Every fifteen minutes or so, a new tour group arrives on the second floor of the LDS North Visitors’ Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.[1] Roughly four times an hour, a small cluster of people makes it way up the wide, circular ramp that leads to the second-floor rotunda, hustled gently along by two of the young female missionaries, or “sisters,” who act as guides. Most of these visitors are non-Mormons—“Gentiles” in Latter-day Saint parlance. Most of them are from out of town. The days I visited, I seemed to be the only native Utahn in the bunch, as well as the only person who didn’t belong to an organized religion. Taking a seat in front of the eleven-foot marble sculpture of Christ that dominates the space (a replica of the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen’s nineteenth-century work Christus, the sisters explained), I also appeared to be the only person curious about the enormous mural of the solar system surrounding us.[2] “How does it make you feel?” the missionaries asked, gesturing toward the statue. Like the Thorvaldsen went full Ziggy Stardust out here in Utah, I immediately thought, staring past the massive figure of Jesus to a shimmering view of Saturn and the Moon (fig. 1).

It wasn’t the most nuanced art historical assessment, I’ll admit. It was more than a little bit accurate, though. The mural’s creator, a Gentile artist named Sidney E. King (1906-2002) (fig. 2), designed the work to produce “the illusion . . . that you were a spaceman, looking out into space and you see these stars and the planets.”[3] His painting, known as Creation, certainly delivers on this front. Forty-five feet high and 166 feet around, Creation engulfs the viewer in a 360-degree panorama of the galaxy that’s only broken by a bank of high windows on one wall.[4] Earth floats directly behind the Christ sculpture; Andromeda sparkles off to the left. Overhead, the Horsehead Nebula billows across the fifty-foot ceiling, reinforcing the impression that, along with the statue, we’ve somehow been launched into orbit (fig. 3).

Figure 1: Bertel Thorvaldsen, Christus, 1821 (1959 copy) and Sidney King, Creation, 1966, LDS North Visitors’ Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Mary Campbell.

King painted Creation in 1966—almost a century and a half after Thorvaldsen (ca. 1770-1844) sent a plaster casting for the original Christus to his marble carvers in Italy.[5] Befitting its 1960s date-stamp, the mural’s palette is pure Lava Lamp pleasure. Its puffy pink clouds bleed into cobalt horizons marked by long swaths of violet and teal. (King liked the custom shade of indigo he ordered for Creation so much he eventually used it on his bedroom walls.)[6] Upon close inspection, the thousands of stars that cover the work turn out to be tiny circles of something that looks like 3M tape, handfuls of golden confetti that cling to the painting’s airbrushed surfaces like the glow-in-the-dark constellations children sometimes stick to the ceilings above their beds. The contrast between such Space-Odyssey stylings and Thorvaldsen’s neoclassical sculpture is deliciously incongruous. It’s as though Giotto’s fourteenth-century frescoes for the Scrovegni Chapel decided to boldly go where no man had gone before. Or at least swing by the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

Figure 2: Sidney King working on his mural for the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair in his studio in Caroline County, VA, 1964. Photograph courtesy of the Sidney E. King estate.

The LDS church tends to downplay King’s work. Tours of the Salt Lake City Visitors’ Center focus on the Christus component of the rotunda rather than the specifics of Creation’s interstellar surrounds.[7] Although the missionaries generally know something about Thorvaldsen and his sculpture, I’ve yet to find one who could tell me the title of King’s work or even his name. Even the sister who took the time to search through her official materials for me came up empty-handed. Pressed for information about the mural, the guides consequently stick to broad statements about Mormonism’s devotion to Christ. “This sculpture reminds us that Christ is the center of the universe,” one of them replied when I asked about the Church’s decision to effectively send Jesus into space. “I personally love this statue because of the ways that it reminds me that Jesus Christ is reaching out towards me,” another missionary explained. “He has all of these creations that he made, but he’s looking at us. We are truly his divine creations.”

