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Episode 107: Why Does Latter-day Saint Art Matter? with Jennifer Champoux

In this episode, I discuss with Jennifer Champoux, an art history scholar, how biblical women are depicted in the art of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Portrayals of biblical women are scarce among images that are endorsed by the LDS Church. Those women who are depicted are frequently shown as simplified, didactic figures, and they are typically divided into two groups: wise or foolish. This dichotomy is apparent in the symbolism and formal elements of many LDS paintings of both the parable of the ten virgins and of Mary and Martha, which are the only images in which we see groups of women.

Champoux takes us through an examination of LDS depictions of Mary and Martha, revealing that they generally rely on earlier Christian visual and textual interpretations that privilege Mary and show her as quiet and passive.  Most LDS images do not offer alternative interpretations of the story, although Church leaders have offered various readings.

Champoux also explains how Minerva Teichert’s painting, “Jesus at the Home of Mary and Martha,” offers an intriguing counterpoint to other LDS images of this scene. Teichert’s style and symbolism leave the meaning open for interpretation by the viewer, and she incorporates distinctive LDS ideas about agency, personal study, the balance between faith and works, and the primacy of scripture.

This study of Mary and Martha images reveals larger patterns and tensions found in LDS visual culture, such as the scarcity of images of biblical women, the presumed accuracy of images endorsed by the Church, and the way Church members incorporate visual imagery into their religious experience.

About Our Guest: Jennifer Champoux is a lecturer in art history at Northeastern University, and also previously taught art history courses as adjunct faculty at Emerson College, Emmanuel College, and Colorado Community Colleges Online.  She earned a BA in international politics from Brigham Young University and an MA in art history from Boston University. She currently serves as vice president of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and three children.

Extra Resources:

Wise or Foolish: Women in Mormon Biblical Narrative Art

Episode 107 Transcript

Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast

Episode 107: Why Does Latter-day Saint Art Matter? with Jennifer Champoux

Released May 8, 2019

This is not a verbatim transcript.

Some wording has been modified for clarity.

Laura Harris Hales:  Hello, this is Laura Harris Hales. I’m here today with Jenny Champoux, who has an interesting background. You have a master’s in art history, but that’s not what you started out studying. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your background?

Jennifer Champoux:  Sure. Thank you. When I was at Brigham Young University, I got my undergraduate degree in international politics and political science, and I did a minor in art history. I went on an art history study abroad to Europe and then ended up writing an honors thesis paper on a Flemish artist and just fell in love with the research and writing process in art history. I realized that that was really what I love to do. I decided to pursue a master’s degree in art history, and I took some extra art history classes, learned French, and did my graduate work at Boston University studying Dutch art of the Golden Age, Baroque art.

Laura Harris Hales:  You lecture part-time on art history right now, don’t you?

Jennifer Champoux: I do. I’m adjunct faculty at Northeastern University.

Laura Harris Hales: Our discussion today is based on your article “Wise or Foolish: Women in Mormon Biblical Narrative Art,” published in the summer 2018 issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, which is a tough venue. So congratulations.

Jennifer Champoux: I was very excited.

Laura Harris Hales: What motivated you to write about religious visual imagery?

Jennifer Champoux:  Well, I’m coming from a background studying Flemish and Dutch art from the 15th to 17th centuries. I have studied a lot of art that has religious content and symbolism, and I thought a lot about the ways that religious belief can influence artistic styles and depictions. For example, I have always been interested in the way Rubens, who was painting in Catholic Flanders in Antwerp, depicts biblical scenes so differently from Rembrandt who was just a hundred miles away in Protestant Amsterdam. Rubens is more focused on the narrative and these very heroic, larger-than-life figures and idealized flesh. A Rembrandt has a lot more inner drama, more of the focus on the individual, more psychological, a little less heroic, and a little more down to earth and gritty. I’ve always been interested in the way religious belief influences art.

Jennifer Champoux:  And that led me to think about our own Latter-day Saint art. I think we do have a lot of visual art. We are surrounded by it in our culture, but we don’t tend to engage with it very closely.

