is the kind of thing that should not be forgotten," Lee says, closing the book.

Johnson says, "The history of this country has been told in a way that doesn't reflect our spirit, our ingenuity. It's an American story. This American story hasn't been told by museums here." Johnson says existing museums focus on a Eurocentric influence. "And that's great, and that's important. Now we will tell our story our way, in a manner that transcends the boundaries."

"I've always had problems with the term 'black art,' " says David McGee, 39. "I think it's limiting. The popular press, they don't use 'white art' or 'Jewish art.' I think that it pigeonholes people of African descent to try and stereotype us into one type of thought. We are vast, varied people. We paint, we sing, we do a lot of different things in a lot of different languages, and we use different images to convey it, our blackness."

"We have come a long ways. But then again, I think sometimes people want to put us back in those pigeonholes," says the Houston artist. "What John Biggers has done is cast a very powerful shadow that we still can use. But at the same time, it can be such an overwhelming shadow that people will want to put you under that umbrella. I paint about black people because I'm a black person, and I paint autobiographically about what I've seen. But I think we've come a long way, and we still have a ways to go."

If Lott and his contemporaries are the children of Biggers, then McGee and his peers are his grandchildren. These younger artists include such names as Michael Ray Charles with his provocative pickaninnies, Museum of Printing History resident artist Charles Criner and others. They have found it easier to penetrate the establishment because they have a foundation. Yet their very success can be what limits them most.

Reviewer Shaila Dewan wrote in the Houston Press in 1998 about McGee's exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum: "For artists of [McGee's] generation, receiving colorblind judgment is less of a possibility than ever…he is not an artist, but a black artist, and like it or not, this fact will both work to his advantage and contribute to his isolation. That is what McGee regards as his deal with the devil."

The devil understands the fix McGee is in. "The difference over the past 50 years of history," says Contemporary Arts Museum director Marti Mayo, "is that you have a real community of artists who are less interested, perhaps, than the artists of John Biggers's generation in being identified as black artists. They are interested in being identified as artists with roots in various communities who care about and work within the community and who are clearly African-American, but also have the background and a critical dialogue and are a major part of the conversation, nationally and internationally."

"Black artists today are more at liberty to explore the complexities of who they are," says CAM associate curator Valerie Cassel, a Third Ward native. "In 1970, it was more a debate about what black art was. Or even what term to use: black, Afro-American, African-American. Now, at this point, we've started to embrace the complexities of all that we are. It's beyond being black and oppressed. Black is no longer monolithic. We're more at liberty to revise the definition as it's happening."

Rick Lowe, with his immensely successful Project Row Houses, has revised the definition of black art through his success in the mainstream art world. Born to Alabama sharecroppers, Lowe attended a predominantly white college before moving to Houston in 1985 and founding the Commerce Street Art Warehouse. He had shows at places like the Lawndale Art and Performance Center. In 1988, the first Texas Triennial at the CAM included Lowe's installation about a Ku Klux Klan lynching. Museum visitors -- an overwhelmingly white crowd, Lowe noticed -- paid little attention. Lowe realized that he had alienated himself from his roots. He had no black friends, did not participate in any black organizations. He was lost.

Lowe started watering his black roots. He volunteered at community organizations and enrolled at TSU. While studying Biggers's work, he learned that the lowly row house, a landmark of Houston architecture, was deeply connected to African-American life. When an entire Third Ward block of such houses was about to be torn down, Lowe stepped in and turned them into…art. Today, Project Row Houses is filled with art installations, homes for young mothers, various social programs and, above all, neighborhood residents.

Lowe has now come back to where he was before -- and then some. His work with Project Row Houses has earned him a share of the $250,000 Heinz Award prize. Harvard awarded him a fellowship. His art is exhibited internationally. He is collaborating with legendary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. And this time around, it feels good.

"There has to be a way to reconcile being an African-American artist and being African-American," Cassel says. "If you are unabashedly African-American, you're too black for the white art world. On the other side, if you're reaching for something new and do work that's not unabashedly but conceptually black, and if the black community can't read that language, you fall into ethnic purgatory. In this context, Project Row Houses comes up again and again. It's a tool for reconciliation. It's a viable contemporary art center in the black community. Conceptually, Project Row Houses is Rick's artwork."

Trenton Doyle Hancock's artwork is… not black.

"What we see here is what I call a mound," says Hancock, pointing to a pile of debris in his studio in the Glassell School of Art. "The mounds are these creatures that live in the forest, they're half-human and half-plant. They just get bigger and bigger, they're pretty harmless creatures. They're planted in the ground like a tree. At the time I did this" -- Hancock opens a sketchbook -- "there were 14 mounds. Since then one has died, and there's 13 mounds. They communicate in bars of color or veils of color. This is called mound meat, this is the inside of the mound. This is a story about a guy, he did something bad to a mound, and a branch fell on his head and killed him. Here's a mound root system…"

Hancock was born in Paris, Texas, and figured out at age three that he would be an artist. He received his master's degree from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and spent a summer in Rome. Hancock was then accepted at the prestigious Glassell program, which is affiliated with the MFA.

