Don Decker has over 50 years of experience as a professional artist, working in a wide variety of media, including drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture and assemblage. His work has appeared in more than 45 solo exhibitions and 250 group exhibitions and juried shows around the United States, and can be found in the permanent collections of museums and art banks across the country.
Rasmuson Foundation offers one $40,000 Distinguished Artist Award annually in recognition of an Alaskan’s creative excellence over multiple decades and significant artistic accomplishments. These master artists have chosen to make their lives and careers in Alaska, thereby contributing to the state’s cultural richness. The award serves as validation of the artist's creative career and as encouragement for subsequent creative work.
A special thank you to Sven Haakanson and Amy Steffian who not only gave images and advice but also wrote the bios pulled from Creative Alaska: A Ten-Year Retrospective of Support for Alaska Artists, 2004-2013.
In “The Island Within,” Richard Nelson of Sitka wrote, “I suppose loving a place is like loving a person: it only develops through a long process of intimacy, commitment, and devotion.” Nelson’s relationship with Alaska was like the best of long marriages: After nearly 60 years together, he still described his beloved with the admiration and adoration of a newlywed.
Nelson died Nov. 4, 2019, after a long fight with cancer and its complications.
He spent his professional life illustrating Alaska with research, storytelling and soundscapes. He was born in Wisconsin in 1941. He began studying biology as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, then switched to anthropology as a better path to the knowledge he sought: how to cultivate a deep and spiritual relationship with the natural world. After receiving a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Nelson began a long study of Alaska by living with and apprenticing himself to its indigenous people.
Nelson published four ethnographic works that detail the knowledge shared by his Iñupiaq, Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan teachers: “Hunters of the Northern Ice” (1969), “Hunters of the Northern Forest” (1973), “Shadow of the Hunter” (1980) and “Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest” (1983), which was adapted for an award-winning television series. Angela Gonzalez, author of the Athabascan Woman blog and granddaughter of two of Nelson’s Koyukon teachers, says that “Make Prayers to the Raven” is “like the Bible” for Koyukon people of her generation. She credits it with sparking interest in new ways of sustaining traditional Athabascan knowledge.
Some call his best-known book, “The Island Within” (1989), Alaska’s “Walden.” That does not do justice to Nelson’s lyricism — this work is more a romantic meditation on the nature, significance and beauty of a particular place on Earth, an unnamed island near Sitka.
In 2004, Nelson began recording “Encounters,” a radio series about “observations, experiences and reflections on the world around us.” He created about one hundred 29-minute episodes, recorded in the field, exploring wild Alaska through different forms of knowledge. His most recent project before his death was collaborating on films that explore similar themes as well as SalmonWorld, which shows the significance of salmon in Alaska through stories and videos, photographs and sounds, art and antics. He was capturing natural sounds, including a library of soundscapes recorded in Alaska’s national parks.
Nelson was Alaska’s tenth Writer Laureate. Other honors included the Lannan Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction; the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for “Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America,” his last book; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation.
It is impossible to experience Nelson’s work without being infected by his exuberant joy in wild Alaska. In one of his favorite episodes of “Encounters,” titled “Moose,” Nelson narrated an especially close encounter with two of Alaska’s most charismatic animals: “Oh my god, that moose is running right toward me, it’s gotten wind of the grizzly bear, holy mackerel, life is exciting!” he exclaimed. After moving out of the way, he reflected, “It’s that kind of excitement that makes you feel like the luckiest person in the world to be here in Alaska.”
© Richard Nelson.
"Everything I Love is Here" is inscribed on Alvin Amason’s monumental mixed-media bear that greets visitors in the new Art of the North Gallery at the Anchorage Museum. The inscription also describes the body of work of one of Alaska’s most acclaimed artists.
Alvin Eli Amason was born in 1948 of Sugpiaq — or Alutiiq — ancestry. He was raised on Kodiak Island in a family with a long history of trapping, commercial fishing and bear guiding. Amason spent his youth observing the natural world in Kodiak, keeping a journal to record stories of elders and local characters, told in colorful vernacular.
