This Clayton Patterson retrospective marks a milestone in his body of art work production, and in the life of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The last thirty years marks the beginning and the end of the most traumatic period of Lower Manhattan, and Clayton Patterson has lived throughout this large period both as an observer and a participant, as an instigator and survivor, activist and a documentarian.
The exhibits gathered for this retrospective cast an overall feeling of remnants and Memorials. In the late seventies the Lower East Side emerged as the cemetery of urban America. Poverty, drugs, homelessness, the years of Howl. Three museum exhibitions during the last ten years presented this sinking yet culturally fertile territory . “The Beat Generation” at The Whitney Museum, Dan Cameron’s “The East Village, USA” at the New Museum, and the Carlo McCormick’s show at the Grey Art Gallery in Washington Square.
Like the discoverers of the Valley of the Dead in Egypt, Clayton and Elsa Rensaa, his partner, moved to the Lower East Side to document and influence the course of events. In both archeology and in social communication there is no such thing as pure observation. Clayton and Elsa choose first the visual arts and then photography and video but not to distance themselves but to intervene with the subject matter around them.
The world of Clayton consists of three mayor chambers: (a) the sculptures and paintings, (b) the photographs and (c) the videos. Clayton’s production is a chamber pyramid that clamors to be presented in three consecutive shows. His early work is the focus of the current exhibition. Clayton sees his sculptural containers as loner’s wagons or settler’s trunks filled by disparate, hustled contents, always detached and in motion.
Clayton stuffs them with stories, narratives, shreds of fragmentary and disconnected lives. The Pictures. Clayton has assembled tens of thousands of photographs about practically every event, situation and group or individual in the neighborhood. One of the most creative of his many series is a large collection of photos taken within the frame of his storefront on Essex Street. Dozens and dozens of young kids and some adults posed in front of his graffittied street doorway over the course of several years. Who are they and what are they looking at? They seem to be departing from something or ready to plunge into something momentous. Maybe it is into a mature age or maybe they are departing to a life of lawlessness. They do not yet know where they are going.
The videos: Clayton’s videos are a world of their own; a world that is asymmetrical to the world of the artist. Patterson’s videos cover episodes in the life of the city such as the 1988 police riot, the break up of the gardens movement, the revaluation of City owned lots, the demise of the 8th Street Shul, the epic struggle for PS 64 and thousands of moments of street events and developments such as fires, arrests, street fights, community meetings, openings, visit by celebrities as well as hundreds of anonymous situations.
Clayton’s cases remind you of the roman sarcophagi filled with stories and subtexts. The visitor can totally miss their sense and purpose, unless that visitor is a frequent watcher of the History Channel or the Discovery Channel. Clayton sees these cases and his bas reliefs or paintings as entities endowed with power.
Clayton has recently written “Life is also about death and, if we are lucky, the life of who we are is left behind. The left behind part can be the greatest life. That is a truly creative act. Art is also magic.
Although I have up to now, rarely gotten into this publicly as it is a topic that really confuses people. I understand Lionel’s need for avoidance of the public eye.” He is referring to Lionel Ziprin, the grandson of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolis Abulafia. Lionel is an Orthodox religious Jew, now in his 80’s and in poor health. Lionel's grandfather, Naftali was an important person in the creation of the House of the Sages on East Broadway in Lower Manhattan where Lionel studied for many years. Through his grandfather, Lionel Ziprin has brought forward, to today, strands of knowledge and alternative wisdom that comes from the depth of medieval kabala and Sephardic illuminist traditions with strong oriental content. Clayton has been exposed to those traditions through the works of Ziprin, who expounds on the Sephar Razil, an ancient, occultist book that depicts the meaning and deeds of Razil, who was the protecting angel for Adam and Eve and mankind after the expulsion from Paradise.
The influence of Ziprin is vast and deep. His books are private papers never to be material for public view or understanding. Ziprin was considered, by many, to be one of the greatest LES poets of the Beat period but he made a very conscious decision not to be public. He was influential to a number of people. Bob Dylan and Harry Smith are just two examples. Certainly Ginsberg was very aware of Lionel, and so is Ira Cohen.