Before moving to Virginia, we lived in Colorado. In the Relief Society room in Denver, we had on either side of the lectern two huge reproductions. On one side was Walter Rane’s “Five of Them Were Wise,” the parable of the ten virgins. On the other side was Minerva Teichert’s depiction of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha.

I sat there every Sunday trying to make sense of these two images and thinking about issues of placement. Why were these specific images chosen for the Relief Society room? How did they interact with each other? What’s the message they’re sending?

Laura Harris Hales: Can you give us a little background on the different types of visual imagery?

Jennifer Champoux:  When we think of traditional visual arts, we might think of things like paintings, sculptures, or drawings, but it would also encompass things like crafts, photography, film, and architecture. In Latter-day Saint art that might mean temples and meetinghouses. There are also the larger categories of visual culture and material culture, which would include things like our texts—scriptures, manuals, other books and texts—historical sites, and personal devotional objects. That’s really not something that we often think about with Latter-day Saint culture. You might consider a CTR ring as a kind of a personal devotional object—something that you wear to remind you of your faith and to try to bring you closer to God.

Jennifer Champoux:  There’s also figural versus non-figural art. Figural art portrays people or animals, anthropomorphic images, whereas non-figural art can be a lot more geometric and abstract, sometimes even calligraphic or textual. Latter-day Saint art is not really tied to ritual practice. In some religions art actually plays a role in the way you interact with God or the way you perform a sacrament or an ordinance.

Our Latter-day Saint chapels are usually sparse with very clean lines and hardly ever have art or painting or sculpture in the chapel. We don’t actually use art in any ritual way.

Laura Harris Hales: Why is visual art important?

Jennifer Champoux:  Visual art has the power to elevate the senses, and that’s obviously important in a religious setting. It also has the power to express the intangible. The Italian renaissance artist and theorist Alberti wrote in De Pictura in 1435, “Painting can make the absent present.”

Jennifer Champoux:  I think art really does do that. We also use art to visualize scripture or history; it has an educational purpose in the way it communicates. Art can reveal a new way of thinking about the world or about an idea.

Laura Harris Hales: Latter-day Saints use art differently. I think that’s fairly obvious from the difference in how our chapels look. How does it differ? Have you noticed a common approach to how Latter-day Saint artists make art and how it’s displayed or used?

Jennifer Champoux: A couple of weeks ago we took my daughter up to New York for the first time. She’s nine years old, and we took her in to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It was her first time going into a cathedral, and she was overwhelmed and amazed at the stained glass, the vaulted ceilings, the statues, and the huge organ pipes.

I asked her what she thought and felt about the space. Did it feel special? She said, “Yeah, it felt special.” It felt sacred. It felt separate from the world in a special way. She actually turned to me and said, “Mom, if I went to church here, I wouldn’t be so bored in church because I’d have something to look at.” In our Latter-day Saint culture, we have more of this Protestant, iconoclast tradition of stripping down.

Laura Harris Hales: We do have those special spaces, but it’s not where we worship weekly; it is in our temples. We set that place apart and make it full of beauty to help us get in a spiritual place.

Jennifer Champoux: Yeah, I think you’re right, but in our weekly meetings, we are pretty casual about it. I’ve heard Terryl Givens talk about trying to listen to Stake Conference sitting under a basketball hoop on a metal folding chair in the gym overflow area.

There is this Dutch painting by Emanuel de Witte of the 17th century Protestant Dutch Oude Kerk. Right in the middle there’s two little boys scribbling on a column of the church. Next to them there is another column and a little dog is lifting his leg up on the column. Then there is a broom just sort of propped up. I feel like I have been to ward parties that have been about this casual about the way we treat our meetinghouses. I think that’s a really interesting comparison.

Jennifer Champoux:  One of the reasons why I love Dutch art is because I see parallels between how modern Latter-day Saints and the Dutch people then are navigating between the sacred and the profane and renegotiating and collapsing those boundaries.

The other part of your question was about how Latter-day Saint art works for people today. So, Latter-day Saint artwork functions in several ways. It can have more of a devotional purpose by drawing your mind to God; it can be didactic or used for teaching lessons and communicating. It can be appreciated just for its aesthetic qualities. The formal qualities in Latter-day Saint art tend towards the detailed and highly realistic. If you think of artists like Del Parson, Harry Anderson, Arnold Friberg, or Simon Dewey, their work is very realistic looking.