He learned so much: "How to pick bird eggs, get octopus, dig clams, watch and predict the weather, and know the safe beaches in a storm." These visual impressions and recorded memories served as basis and inspiration for Amason’s distinctive portraits of Alaska wildlife. His animals are rendered in bright colors in paint and sculptural relief, so alive that they appear only momentarily at rest. He draws upon the deep well of closeness between humans and animals and respect for wildlife that is central to his heritage.
Amason received bachelor's and master’s degrees in art from Central Washington University and a Master in Fine Arts from Arizona State University. In addition to his long career as a commercially successful painter and sculptor, Amason has mentored generations of artists. He began teaching at a community college in the Navajo Nation before serving as director of Native Arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for 17 years. Amason later developed an Alaska Native Arts curriculum and studio at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Amason has served on the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the boards of the Institute of Alaska Native Arts and the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. In 2018, he was recognized with the Governor's Individual Artist Award for Arts and Humanities.
Students have come from across Alaska and many countries: Metlakatla and Point Hope, Japan and Norway, various points between. "The one thing that I like to impress upon them is that they come in with their own experiences and some with skills," he says. "These are great and valid places to start exploring, to start these journeys in making art."
Art in gallery © Alvin Amason.
Gert Svarny was just 12 when she was evacuated from her hometown of Unalaska during World War II and interned along with nearly 900 other Unangax (Aleut) people in Southeast Alaska. Those who survived and returned home found their communities ransacked and burned. In the documentary film "The Aleut Story," Svarny comments, “We lost lots of elders. I think that’s why our culture just stood still for a long time.”
Svarny painted when she was young, but it wasn’t until age 51 that she dedicated her life to her art. Although she is primarily known for her intricate ivory and soapstone sculptures, Svarny is also a respected bentwood artist and weaver. Her inspiration comes from her Unangan culture, traditions and the beautiful environment. Hunting and gathering helped her ancestors survive; fishing and berry picking help quell her gathering instincts.
Through her work and teachings, Svarny has helped to perpetuate Unangan art and culture. In 2008, she received the Governor’s Award for Native Arts. She has been a director of the Institute of Alaska Native Arts and a member of the Board of Regents of the Institute of American Indian Arts. She also served for many years on the Aleutian Arts Council. She was instrumental in preserving Unangan culture classes in the Unalaska schools. As a culture bearer for Camp Qungaayux, Unalaska’s annual culture camp, she taught classes in Unangan weaving and design. Her work is housed in numerous permanent collections, including the Southern Plains Indian Museum, the Anchorage Museum, the Alaska State Museum, and the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Svarny continues to be a prolific working artist. “She is much appreciated as a mentor and source of unflagging encouragement to many local and regional artists and writers, both Native and non-Native,” says Sharon Svarny-Livingston, who nominated her mother for the award.
Since receiving it, Svarny has been working with her family of artists to create a show that will open in September of 2018 at the Anchorage Museum called “Ukuqanaadan Visions: The world of Gert Svarny’s visions.” Daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandchildren and sons-in-law will be participating in a retrospective of old and new works. Svarny says it’s “a once in a lifetime bonus” to work with the people she has influenced the most — and who have in turn influenced her. She hopes to be able to portray her history, culture, and artistic traditions through both traditional and contemporary techniques.
In 2017 Svarny was recognized with the Alaska Federation of Natives Culture Bearer award.
Art in gallery © Gert Svarny.
“My art is a conglomeration of stuff,” Decker says. “One idea leads to another leads to another. I’ve been criticized for not finding a theme, not having a medium, but I can’t let it bother me. I just want to do something that I think is good. It’s the adventure that’s important to me.”
Decker moved to Alaska in 1971. He earned his Master of Arts from the University of Guam and Master of Fine Arts from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. From 1992 to 2017, Decker served as an adjunct instructor of art for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was a long-time teacher for the Anchorage School District and in 1987 was named Teacher of the Year. He also taught at Matanuska-Susitna College, part of the UA system, and at Alaska Pacific University.