Another angle of Clayton Patterson’s esoteric universe comes through Baba Raul Canizares, who practiced Santeria. Clayton was interested in Baba’s Elleguas that were sculptural forms used as guardians or connectors to the spiritual world. “Once one fills the inside with the necessary ingredients they are then charged and used in ceremonies and daily life. I was working on a magic system with Raul who had written many books. I created ideas and images and he was doing the writings.” Baba was unique in that since childhood he was a disciple in the Santeria world, but he was also educated in religion and knew a lot about Judaism, Catholicism and Christianity, and was also familiar with Aleister Crowley, and different forms of magic.
The third and last angle of Clayton’s internal vision comes from his origins and background in Western Canada which at the time of his youth was based on a frontier culture. European art tradition, unrelated to the worldview of rugged survivors in the immensity of nature was an alien concept that comes into his experience much later on his college years.
In the magic and the esoteric we usually find ourselves mixing disparate elements to obtain a third, surprising one. Clayton has all his life worked the art of the interconnection, of putting together people of different pursuits and to make them come up with unexpected synergies and common objectives.
That alchemist approach to human relationships has put Clayton Patterson into situations incongruous and delirious that cross over the line of the ordinary and extraordinary.
Clayton likes to mention two extreme situation in his life. One of them takes place in the labyrinths of the Federal court building in Lower Manhattan, the other one in the corridors of the Vatican. In both cases, Patterson is transporting a mission between artistic and esoteric. Those interventions are part performance, part folk diplomacy and part thriller. Of such matter are made up films like The Omen. In the first instance, Clayton presents to a Federal Judge in Lower Manhattan, written and visual documentation about a possible attack on NYC, before 9/11, that makes the Court order the total destruction of all and any existing copies of such motion. The second case has Clayton entering the unreachable, locked up chambers of the Vatican archives to meet a priest with direct access to the pope who personally delivered a text from Lionel Ziprin about the Angel Razil to him. The only thing missing in those two episodes are the lightening and the thunder that all the version of The Omen come accompanied with. In the first one. Clayton gains access to the Federal Court with the help of a Hasid from Williamsburg; in Rome Clayton gains entry with the help of a Roman dentist.
“Making connections is an artistic act. Sadly most people have no comprehension of the process as people are watching their target and they miss the process. And the connections that I make are almost never about me - and then what happens after the connection is made, the lights turn on and I am left in the dark. The greatest people whose work I have in my protection understood this process and have been very appreciative of my work.”
This lengthy background could be extremely necessary and even indispensable to come close to the boxes or vitrines in the Patterson exhibition in his gallery on Essex Street. Clayton calls them his reliquaries that should be approached from a non Western art canon, but should be considered as reliquaries. They all contain elements of the lives of people who died anonymously, violently and lonely in the streets of the Lower East Side. It can be a tooth, a clutch, a ring, hair, a medical prescription, a denture, an empty bottle….
“There is a great chance that all I do will be lost. As you can see my art is very visible and easy to get to, but what the art is about is something that almost no one understands. There is really more than just the visual side to the art. And I look like and have the mannerisms of such a lumpenproletarian type, which is my background, that people will not see the other side anyway. And so it goes. The essence and the difficulty of the darkness… and the beauty of darkness.”
Elsa Rensaa, Clayton’s partner, is an integral part of this outpouring of decades of art and experimentation. Her father came from a small fishing village in the north of Norway above the arctic circle. Their history in this small fishing village goes back hundreds of years, although they were not Christianized they did know of universities and other complex cultural institutions. Her father came to Canada as a youngish man and studied engineering in university at the same time as Marshall McLuhan. He graduated and developed a method for joining sections of pre-cast concrete and was awarded a national engineering gold medal. Elsa’s stepmother who attended university in America was from a wealthy shipping family in Norway who lost their fortune during World War II. Elsa’s specialty is photography, printing and video.
The Claytons arrived in Lower Manhattan almost thirty years ago from a distant land to excavate, reinvent and disturb the poisonous quiet of the Lower East Side. This valley is filled with Infories, relicts and carcasses. That is the time of the sunset of the Yiddish culture, the departure of tens of thousands of Italians, Irish and Eastern Europeans ethnics. Those are the times when thousands of buildings crumble, burn and are reduced to dust. But it is right here where the Beat Generation is born ad where the counterculture will raise for the entire nation and the world.