 

When LDS authorities hired King to paint his mural, they effectively rocketed Thorvaldsen’s sculpture into a cultural constellation that spans not only LDS Christianity but also human deification, the Space Race, and the Saints’ own desire for American assimilation.

 

It’s an old idea, this notion of the deity as a cosmic architect. Returning to the Visitors’ Center day after day, I wondered whether I was simply looking at a Mormon version of this longstanding Judeo-Christian trope. Waiting for the sisters and their tourists to leave, I’d sit on the floor at the foot of the sculpture’s pedestal, unexpectedly thrilled by the sight of the towering Christ’s blank white eyes, by the planets and moons that seemed to hover just beneath the figure’s prominently stigmata-ed hands. Was this really nothing more than an LDS visualization of Genesis’s cosmos-building God? The question nagged at me. To leave it here seemed to neglect the work’s strange beauty: the weirdness and, really, wonder of the sight of the totemic alabaster Jesus setting sail across the Milky Way. At the same time, the missionaries’ quick explanations of the sculpture and its mural ignored the central role outer space itself plays in LDS theology.

Figure 3: Sidney King, Creation (ceiling detail), 1966, LDS North Visitors’ Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Mary Campbell.

As we’ll see, both here and in the second part of this article, Christus-Creation ultimately spins a much richer story than the Visitors’ Center teaches its sisters to tell. When LDS authorities hired King to paint his mural, they effectively rocketed Thorvaldsen’s sculpture into a cultural constellation that spans not only LDS Christianity but also human deification, the Space Race, and the Saints’ own desire for American assimilation. In the process, the Church commissioned a work that reenacts one of Mormonism’s oldest impulses: the urge to create a manly identity capable of resisting the gravitational pull of historical change.

Christus-Creation

The Utah Christus is not the only Mormon replica of Thorvaldsen’s iconic sculpture.[8] Reproductions of the statue now stand in all fifteen LDS Visitors’ Centers, including those in Idaho Falls, Mexico City, and Hamilton, New Zealand. The Salt Lake copy was the first, however—commissioned for the city’s Visitors’ Center in 1958.[9] The Church was in the process of designing the Center at the time, and it was struggling to find the right religious iconography for the space.[10] Before this point, “statuary of Christ had never been a part of traditional LDS worship.”[11] In keeping with the faith’s Protestant roots, LDS authorities were lightly iconophobic and, at the same time, vaguely anxious about the whiff of Catholicism that clung to splashier representations of Christ.[12] Strolling through Temple Square—the ten-acre downtown park that holds the Salt Lake Temple, Tabernacle, and, eventually, Visitors’ Center—midcentury sightseers could consequently find monumental sculptures of the LDS prophets Joseph Smith Jr. and Brigham Young, but no such statues of Christ.

By the 1950s, this had become something of a problem for the Saints. “The world thinks we’re not Christians. Because they see no evidence of Christ on [Temple] square,” the LDS apostle Richard Evans lamented around 1955.[13] What the new Visitors’ Center needed, his colleague Marion Hanks affirmed, was a depiction of Jesus that would “make an impact upon the world . . . without creating controversy.”[14] Enter Christus. In 1950, a high-ranking Mormon leader named Stephen L. Richards had seen Thorvaldsen’s original sculpture in Copenhagen’s Church of Our Lady.[15] A Lutheran cathedral, Our Lady had commissioned the statue from Thorvaldsen around 1820 and installed the finished work in 1833. Deeply moved by the piece, Richards felt the Church would benefit from a copy. Responding to the Saints’ need for some overtly Christian iconography eight years later, Richards ordered a reproduction of the work for the Visitors’ Center. Unfortunately, he died in May of 1959, just months before the sculpture arrived in Salt Lake City.[16]

Figure 4: Sidney King, Washington’s Headquarters (Yorktown), 1958.