With his Distinguished Artist Award, Decker performed research, traveled, exhibited work, purchased supplies and made studio improvements.
Art in gallery © Don Decker.
Garry Kaulitz’s work deals with the enigmatic, visual and autobiographical nature of existence. He is a multimedia artist whose primary mediums are paint, printmaking and collage.
Kaulitz was born in Rapid City, South Dakota. He earned his Master of Fine Arts in printmaking at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Before coming to Alaska, he was owner and master printer at a press in his name and taught at the Louisville School of Art and University of Indiana. His works have been exhibited internationally, nationally and regionally. He has received numerous awards, grants and residencies and is represented in private, public and museum collections around the world. Kaulitz is Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he taught from 1993 to 2014. In 2017 Kaulitz and his wife moved to Cuenca, Ecuador, where he conducts workshops and manages a co-op print shop.
Kaulitz used his Distinguished Artist to create a catalogue of his life’s work—well over 2,500 pieces of art. He also purchased new equipment and traveled to workshops, exhibitions and a conference. “This has been one of the most significant events in my career,” Kaulitz wrote after receiving the award. “I have increased my breadth of opportunity, brought some order to 55 years of creativity and involvement in art, and increased my 'visual footprint' 10-fold, especially outside of Alaska.”
Art in gallery © Garry Kaulitz.
Peggy Shumaker is the daughter of two deserts—the Sonoran Desert where she grew up and the subarctic desert of interior Alaska where she lives now. Her works are vivid, visual and, at times, visceral.
Shumaker served as Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2010-2012 and has received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a Professor Emerita at University of Alaska Fairbanks and a lecturer at universities around the country. She also sits on advisory boards and edits numerous publications.
In addition to Shumaker’s community contributions, she is the author of nine books of poetry, including "Blaze," a collaboration with 2012 Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Kesler Woodward. Her poems have been published throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia.
About her Distinguished Artist Award, Shumaker said, “Those funds allowed me to write. Pure and simple. The best gift a writer could ever receive.”
Shumaker lives in Fairbanks with her husband Joe Usibelli.
© Peggy Shumaker.
Teri Rofkar (1956-2016) was an explorer of Alaska Native weaving traditions. A member of the Sitka Tribes, Teri "Chaas' Koowu Tlaa" Rofkar was known for her Tlingit spruce root baskets, hats and Ravenstail robes, but she also investigated and practiced the weaving techniques of neighboring cultures to expand her understanding of fibers and their properties.
Rofkar spent thousands of hours studying basketry in museum collections around the world, collecting and processing her own materials, and weaving. She spun and dyed sheep and wild goat wool; dug, roasted and split spruce roots; refined cedar bark; plaited, knotted, and plied; and shared her knowledge broadly with other weavers and the public. Rofkar’s works have been widely exhibited and collected in the United States and honored with numerous awards, including a Governor’s Award for the Arts, a National Heritage Fellowship, a fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a United States Artists Fellowship, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Southeast.
Rofkar was known for her holistic approach to weaving—her respect for trees that have sustained Sitka weavers for thousands of years and for creating items that are both useful in daily life and beautiful works of art. She was of Hoonah’s T'akdeintaan Clan. To Rasmuson Foundation, Rofkar wrote, “I am following the steps of my Ancestors, striving to recapture the woven arts of an Indigenous people. The ancient ways of gathering spruce root, with respect for the tree’s life and spirit, are a rich lesson in today’s world. Traditional methods of gathering and weaving natural materials help me link past, present, and future—links with a time when things were slower paced, a time when even a child’s berry basket was decorated with care. It is through sharing and exploring that this old art form shall take on new life.”
Art in gallery © Teri Rofkar. Teri Rofkar's bio originally appeared in Creative Alaska: A Ten-Year Retrospective of Support for Alaska Artists, 2004-2013 and was provided by Sven Haakanson and Amy Steffian.