Presently, outside of the gallery, tourists and visitors pass and crisscross from the over developed corridor of Allen and Orchard Streets to the eastern, gritty reaches of Attorney and Ridge Street. There are not more bones or remains to collect. Every square foot of space now is measured in gold and is the target of world corporations. From being the oldest urban graveyard of cultural change in America, the Lower East Side is being turned into a reserve for the elites and the high mobile. When all the tenements have been turned into high rises and the night turned into a colorful neon canopy, some travelers from afar will dig and find the Clayton’s treasures. A glass pavilion will be built with four departments for permanent exhibition: the sculpture and painting, the photography, the videos, and the documents and books.
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Clayton Patterson - Art In Life, A Life in Art
By David H. Katz
When Clayton Patterson arrived in New York from western Canada, in the late 1970’s, the Big Apple had, like the fabled bums who used to populate a Bowery that now hosts luxury condominiums, hit bottom. The Bronx was ablaze or already reduced to rubble, and large swatches of the Lower East Side were a no man’s land, its immigrant housing stock abandoned to decrepitude, or torched by insurance hungry landlords, its streets given over to drugs and thugs.
Mindless violence, street crime as well as white-collar municipal corruption, was rampant. People lived behind the much spoofed multiple locked door, blinking through peepholes at suspected predators. Windows, at any height, were barred to keep the ever-persistent junkie burglar trapped in the prison of the streets. A thriving “security” business developed around a bizarre contraption that consisted of a giant crowbar wedged on an angle between two specially designed steel plates, one end attached to the inside of your door, the other end to an iron groove installed in your floor.
And as if to symbolize a city spasticating out of control, buses, buildings, tunnels, even the streets, and almost every inch of the subway system, was festooned with giddy, grotesque spray paint graffiti, mysteriously “tagged” in the dead of night by the dispossessed, the disillusioned, the ignored and the scorned parishioners of the Church of Krylon.
Paradoxically, this mad, drugged, insomniac city proved a perfect artistic environment, in a strange way, almost a kind of perverted paradise, for Clayton Patterson. His iconoclastic personality, fringe friendly temperament, anarchistic tendencies, and outlaw ethos allowed him to find beauty in squalor, and seize opportunities, both practical and aesthetic, all but invisible to the majority of the beleaguered natives.
Patterson grew up in Calgary, in western Canada, where he inherited a pioneer ethos of individualism from his father, who had migrated from Saskatewan to Alberta in the 1940’s, when western Canada was still very much a frontier; he came in a covered wagon, moving a herd of wild horses with a Native American friend. His father was a man of high moral rectitude: “a real disciplinarian type, he also became extremely religious, only fundamentalist Christian. I never saw my father do anything that would be immoral or wrong.”
Poor but industrious, Patterson absorbed the values of his father and the frontier: independence, self-reliance, practicality, loyalty, compassion for outcasts, the downtrodden and the misunderstood, along with a strong contrarian streak.
At an early age, as he began to observe moral and social hypocrisy at church and in school, he became acutely aware of a disconnect between the way things were presented by the powers that be, and the way things actually are: “With the church and with the school, you had these authorities telling you things, but they’re leading a contradictory life. And so I always used to see that contradiction, and I always had problems in dealing with that.”
Patterson’s prairie upbringing also imbued him with a low tolerance for bullshit, liars, corporate phonies, thieves, pomposity, and oppression, not to mention fascists and fools, propensities that have periodically brought trouble his way. He gravitated to the arts, although he discovered, during his education in 1968 at Calgary’s Alberta College of Art, that he didn’t much care for artists, at least socially: “I’m not part of these people, I’m just not an art type,” although he did meet Elsa Rensaa, who in 1972 became his longtime companion and artistic partner. “That was one good thing that came out of art school,” he laughs. “The rest was bullshit.”
Switching to education, he attained a degree and taught high school; in 1976 he and Elsa attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, where they learned printmaking, a trade that jibed with Patterson’s working class orientation towards art and the world.