Construction on the Visitors’ Center hadn’t begun at this point, so the Utah Christus spent years languishing in various crates and warehouses. Finding the proper imagery to accompany the sculpture also turned out to be a challenge. In 1962, the Church rejected the Los Angeles painter Harris Weinberg’s proposal for a “sky and cloud rendition, which on [the rotunda’s] vast area of unbroken wall space, could be a beautiful and arresting contribution to this fine building.”[17] Around the same time, negotiations fell through with the LDS artist Arnold Friberg.

 

“The world thinks we’re not Christians. Because they see no evidence of Christ on [Temple] square,” the LDS apostle Richard Evans lamented around 1955.

 

Friberg enjoyed quite a reputation by this point, both within and outside the Mormon community. Although he wouldn’t paint his George Washington-themed chef d’œuvre, Prayer at Valley Forge, until 1976, he’d already earned an Academy Award nomination for his work as an art director on Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Arriving in Salt Lake in August of 1962, the designer of Charlton Heston’s famous Moses robes accompanied several LDS authorities to the Visitors’ Center, where he projected slides of his ideas for the rotunda onto its blank walls. Friberg envisioned “an epic painting of the history of mankind that would be comparable to the paintings of the Sistine Chapel”—an endeavor he estimated would require at least two years.[18] When the Church asked if he could do it nine months—or, ideally, eight weeks—he balked. “I’m the artist; and if you’re going to have me do it, I do it on my time schedule,” he apparently replied. As one local LDS artist later remembered, “That was the end of Arnold.”[19]

Four years later, King submitted his own proposal for the Visitors’ Center.[20] Born in 1908 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, King had studied at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When King first arrived in the city, the Gilded-Age artist John Singer Sargent had just finished his religious murals for the Boston Public Library, and, as King recalled, “I got to sort of idolize the man . . . . I had a great ambition to become a mural painter.”[21] Decades later, he achieved this goal, largely through his work for the National Park Service. Beginning in 1955, King painted large-scale panel pieces for the Park Service, all designed to explain key moments in American history to tourists (fig. 4). Rather than listening to a guide talk about the significance of a particular building, bay, or battlefield, sightseers could walk—or even drive—up to one of the detailed outdoor paintings King created for such spots and receive the information visually.[22] King eventually painted more than 200 such murals for the Park Service, including scenes of the Jamestown Settlement, the American Revolution, and, in the words of one of the artist’s relatives, “Yankees [getting] their fannies kicked big-time” by Confederate soldiers at the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.[23]

Figure 5 Sidney King working on his mural for the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, 1964. Photograph courtesy of the Sidney E. King estate.
Figure 6 Sidney King with Creation, his preliminary oil sketch for the work, and scaffolding, LDS North Visitors’ Center, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1966. Photograph courtesy of the Sidney E. King estate.

As central as these government commissions were to King’s career, they weren’t his only works. A prolific artist, King painted well into his nineties, producing family portraits, garden views, murals for Protestant baptismal founts, and recruiting posters for the U.S. Marine Corps along the way. [24] (During World War II, he even sprayed camouflage patterns onto military planes.”) [25] In 1963, King accepted his first project for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: a 110-foot painting of “the life and times of Jesus Christ” to be displayed at the Mormon Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York (fig. 5). [26] By chance, this mural made its debut at the Pavilion alongside the Church’s second copy of Thorvaldsen’s Christus, this one completed in 1964 and installed in front of a tasteful beige curtain.[27] Displayed near a life-sized sculpture of Adam and Eve, King’s Life of Christ worked with this second LDS Christus to convince Gentile visitors that “the Mormons were firmly grounded in traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and symbols.”[28] Judging by the comments left in the Pavilion’s guest register, the strategy worked. “I felt that Christ was close to me here. This is the work of the Lord,” a Baptist from New York proclaimed.[29] “[This exhibit] is not just brick and stone, but a House of God,” a Catholic from Connecticut enthused.[30]

Deeply pleased by the positive response the Mormon Pavilion received, LDS leaders approached King about painting the rotunda. He suggested a space scene, and the Church hired him.[31] Shortly after his arrival in Salt Lake City, King found a local Mormon artist named Valoran Russell Capson to work as his assistant. According to Capson, he did most of the actual painting on Creation, while King focused on making changes to the Life of Christ panels that were now installed in the Visitors’ Center.[32] “[King] worked on those, and I put up the universe mural,” Capson recounted in a 2011 interview.[33]

 

For all of their astronomical precision, Creation’s celestial mechanics also held deep religious significance for King.