Kesler Woodward, or Kes as friends call him, paints Alaska. His canvases capture the natural beauty of Interior Alaska—the oranges and magentas of winter light, richly colored mountain ranges, textured birch trees. Woodward is known for illuminating individualism in the natural world, the details of a tree trunk or the beauty of a fallen leaf.
Woodward was born in South Carolina and earned his bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in North Carolina, where he switched his major from chemistry to art soon after taking a painting class and making a trip to his first art museum—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He continued his art education at Idaho State University, earning a Master of Fine Arts in painting and printmaking. He moved to Alaska in 1977. A leader in the arts community, his work can be found in major museum, corporate, and private collections. In addition, he has published eight books about the art and art history of the North and served as a curator at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau and as artistic director of the Visual Arts Center of Alaska, in Anchorage. In 1981 he moved to Fairbanks, where he taught art and mentored young artists at the University of Alaska for two decades. He still lives in Fairbanks, where he continues to paint, collaborate with artists and writers, and serve arts organizations.
Art in gallery © Kesler Woodward. Kes Woodward's bio was provided by Sven Haakanson and Amy Steffian. It originally appeared in Creative Alaska: A Ten-Year Retrospective of Support for Alaska Artists, 2004-2013.
Ray Troll loves both art and science and works to blend the two in his lively illustrations. A lifelong fan of fish and fossils, Troll is especially known for his portrayals of ocean creatures, from ancient sharks and ammonites to lingcod and the Pacific salmon. Born in Painted Post, New York, in 1954, Troll grew up in a large, mobile military family. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Bethany College in Kansas and a Master of Fine Arts in studio art from Washington State University. In 1983 he moved to Alaska to work at his sister’s fish store. In addition to fish mongering, he taught art at Ketchikan Community College until he was able to make a living as a full-time artist. Today, Troll and his wife, Michelle, own the Soho Coho gallery in Ketchikan. Troll is well-known for his collaborations with scientists. He and paleontologist Kirk Johnson earned a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2011, to develop a popular book on the geological and biological history of the American West Coast.
Rasmuson Foundation also honored Troll in 2011, naming him a Distinguished Artist. The two simultaneous awards provided the rare opportunity for Troll to focus solely on his artistic life. He prepared works for exhibit, renovated his studio, upgraded computer equipment, purchased a projector and a quality digital camera, restocked art supplies, and drew. To the Foundation he wrote, “The award really helped to free me up at a critical point in my career by allowing me time to pursue some ‘riskier’ and ultimately more rewarding time in the studio. That free time in the studio was the most precious gift to me of all ... so it’s hard to quantify just how much it was worth.”
Art in gallery © Ray Troll.
The Alaska environment is a major inspiration in the music of composer John Luther Adams. Adams develops a sense of place in his compositions, inviting listeners into natural spaces—quiet forests of quaking aspens, the depths of the ocean. He writes for a great variety of media and is known for crossing stylistic boundaries to explore “sonic geography,” the intersections of place and culture. He studied composition with James Tenney and Leonard Stein at the California Institute of the Arts, but he chose Alaska over graduate school in 1978. For almost forty years, he lived in the woods beyond Fairbanks, where he and his wife, Cynthia, worked to protect the environment, and he composed and wrote about his music. They moved to New York City in 2014. Later that year, Adams’s orchestral work “Become Ocean” received the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In 2015 it won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. “Inuksuit,” his outdoor work for up to 99 percussionists, is regularly performed all over the world.
Adams credits his 2010 Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Award with sparking a new period in his creative life. To Rasmuson Foundation he wrote, “The unrestricted funding allowed me to compose new works that were not commissioned, to complete a new CD, and to travel to important performances of my music.” During the year he composed his first string quartet, “The Wind in High Places;” orchestrated chamber pieces; worked on his third book—a memoir titled “Silences So Deep;” collaborated with a filmmaker; performed; and developed a new CD — "Four Thousand Holes.”
© John Luther Adams. Portrait photograph by Sven Haakanson.