Recently that’s begun to change a little bit. We have artists like J. Kirk Richards, Brian Kershisnik, and Jorge Cocco who are using a little bit more of a sketchy style. It’s a little more self-conscious of the medium. I’ve seen some of their images appearing in the Ensign and the new Come, Follow Me manuals. That is an exciting change, and it’s just nice to have the variety.

Laura Harris Hales:  You mentioned that Latter-day Saint artists favor the realistic. How could these interpretations lead to misconceptions, especially in a global church?

Jennifer Champoux:  That’s a great question. I do think that when the images are highly realistic a general audience might look at them and think that they are authentic like a photograph. They may think that they represent something that really happened. Laura Hurtado at the Church History Museum has talked about the way Carl Bloch’s famous image of Christ healing at the Pool of Bethesda was actually recreated by the Church in a New Testament video. Filmmakers believed that using an image that members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints already knew would lend authenticity to the film. There is that idea that if it looks realistic, and it’s put out by the Church, then people might assume this is how it really happened. This is how it really looked. In some cases, that’s probably fine. In other cases, there may be more nuances or different ways to interpret a scripture story or an event.

Jennifer Champoux:  Noel Carmack wrote about this in an article in 2000 about images of Christ. He chronicles the way Christ has been portrayed in Latter-day Saint art and how that has changed over the years, which is really fascinating. Also, Anthony Sweat at BYU has done some great work on pointing out the ways that images of historical events affect how history is perceived. This is the case with the translation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith. The images have really affected the way people think and talk about the way it really happened. Anthony Sweat pointed out that all of the official images put out by the Church showed Joseph Smith looking as if he’s actually reading the plates and translating directly from the plates. But we know from eyewitness accounts, that’s not what happened. I think that’s a really interesting example of how images affect the way we understand history in scripture.

Also, I think it has the potential to create inflexible thinking when the images are so highly realistic, and we see them as being the one and only way of thinking about them. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation or personal revelation about that idea.

Laura Harris Hales: You used the phrase “canonized art” to refer to images officially endorsed by the Church. What was the problem you found with the canonized art of biblical women?

Jennifer Champoux: In the article, I define what I call canonized or official art as art that has been put out by the Church in either the Gospel Media Library online or in the little booklet or is available for sale on the lds.org store website or is owned by the Church History Museum or sold through their store. This seems to me to be the main places where people are encountering the artwork.

Jennifer Champoux:  We tend to see women in all of this art as fairly one-dimensional figures and they almost always follow a pattern of traditional Christian visual interpretations of women in the Bible.

Laura Harris Hales: Are women and men portrayed similarly in Gospel Art?

Jennifer Champoux: Actually, no. That is partly a product of the scriptures themselves and the time and place in which they were written. We do have a lot more men in artwork than women. But what’s also interesting is that you see men in groups like in Harry Anderson’s “Moses Calls Aaron to the Priesthood.” There is a group of men united together. We see pictures of Jesus and his disciples together. We see men listening to sermons together. We don’t really ever see women in groups like that. Sometimes we’ll see them kind of scattered into a group maybe in a Sermon on the Mount type of picture. There might be a couple of women thrown in there, but mostly we see women as solitary and heroic figures. An example would be Robert Barrett’s “Hannah Presenting Her Son Samuel to Eli.” The only time we do see groups of women is just in two cases in the scripture stories that are visualized and that is in the parable of the ten virgins and the time that Jesus visited the home of Mary and Martha.

Laura Harris Hales: You mentioned the two pictures in your Relief Society Room that displayed the black and white behavior of the two groups. Please tell us about the wise versus foolish motif.

Jennifer Champoux: I’ll start with the ten virgins one. The one we see most often in the Church was done by Walter Rane, a terrific artist whom I admire, and is titled “Five of Them Were Wise.” The parable of the ten virgins is most often talked about by our Church leaders, in our manuals, and in General Conference in terms of one group having made the better choice than the other group. And there seems to be a pretty good consensus on that interpretation.