After a trip to New York, in the late seventies, Clayton and Elsa decided to move the city, find work as printmakers, and pursue their artistic endeavors. Almost immediately, from the flotsam and jetsam of the streets, Patterson began making sculpture: weird, brightly painted totemic objects and ziggurat shaped icons fashioned from street debris, to which he attached broken furniture, shards of mirrors, scraps of metal, abandoned toys, plastic figures of cowboys, angels, Indians, soldiers; painted or mutilated dolls, ticket stubs, condoms, disco balls, nails, crutches, a mouth guard; hypodermic needles (from the junkie souk that was the LES at that time); all the discarded so-called crap and forlorn refuge of the shattered urban landscape. “They’re like shrines, to underneath society, rather then on top of society. They have all of these religious elements that people worship: the singing cowboy, the angels, the dharma; and that’s part of the Bowery in that time as well, because you have the soup kitchens, people talking about God. And the mouth guard, that is, teeth - I did a lot of things with teeth and decay. Teeth are like porcelain perfection and then they rot and decay; sort of like the decaying society, which was also a big part of this. The breakdown of the social system: that’s what the Bowery represents, especially from 79 to 83, when New York hit bottom.”
Patterson’s work attracted attention in Soho, then the city’s artistic epicenter; he had a one-man show and his pieces wound up in several important collections.
However, Soho represented to Patterson the same sort of hypocritical, snobbish milieu he had experienced growing up in the church and in art school:
“Soho was exactly like the art school in a sense. In order to make it in Soho at that time you had to be a real party person, you had to go to Mr. Chow’s for lunch, you had to be sniffing coke and doing dope, and you had to be sort of socially cool, and in that world I was totally contrarian, I couldn’t take it, It was just like art school. Just like church, pretentious, arrogant people living contrary lifestyles. They talked about living as an artist, but it was really about social status and a form of snobbery, and it was all business, it wasn’t about art; it had become all about money and glory and accoutrements: how you dressed, your $125 running shoes your two thousand dollar gold chain; you go to the Odeon at night, you’re drinking champagne, And I saw that and I thought, no this is not for me.”
Patterson also cites aesthetic, and in a deeper sense political, differences with the Soho art scene. “The art world had totally separated itself from humanity and mankind. Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings, let’s say, starting with that. How can you ever go into any environment, whether it be middle class or working class or even upper class, really, if somebody isn’t involved in the art world, and expect them to look at that picture, and understand anything about it unless they’ve been taught what those aesthetics are? So then you’re making art that is so elite in a sense that it doesn’t relate to anybody within society. That’s what the art world became.
So I dropped out of that whole world. We moved over here in 1983, closed the door, went underground, and remained underground up until now.”
“Over here” was a storefront on Essex Street, just below Houston on the border of the almost morbid East Village and the more commercial Lower East Side, still a shopper’s paradise filled with fabric stores and discount clothing shops. Leaving the insular, hermetically sealed, self-reflective Soho art scene, Patterson and Rensaa began to cultivate a more socially conscious philosophy of art, one that put less energy into the creation of objects for art galleries and museums, and more into the documentation of community life, the exposure of the flux and flow of power and class, and inevitably, social activism.
“The Lower East Side was the perfect environment for me. It was all outsiders, and there was a whole reality here that wasn’t based on status, wasn’t based on how you dressed or who you were; it was do it yourself, if you could find a niche to survive in that was fine, nobody cared. You could sleep in the nude of the window if you liked, it really didn’t matter.”
In 1986, he became president of the New York Tattoo Society, (In doing so he helped change the aesthetic sensibility of a generation, one that now considers tattoos and piercings a rite of passage.) and over the years organized major body art exhibitions, including several shows by the famed tattoo artist Spider Webb, Tom Paul Devita, and photographer Charles Gatewood. In 1997, he became involved in a complicated struggle to legalize tattoo parlors in New York, which had been banned since 1961 by an obscure health regulation Patterson considered a veiled prohibition against non-conformity and an artists right to earn a living. By 1998 Patterson’s persistence had paid off: after working with City Councilwoman Katherine Freed, and tattoo shop owner Wes Wood, the NYC City Council lifted the ban on tattoo parlors in the city of New York. Now they flourish throughout the east village and the LES. Shortly thereafter Clayton, along with tattoo aficionados Steve Bonge and Butch Garcia, help organize the NYC International Tattoo Convention, a massive gathering of body artists from around the world which meets yearly at the famed Roseland Ballroom in Times Square. In 1995, and through 2002, he helped mount Wildstyle, a major show that brought American tattoo and sideshow talent to Europe.
Clayton’s own contribution to NYC fashion are the trademark black baseball caps he and Elsa have produced, embroidered with skull symbols and other outré imagery, which have shown up in GQ magazine and on the heads of movie stars and hipsters. “It was a business, it was independent, and it was something Elsa and I could do ourselves. Since I didn’t have any way to take my art and put it out into the world, I would take my drawings and Elsa would embroider them and I would put them on the caps.” He also collected neighborhood artifacts and street detritus, such as his fascinating and invaluable collection of nearly 2,000 heroin bags, labeled with names and logos, outlaw trademarks identifying and distinguishing the product inside.