Nathan Jackson is a Tlingit carver, best known for his dramatic cedar totem poles. He was born and raised in Southeast Alaska and is a member of the Sockeye Clan of the Chilkoot Tlingit. After serving in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper, Jackson studied graphic design and silk screen at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For most of his adult life, Jackson has been a freelance artist, creating panels, totem poles, masks and other carvings for private collectors, museums and public art projects in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He works primarily in wood and with traditional tools. He carefully selects, prepares and shapes cedar, alder and maple into forms inspired by his Tlingit heritage.
Rasmuson Foundation funding helped Jackson pay his expenses so he could focus on personal projects rather than commissions. In preparing for the Distinguished Artist Award nomination he wrote, “I stay with the traditional subject matter for my work, that is, clan crests and clan stories. If someone wants their pet cat or dog on their totem pole, they will have to find someone else ... It means a lot to me to be able to carry on the same carving traditions as the old masters. I want to ensure that the traditional art forms do not get lost.”
His artwork is in display in every major museum in Alaska as well as spots around the world: Horniman Museum in London; Overseas Museum in Bremen, Germany; North American Native Museum in Zurich, Switzerland; and at two locations in Japan. In 1995 Jackson received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award.
Jackson is known for his generosity and his enthusiasm for sharing Tlingit arts. Many successful carvers started their careers apprenticing for him.
Art in gallery © Nathan Jackson.
Born in the village of Wales, Ron Senungetuk is an Iñupiaq carver and metalsmith who had the opportunity to study art as a teenager attending Sitka’s Mount Edgecumbe High School. Inspired by his introduction to the world of art, Senungetuk continued his studies at the School for American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, and at the Statens Håndverks og Kunstindustri Skole, in Oslo, Norway, as a Fulbright scholar. In Oslo he fell in love with both Scandinavian design and his wife, Turid. Following his education, Senungetuk founded and served as the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Art Center, where he worked to support emerging Native artists for two decades. Today, Senungetuk and his wife live in Homer where they share studio space as practicing artists.
With his Distinguished Artist Award, Senungetuk took time to rejuvenate after an intense period of solo shows and public art installations. He also updated his office, traveled and studied art. With his family, he visited Germany and Denmark to study museum collections of Arctic art, absorb contemporary art and visit with European artists. To Rasmuson Foundation, Senungetuk wrote, “I believe it is necessary to see other arts besides your own. Experiences gained are stored away for future idea making and then for art making.”
Art in gallery © Ron Senungetuk.
Watercolor artist Rie Muñoz (1921–2015) painted bright, lively depictions of daily life in Alaska. Muñoz arrived in Juneau in 1951. She was on a vacation aimed at taking a steamship to the farthest place she could afford to reach. She lived in many small Alaska communities during her life, but ultimately she called Juneau home. She worked as a teacher, journalist, curator at the Alaska State Museum, and an artist, and she raised two children. In correspondence with Rasmuson Foundation, Muñoz described her style of painting and its inspirations:
"My artwork can best be described as expressionism. The term applies to work that rejects camera snapshot realism and, instead, expresses emotion by distortion and strong colors.
"I do field sketches followed by composite sketches in the studio. When I’m happy with the design I will put it on 300-pound Arches watercolor paper and do the painting in watercolors and/or acrylics.
"My paintings reflect an interest in the day-to-day activities of Alaskans, such as whaling, fishing, berry picking, commercial fishing, children at play, as well as folklore and legends. While I find much to paint around Juneau, most of my material comes from my sketching trips I take to the far corners of Alaska. I’ve taught school at King Island and traveled to most every community in our state. My aim is always to capture the village as it is today."
Muñoz used her Distinguished Artist Award to travel, sketch and paint. At the age of 83, she revisited communities that inspired her earlier works to capture them in their present light. Her other major project was the publication of King Island Journal. This book features the letters she and her husband, Juan Muñoz, wrote while stationed in the community as schoolteachers from 1951 to 1952. It includes their photographs and Muñoz’s watercolor painting that was inspired by the experience. To the Foundation she wrote, “This book gives a glimpse into this unique Alaska culture on the brink of dramatic change. A few years after we taught on King Island the school was closed, forcing the village to abandon this ancient site and move to Nome.”