 

It was an enormous undertaking (figs. 6, 7). Between May 15th and July 15th of 1966, Capson and, to a lesser extent, King used an air gun, airbrush, and traditional paintbrushes to apply some 155 gallons of specially formulated oil paint to the rotunda’s walls and ceiling.[34] As with his work for the Park Service, King strived for veracity in his Salt Lake City mural, meticulously consulting star charts and even visiting the local planetarium in order to render his planets and constellations as accurately as possible.[35] According to Capson, a pair of commercial airline pilots who saw Creation shortly after its completion approvingly declared its sidereal placement so spot-on “you could fly a plane with [it].”[36] In terms of the stars’ construction, Capson immediately realized that “cutting them out one at a time . . . would have been a living terror with a pair of scissors,” so he used pieces of sharpened pipe to punch tiny circles out of “white reflector tape,” subsequently painting them to match “the color and the reflective configuration of the known stars.”[37]

Figure 7 Detail of Creation shown with scaffolding and a view of the Salt Lake City LDS Temple, LDS North Visitors’ Center, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1966. Photograph courtesy of the Sidney E. King estate.

For all of their astronomical precision, Creation’s celestial mechanics also held deep religious significance for King. Although he was a Southern Baptist, King deliberately inscribed Mormon history into his painting, arranging the constellations and planets as they appeared in the northern hemisphere on April 6, 1830, the day Joseph Smith Jr. first organized the LDS church.[38] At the same time, the artist repeatedly included references to general Christian doctrine in the work, although the majority of this symbolism was cryptic to the point of being impenetrable. “The first planet was Sagittarius, and that was many stars being born. See, the birth of the flesh,” King attempted to explain to one interviewer. “The horse’s head [nebula] . . . represents the sign of the beast that is given in the book of Revelation, the time of tribulation that the world had yet to go through,” he tried again.[39] Finally, King himself embraced the vision of God as a divine creator that the Latter-day Saints continue to see in his mural. According to one of his last students, King likely didn’t worry much about his religious differences with the Mormons as he worked on the piece because its cosmic imagery aligned so well with his personal belief in “God’s awesome power in creation . . . . God’s awesome beauty in creating the stars.”

Find part two of this essay here.


Mary Campbell is an associate professor of art history whose research focuses on the intersections of American visual and legal culture. Her first book, Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) examines the work of a little-known Mormon photographer whose images of prophets, temples, and half-dressed vaudeville actresses worked in concert to mainstream the Latter-day Saints into the nation after the scandal of polygamy. A lawyer as well as an art historian, Campbell clerked for Judge Sharon Prost of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and continues to publish in legal journals, including the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism. Her work has received the support of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Stanford Humanities Center, and the University of Tennessee Humanities Center.

 

 

[1] I would like to thank the numerous people who helped me with this article, including Paul Keeler, Peggy Mead, Jim Thompson, Robin Fig, and Lucille Jewel.

[2] Technically, the Salt Lake Christus stands “eleven feet one-quarter inch and weighs close to 12,00 pounds.” Matthew O. Richardson, The Christus Legacy (Sandy, UT: Leatherwood Press), 37.

[3] Oral history interview with Sidney E. King, circa 1980-1983. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (hereafter cited as King Oral History), unpaginated.

[4] See Sidney E. King, “The Rotunda Mural in the Information Center, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Salt Lake City, Utah by Sidney King, Artist,” typewritten sheets in the possession of Paul Keeler, King’s stepson (hereafter cited as King, “The Rotunda Mural”). In his oral history with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, King remembered the mural as being significantly larger: “And I have one [work] that is in Salt Lake City, Utah, the largest mural in North America. This is 400 feet long and 75 foot [sic] tall; it’s in the rotunda of the Mormon Information Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.” King Oral History.