Walter Rane’s painting follows that interpretation. We have symbolic light and shadow where the light represents the faith and the good choice made by the wise virgins. They are holding their lit oil lamps, but the landscape behind them is brighter. On the other side of the painting, we have the foolish virgins who have no light; there’s no flame. Even the sky behind them has this dark cloud, and they’re more in shadow. I think also symbolically here Rane shows the wise virgins in a strong triangle shape, a pyramidal shape, which gives them visual and symbolic strength, whereas the other five are just sort of all over the place falling down. There’s no rhyme or reason to the grouping. And then there’s the central void between the two groups that really separates them. Here is the good side; here is the bad side.

What is interesting is that when you start looking at the Latter-day Saint images of Mary and Martha, they use similar symbolism and formal elements to tell that story visually as well. It is often interpreted the same way. Light and visual strength is given to Mary, whereas Martha is usually separated from Christ and Mary and is in shadow.

Laura Harris Hales:  You use the Mary versus Martha dichotomy to illustrate the problem with interpreting these biblical characters as a set pattern when there are several ways to interpret the text. How do we fall into that trap?

Jennifer Champoux:  So maybe I’ll just walk through a couple of the images if that’s okay. There are more that I talk about in the article, but I will just talk about two or three here quickly. Walter Rane has a painting called “Mary Heard His Word” and this is of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. You know, if you just look at the title, “Mary Heard His Word,” right off the bat, you’re leaving Martha out and you’re privileging Mary. It’s very clear that Mary is the person this painting is about, and we do have a similar light and shadow symbolism here where Mary has the candle lit in front of her in between her and Christ. She’s in this light from the candle, whereas Martha is in the background. She’s in shadow. She’s actually turned away from the source of light and has her scarf drawn over her head.

It is very symbolic that way. And then also just the figure placement is telling. Mary and Christ have this sort of circular group between the two of them. They’re making eye contact with each other. Their figures are front and center and balance each other visually, whereas Martha seems to be an afterthought in the background. You don’t even really see her face very well.

This painting was in the Young Women’s Room of my Denver meetinghouse. One day as I was starting to think about all these ideas, I went and looked at it. One of the young men in the ward saw me and said, “Boy, she really better get her act together.” He was talking about Martha, and I thought, “Wow, what a great example of how a painting can influence the way we think about scripture stories.”

Another one that I think members of the church are very familiar with is Del Parson’s “Christ with Mary and Martha.” In this one, we do see more unity between the three figures. The three of them make this triangle shape, but again Mary is in front, and she has this direct line of sight with Christ. Even the tops of their heads and eyes line up; their bodies sort of echo each other. And Martha is, again, sort of secondary and in the background.

Laura Harris Hales:  You can definitely see the distance there between Christ and Martha.

Jennifer Champoux:  He’s not looking at her at all. He doesn’t seem to be very aware of her. He seems to be focused on Mary. A more recent one would be one by Kathleen Peterson who is a great artist. This is called “Mary and Martha with Jesus.” I love the way she interprets things, but in this one, the figure placement is similar to that of Del Parson’s painting. The three figures make a triangle shape. She leaves a little room for more unity of the figures, but then she adds this table, and Martha is pushed to the background and physically separated from Christ. We see the full length of Mary’s body, whereas we just see Martha’s shoulders and her head. Mary continues to be privileged in images of this scripture story.

Laura Harris Hales:  As you just mentioned, there’s a fairly consistent interpretation of the Mary Martha story. If we were to allow ourselves to look at other interpretations, what kind of meanings do you think we could recover?

Jennifer Champoux:  One way to think about this story is that it’s not so much about wise versus foolish women, but it’s about choosing to love God and how to be a disciple in that there are varied forms of discipleship and ways to love God. Martha’s choice is not categorically wrong. And also, there’s more to Mary than just the passive listener that she’s shown as in these images.

Laura Harris Hales:  I love what Eric Huntsman says about the Mary–Martha Story as written in John. When their brother dies and Jesus comes to help save him, Martha runs out there right away. She has been listening. She knows the story. She knows that he will live again. Right? So it’s not that she wasn’t multitasking really well. I think I heard Amy-Jill Levine say that there may be more to it than just listening or working. Martha may have wanted to point out that Mary was doing something that was inappropriate in Jewish culture. So, we see this problem of oversimplifying things by looking at a picture and saying, “Boy, she really needs to get her act together.” Right?