Art in gallery © Rie Muñoz.
As a child, Delores Churchill did not want to learn to weave. Her mother, Selina Harris Adams Peratrovich, tried to teach her to make traditional Haida baskets for berry picking, egg collecting and clam harvesting, but Churchill wasn’t interested. She became a bookkeeper. As an adult, however, she began to understand that Haida cultural knowledge would one day be lost if younger people did not take the time to learn. At the age of 42, she signed up for a weaving class—taught by her mom!—at Ketchikan Community College. Three years later she retired to pursue weaving full time. Since then Churchill has been exploring the arts of the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples; working with tradition bearers; studying museum collections; and examining archaeological finds to build her cultural knowledge and connect it to the future by teaching. Today she is a master weaver.
Churchill used her Distinguished Artist Award for research and writing. With the help of her daughter April, she drafted a book about basketry, tying specific types of baskets to their seasonal uses and recording the details of weaving techniques that had never been documented in writing. In the process of her research, Churchill expanded the book to preserve and share many additional cultural details. Her book is currently being edited.
Art in gallery © Delores Churchill.
John Meade Haines (1924–2011) was an Alaska poet known for his clear, bare voice and a prayer-like verse shaped by wilderness living. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He studied art at the National Art School, the American University and the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art. In 1947 Haines moved to Alaska, bought a homestead outside of Fairbanks, and built a cabin with salvaged lumber. He lived on his 160-acre property until 1969, and he spent his time hunting, trapping, fishing, cutting firewood, clearing trails, gardening, mushing and writing.
During his life, Haines published many collections of poetry and essays and a memoir. He served as Alaska’s poet laureate from 1969 to 1973 and received numerous honors for his work. He won a lifetime achievement award from the Library of Congress, earned two Guggenheim Fellowships, received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and was a fellow of the American Academy of Poets.
© John Haines.
Sylvester Ayek’s childhood on King Island, Alaska, formed him. On this remote, rocky piece of land in the Bering Sea, Ayek learned the Iñupiaq subsistence lifestyle. Harvesting walruses, seals and birds and watching his father’s respectful use of every part of the animal led Ayek to learn ivory carving. Creating beautiful items from tusk and tooth was an extension of subsistence living, a way to honor the animals and to make money for basic supplies. There was no cash on King Island. Instead, residents traded artwork for sugar, tea and other Western goods at the local store. When Ayek was 12, the village school closed, and his family left King Island. Since then, he has lived mostly in Anchorage and Nome. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Pacific University. Because it was difficult to find paid employment, Ayek worked to develop his carving, making more intricate and diverse pieces.
Today, Ayek lives in Nome and visits King Island regularly. Subsistence harvesting fills most of his days, although he carves ivory and wood when he can. Balancing the daily demands of living from the land with artistic practice is difficult. The Distinguished Artist Award provided Ayek with the opportunity to create a studio space in his home.
Art in gallery © Sylvester Ayek.
The nomination period for the 2020 Distinguished Artist will open Oct. 1 and end Dec. 15. Artists can nominate themselves. This award is reserved for mature artists with an extensive body of creative works. For more, go here.
Thank you to those who helped to collect and provide content: John Luther Adams, Suzanne Bishop, Delores Churchill, Don Decker, Michelle Decker, Laura Forbes, Ellen Frankenstein, Garry Kaulitz, Dorica Jackson, Nathan Jackson, Sharon Svarny-Livingston, Lin Mitchell, Jenny Irene Miller, Juan Muñoz, Richard Nelson, Todd Paris, Marni Rickelmann, Denny Rofkar, Angie Schmidt, Turid Senungetuk, Molly Sheridan, Peggy Shumaker, Donald Varnell and Kes Woodward. The mini-documentaries were commissioned by Rasmuson Foundation and created by Pat Race.
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