"When I came here, I had a lot of time to digest," he says. "I gave myself permission to develop characters. The way I describe my studio is, I have broken my aesthetics down into characters, into modules, that I can use as pawns. It's like a game. They can battle each other, they can form teams and alliances. The major difference is that I started to develop a story, the story of what was happening here."

That story is not based on race, although he did explore those themes for a while. "It just became so dry that I didn't want to pursue it any longer. I didn't want my work talked about in some of those same dialogues. So the work started to take on a little bit more of a universal tone. That freed me up to think about things in a looser fashion."

Hancock's thought process, which he admits sounds "New Age-y," has brought him great rewards. He was included twice in the Whitney Biennial, which is like being named to an all-star team. The Whitney purchased one of his mound-drawings for a hefty sum. He is represented by one gallery in Dallas and another in New York City. He is barely 28 years old.

Hancock is among a group of young black Houston artists who have found the kind of mainstream acceptance and financial rewards unknown to artists more than twice their age. "It's a bit cushy," Hancock concedes. This group, which includes the likes of Robert Pruitt, Angelbert Metoyer, Karen Oliver (the daughter of Kermit Oliver), Adrian Baxter and Canem Smith, has largely been freed from the constraints of race -- if they so choose. The beauty of this new reality lies in that choice and the diversity it has created.

"The new artists will be successful as artists. Their points of origin will not matter," says Marzio, the MFA director. He recognizes, however, that race will continue to define art, as long as it continues to play a role in our society. "That is a struggle," he says, "which will burden the entire U.S. race-relations future for decades."

It's still a struggle for TSU grad Robert Pruitt of the Third Ward. "I think about the TSU legacy a lot. [I think about] the state that black people are in, the mental state. Our history is so long, and so great. And there's an ignorance about it, about where we come from. Even in 2002, people don't really realize the stature of the people that came before us. Our self-esteem collectively is really low, especially when we enter the white world. That's kind of simplified, but I don't know another way to say it."

Pruitt, 27, recently began graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin. This summer, he will travel to Maine for the prestigious Skowhegan program. He has been cut off from his roots.

"For me, Third Ward is like this mecca of inspiration," Pruitt says. He now lives in a black neighborhood in Austin, but as far as inspiration, "it's just not as easy in this new place as it was in Houston."

Angelbert Metoyer, 24, is perhaps the best known of the new generation. While in high school, he fell in with the Project Row Houses crew, and was mentored by Michelle Barnes and Jesse Lott. His work at Project Row Houses earned him several art scholarship offers, and he chose to attend the Atlanta College of Art. His work is being bought for five-figure sums by a growing cross-section of prominent African-Americans.

"We are beginning to create a new world out of the world that is already extinct," Metoyer said in the catalog for the "Our New Day Begun" exhibition at the TSU museum. "A new world with its own vocabulary of endless information to pull from. My job must be to create the world where the answers live."

"What we need now is collectors," says Alvia Wardlaw inside the cool, modern space of the TSU museum. "That's the next challenge. We have developed the artists. The next challenge is educating the collectors, training the professionals, the curators, the art dealers. What we need is patronage and professionals. Because a museum without a director is just a building."

Toward this end, Wardlaw and TSU colleague Sarah Trotty were instrumental in creating the 5A organization, which raises money to purchase African-American art for the MFA. The group's first purchase, in 1994, was John Biggers's Study for View from the Upper Room.

If any African-American artwork soon breaks the million-dollar barrier, it could well be a massive Biggers mural.

Not that money validates an artist. Jesse Lott refuses to define success by fortunes or categories or inclusion in certain art collections. "I have no gallery representation. I don't make much money selling art. I never sold a piece for $50,000," he says. "And I feel successful. I'm doing a type of art that a certain aspect of the audience responds to. That's a success of function. I give away more work than I ever sold. I have a wide distribution, and that allows my work to affect a wide range of people."

For decades, black artists everywhere have struggled with the looming adjective applied to their work, a word used to marginalize rather than celebrate. But today, African-American artists can be free of categories and cages, if they so choose. They are black. They are artists. The choice of how to mix those colors is theirs.

"In the old days, it was a tribal situation," says Lott. "European kings had a tendency to accumulate wealth. They accumulated it until everyone else was poor. African kings distributed wealth. You were known as wealthy when you had plenty to give away. So success depends on what your objective is. I feel successful because a lot of young guys came to me for help. They have done better than me. They want to earn a living, earn some zeros. When they do that, that's success for both of us."

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