[5] Richardson, Christus Legacy, 15.

[6] See Paul Keeler, Sidney E. King’s stepson, in discussion with the author, June 19, 2017 (hereafter cited as Keeler Interview).

[7] “They don’t ever say anything about the stars when they’re doing their tours . . . . And they don’t have the name of Sidney King on [the mural] as the artist or me as the assistant artist,” Utah painter V. Russell Capson observed in 2011. “It didn’t really matter to me too much. But in the same instance, nobody knows who does the artwork.” Oral history interview with V. Russell Capson and Peggy Capson, June 28, 2011, OH 4698, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter cited as Capson Oral History), 6-7.

[8] The Saints weren’t the first to commission copies of Christus. By the time the Church began to adopt Thorvaldsen’s sculpture as its own, replicas existed in the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, Poland; Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland; and the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, California. See Richardson, Christus Legacy, 21; John G. Turner, The Mormon Jesus, A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 270.

[9] Richardson, The Christus Legacy, 31.

[10] Salt Lake City’s LDS Visitors’ Center was originally called the Bureau of Information. For clarity’s sake, I refer to the building as the “Visitors’ Center” throughout this article.

[11] See Richardson, Christus Legacy, 28, 39.

[12] As the historian John Turner writes, “[LDS prophet] David O. McKay had discouraged [the Mormon artist] Arnold Friberg from painting Jesus Christ, and he also instructed Mormon women not to wear crosses on necklaces because it reflected ‘a Catholic form of worship.’” Mormon Jesus, p. 271, quoting Gregory A. Prince and Wm Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2005), 121. See also, Richardson, Christus Legacy, 39.

[13] Richardson, Christus Legacy, 27, citing George Cannon Young, Oral History 9, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[14] Ibid., citing Marion D. Hanks in discussion with Richardson, March 15, 2000.

[15] As the historian Matthew O. Richardson writes, “This 1950 experience with the Christus in Copenhagen was probably not Elder Richard’s first time to see a Christus. It is most likely that Richards first saw a Christus at Forest Lawn Cemetery [in Glendale, California], which displayed three Christus replicas.” Christus Legacy, 25. See also, Turner, Mormon Jesus, 270 (“Richards had seen a replica of the Christus at California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park; he probably also viewed the original during a 1950 trip to Europe”).  According to Richards’ son, Philip, both of his parents did, in, fact see the original in sculpture in Copenhagen, having “an awe-inspiring experience” in front of the work. Richardson, Christus Legacy, 24-25.

[16] Ibid., 38.

[17] Ibid., 47, citing George Cannon Young, Papers, Box 12, Folder 12, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[18] Ibid., 47, citing Richard J. Marshall in discussion with Richardson, May 22, 2000. See also, Capson Oral History, 4: “Do you remember what [Friberg] was going to do? He wanted to do the history of the world and make it like the Sistine Chapel.”

[19] Capson Oral History, 4-5. Friberg also appears to have quoted the Church a serious price for his Salt Lake City take on the Sistine Chapel. “I don’t know how much he asked for,” V. Russell Capson recalled, “but it was a huge amount of money.” Ibid., 4.

[20] See King Oral History: “I was awarded the contract because of the preliminary sketches that were submitted – were approved by the Mormon Church.” On the timing of this submission and approval, see Richardson, Christus Legacy, 51-52.

[21] King Oral History. As King remembered, “I met up with [Sargent] on a few occasions, and he gave a few suggestions for my work, but his criticism was chiefly, ‘Practice, practice, practice,’ which was one of the stepping stones in the profession.” Ibid.

[22] On the number of murals King painted, see Keeler Interview; James Crutchfield, Tribute to an Artist: The Jamestown Paintings of Sidney E. King (Petersburg, VA: The Dietz Press, 2007), 6. On King’s representations of fanny-kicking, see Keeler Interview.