Jennifer Champoux:  I completely agree, but we do have to be a little careful looking at that story of Lazarus in John because it’s a different author. Luke is the one who tells this story of Jesus in their home, and he has different intentions in the way he’s portraying the people. But I think you’re right. I think it does tell us a little more about both sisters and maybe vindicates Martha a little bit. There’s a lot more to her than is represented in the Luke story,

Laura Harris Hales:  Within the Luke’s story, is there textual evidence to support a nuanced interpretation?

Jennifer Champoux:  Yes, you mentioned that Martha is the one who calls out Mary. Chieko Okazaki, the former Relief Society General Presidency member, has written about how Jesus didn’t really judge either woman. If you read it carefully, he doesn’t ever say that Martha’s choice is wrong. Martha, you know, comes to him to say, Mary’s making the wrong choice here. She should be helping me. Why don’t you tell her to help me? And he doesn’t say that Mary’s choice is wrong or Martha’s is wrong. It’s Martha that is bringing the judgment into the story. Also, Bonnie D. Parkin, the former Relief Society General President said in a General Conference talk that Mary expressed her love by hearing his word and Martha expressed hers by serving him. They both express love. It wasn’t one is good, and one is bad; they both showed their love for Christ in different ways.

Laura Harris Hales:  You walked us through some examples that show this wise and foolish motif and dichotomy for Mary and Martha. Are there other Latter-day Saint depictions of Mary and Martha that don’t follow the same motif?

Jennifer Champoux:  There’s one big counter example here, and that’s the Minerva Teichert that I mentioned at the beginning that I had seen in my Denver Relief Society Room. Her painting is called “Jesus at the Home of Mary and Martha.” She painted this in 1935, earlier than any of the other depictions we’ve looked at, which is kind of interesting. This is owned by the BYU Museum of Art, so it doesn’t fall into the category of what I’ve called official Latter-day Saint art. Her image presents Mary and Martha in a radically different way. There is more unity of the figures. If you look at the image, all three of the figures are contained within this archway that she’s painted, and they form a unified circular group. The light reaches all of the figures. Martha is not hiding in the shadows anymore. She even has a little fire next to her so that symbolic light is just right there with her in her kitchen.

Jennifer Champoux:  Minerva’s style is a lot more sketchy, looser brush work, and with less defined facial features than any of the other depictions we’ve discussed. When you see this piece in person, you really get a sense for just how sketch-like it is. You see parts where the canvas is peeking through the paint. You see the charcoal outlines on the little stools that they’re sitting on, the really dry application of paint, and the haziness of the features. What is really fascinating here is that Mary is portrayed as doing something active. This is really the only time we see Mary doing something and not just sitting there listening passively. This is revolutionary, not only for Latter-day Saint depictions of the story but also for any other Christian depictions of this story.

Jennifer Champoux:  We really hardly ever see text in these portrayals, but here Mary is actually reading the text. There is this sort of Hebrew scroll that they’re looking at. Christ is pointing at it with his finger as if guiding Mary’s reading of the scriptures. I think this is amazing that it shows her actively reading the text instead of just sitting there passively. It shows both women making a choice and exercising their agency in a very Latter-day Saint way. Martha is making her choice to serve the food and Mary is making her choice to read the scriptures and sit with Christ.

Laura Harris Hales:  I love that. In your article, you spend quite a bit of time on this painting. It was interesting to me, but this is not a realistic depiction. Mary would not be reading Hebrew. Jesus would not be reading Hebrew or Aramaic, whatever it was, but the scriptures function symbolically. You use the term iconography, which is not something we think of in association with our Church. Can you define that term and tell us how you feel it functions in this picture?