[23] Keeler Interview. Well aware that his outdoor works would have to endure decidedly non-museum-like conditions—including UV light, Southern humidity, and intense temperature swings—King “worked closely with the EI. Du Pont Company and chemists . . . to develop pigments” that were up to the task. He also “helped design the waterproof, airtight, plexiglass display cases that housed the murals.” Crutchfield, Tribute to an Artist, 5.

[24] On King’s expansive œuvre, see Jim Thomas in discussion with the author, May 2017 (hereafter cited as Thomas Interview); Robyn Sieg, president of the Sidney E. King Foundation for the Arts, in discussion with the author, June 17, 2017 (hereafter cited as Sieg Interview). Having lived the better part of his twenties and thirties struggling with the deprivations of the Great Depression, King preferred to have a steady stream of commissions. “Volume made him feel good,” one of his last students, Jim Thomas remembers. Thomas Interview. Similarly, King wasn’t picky when it came to his materials. Every King friend and family member I spoke to for this article mentioned his willingness to paint on the type of adhesive paper people typically use to line kitchen cabinets and bathroom drawers. Primed with a coat of gesso, the sticky side of the paper struck King as a perfectly adequate substitute for canvas. If you happen to own one of these King works, don’t take it out of its frame—it’s likely to disintegrate as soon as it hits the air.

[25] Crutchfield, Tribute to an Artist, 4.

[26] Ibid., 8.

[27] Richardson, Christus Legacy, 61

[28] Nathaniel Smith Kogan, “The Mormon Pavilion: Mainstreaming the Saints at the New York World’s Fair, 1964-65,” Journal of Mormon History 35 (Fall 2009): 37.

[29] Eastern States Mission New York World’s Fair Files, 1964-65, typewritten sheets entitled “Comments for August—1965,” 4, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[30] Ibid., 6.

[31] See Capson Oral History, 4: “Then, a historical artist, Sidney King, brought in a presentation of what’s in there now and [the Church] hired him.”

[32] See ibid., 6-7.

[33] Ibid., 7.

[34] On the time it took Capson and King to complete Creation, see King, “The Rotunda Mural.” In his oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, King remembered the timing differently, stating “it was done in nine months, where my competitor artist [presumably Arnold Friberg] had estimated it would take from five to eight years to complete.” King Oral History. It appears that the extra seven months—from October 1965 until early May 1966—were consumed in preparation. Before King and Capson could begin painting, for example, workers had to assemble the scaffolding and the entire rotunda had to be lined in canvas and primed. Moreover, King rejected the first lot of canvas the Church ordered for the space, prompting LDS officials to take him on an extended tour of Utah as the crew waited for the new canvas to arrive. According to King’s stepson, the artist wound up spending so much time out in Utah that King’s wife eventually began to complain about his extended absence. Paul Keeler in discussion with the author, September 25, 2017. On the gallons of paint required, composition of the paint, and tools used see King Oral History (“It’s oil on canvas . . . . I used an airbrush and a spray gun to produce these effects”); Capson Oral History, 8 (noting that Creation’s deep blues are a custom-made oil-based enamel produced by a Bennett’s company called Bennett’s).  Aware that tourists would likely touch the lower parts of the mural, King chose “an eggshell or semi-gloss” to allow for easier cleaning. In order to dampen the resulting sheen, Capson mixed the paint with buttermilk before applying it to the canvas lining the rotunda’s walls and ceiling. Capson Oral History, 11.

[35] Ibid., 6.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 8-9. Despite his commitment to scientific exactitude, King remained attuned to the aesthetics of the mural’s composition, instructing Capson to “ad[d] a few stars” in “places where there were bland or open areas.” Ibid., 6.

[38] In his notes, King didn’t list April 6 as the date of the Church’s organization but rather the day Mormons believe Christ to have been born. See King, “Rotunda Mural.”

[39] King Oral History. As King affirmed earlier in the interview, “[The religious meaning] has to be explained, of course, it’s not visible on first sight.” Ibid.

[40] Thomas Interview.

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