Jennifer Champoux: When we talk about iconography, we really just mean symbols or the way things are represented visually. In Christian art, we often see the Holy Ghost represented as a dove, Christ represented as a lamb, or white lilies symbolize purity, often associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian art. Here I think Teichert has used some symbolism or iconography. I didn’t actually mention this in the paper, but once I looked at the original, I noticed other elements that are even more dramatic in person. On the table behind these figures, you see a loaf of bread and a jug. I would assume it is wine. So, we’ve got bread and wine, and Martha is carrying a plate. It’s so hard to tell in the reproductions what is on the plate. But in person, it looks like grapes. So, we’ve got grapes and wine and bread right there with Christ and these two women. I think that must be a symbol of the sacrament.

Jennifer Champoux:  And that’s also really revolutionary to show these women may be participating in the sacrament with Jesus. The text itself is a symbol here. The text is so prominent; it’s the central part of the image. It has light on it, which makes it lighter than the background. Christ points to it with his finger, and again it’s hard to tell in these reproductions, but his finger is really highlighted in the real painting, drawing the viewer’s eye right to the text that is meant to be the central part of this painting. The text is a symbol here for Teichert that these two sisters are reading the text, which would be the Old Testament, but they’re also in the text in the New Testament. There’s this really interesting textuality of performing text but also reading text. The Gospel of John talks about Christ being the Word, and here this symbol is dramatically represented. The way that the word or scriptures draws us to Christ continues to be a presence in the lives of men and women today.

Laura Harris Hales:  The depictions you’ve talked about so far are fairly old. Do you have any modern depictions?

Jennifer Champoux:  There have been some artists lately who have depicted the story. Jorge Cocco uses a distinctive sacrocubism style, but the way he depicts the story is still pretty traditional in terms of the passive Mary and then an active Martha working in the kitchen with a similar figure placement. Emily McPhee is another artist who did one in 2015. In this one, I think you see a little bit more of Mary exercising her agency and making a choice. She seems a little more engaged, but again you do see Mary privileged over Martha. Her figure is larger. She’s facing the viewer, whereas Martha is in the background in a sort of contorted position and looking away from the viewer. And then, I did stumble upon one just from 2017 by Rose Datoc Dall called “Careful and Troubled.” This one really focuses on Martha, and Jesus and Mary are in the background.

Jennifer Champoux:  It reminds me a lot of the Velazquez version of Mary and Martha from the 17th century where you have a half-length figure of Martha that is very close to the picture plane and covered with these food and instruments of kitchen preparation or household items. Christ and Mary are in the background, and there is a similar sort of interplay of it calling to contemporary women to think about their own lives and their own choices. I thought that was an interesting new one.

It is hard to find Latter-day Saint art sometimes because there isn’t just one catalog or one place where you can go to find all the Latter-day Saint depictions of Mary and Martha. You have to kind of piece it together and then look around. I’ve been really excited about the work going on at the Mormon Art Center with Richard Bushman and Glen Nelson trying to bring Latter-day Saint artists together more and to have more literature and more cataloging of the art that is out there.

Laura Harris Hales:  Thank you. Those are some exciting new trends. I’m going to try to summarize the argument of the article and you tell me if I’ve got the gist of it.

Latter-day Saint art tends to be realistic, and we take our art seriously. It is how we interpret our scripture sometimes, but maybe there is a more nuanced way of looking at these stories. So with that in mind, what would you like to see Latter-day Saints do with the arguments you presented in your article?

Jennifer Champoux:  I’m not opposed to having official artwork. There is nothing wrong with that, but I do think we can bring to it an understanding that it’s not a photograph and that there can be more than one way to visualize a scripture story or a historical event. When we look at paintings or drawings, it is one artist’s interpretation of what happened. And it’s not necessarily the only way to think about it. We can look carefully at what that image offers as one possibility and not necessarily the only way. In providing multiple depictions of the same story, the Church can leave room for more nuanced interpretations. I was really excited to see in the new Come, Follow Me manuals that there is a lot of new artwork and different artists than have been represented before. I think that is just terrific to have these different ways of thinking about, or visualizing, scriptures and historical events in the minds of Latter-day Saints.

Laura Harris Hales:  Thank you, Jenny, for visiting with me today and coming all the way from Virginia to record this podcast. In our show notes, I will put a link to this article, so you can see all the lovely artwork that Jenny has discussed.

Disclaimer:     Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of Church leaders, policies, or practices.

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