Around the same time, Patterson and Rensaa began obsessively documenting the local populace, creating a “Hall of Fame” in his Essex Street window with his telling photo portraits of neighborhood kids, street people, Hassids, drag queens, long time locals, junkies and drug dealers, who all considered it a badge of honor to be temporarily immortalized in Clayton’s window.
The converted warehouse at 161 Essex eventually became a gallery - The Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum - which over the years has exhibited an eclectic mix of fringe art, graffiti, Sicilian caps, street fashion, photographs and artwork by figures like Charles Gatewood, Taylor Mead, Quentin Crisp, Elsa Rensaa, Boris Lurie, Spider Webb, Manwoman, and Baba Raul Canizares, Cochise President to the Satan Sinner Nomads; all highly significant artists for the most part neglected by mainstream galleries and the gatekeepers of art criticism.
Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, Patterson has been a ubiquitous observer - and participant - in the tumultuous social and cultural changes the LES has seen over the part 20 years, beginning in the 1986, when he began shooting handheld videotape of neighborhood happenings. Since then he, and Elsa, have videotaped and photographed innumerable film and art openings, street fairs, events, parties, political meetings, demolitions, demonstrations, riots, drug buys, busts, fights and sundry bizarre street phenomena, creating an archive of some 750,000 photographs and 4,000 hours of videotape that is probably the definitive documentary history of the period.
Perhaps Patterson’s most notorious “artwork” is the famous three hour and thirty three minute videotape he made on August 6 and 7 1988, of a police riot in Thompkins Square Park, footage of which has been seen, but not always credited, on CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. The riot, sparked by plans to impose a curfew designed to rid the park of drug dealers, street people and the homeless, marked a turning point in the history of the NYPD, and in the history of the East Village and the Lower East Side. The tape proved instrumental in changing the structure of the NYPD. “It showed people that the NYPD at that time was very corrupt, had major problems, and the hierarchy was not in control, and that it was an anarchist organization; and my tape proved that. And that was perfect for me, because to look at the whole justice world, where’s there is this concept that the police are the protectors of the law, the dispensers of justice, that they represent morality and ethics; well, it was just like being back at the church and art school. There’s a total contradiction there, and that’s what I saw with that tape: these guys were out of control, they’re beating people up arbitrarily, they beating them down, they leave them on the streets. It was contrary to everything you had been taught that law and order was all about.”
The tape, and the 17 years of court cases and controversy that followed, began a decade long period of neighborhood activism in which Patterson, a critic of unthinking and relentless gentrification, waged innumerable struggles with and on behalf of working class people against corrupt politicians, bribed community boards and wealthy real estate interests seeking to turn the LES into an urban mall of luxury condominiums, hotels, faux French bistros, Duane Reids, chain clothing stores and Starbucks. He has campaigned to stop squatter evictions, and save community gardens, as well as historic East Village buildings, such as Charas Community Center on 9th Street, and most recently, St, Brigid’s, a Roman Catholic Church built on Avenue A, from outright demolition, or conversion to the Almighty God of Luxury Housing. “You know, we go after the Taliban for blowing up those Buddhas in Afghanistan; they’re thousands of years old as a culture. We’re much younger, and for this neighborhood that church, built in 1848, is a monument to that time, and they want to tear it down. It should be a landmark, but they’re tearing it down. And that church represents the Irish Catholics that came out of the famine, and so once again there’s a contradiction between what’s supposed to be right and what is right.”
But throughout the photography, the documentation, the court cases and the controversy, Patterson has continuously made art, art that now fills up his warehouse gallery/home/headquarters on Essex Street. “I started off with these really large sculptures and eventually they got smaller and smaller and smaller, until I was making little boxes, and after a while I had so many of these little boxes, that I couldn’t deal with the little boxes anymore. And then I got into taking these photographs, which were 4 x 5, and after years I ended up with boxes and boxes of those. And then I got into collage; I made a lot of collage for a while, and made a lot of watercolors. And books. I always look at art as life and life is art, and everything I do is art. I look at it as a continuum in everything I do.”
For Patterson, life, as lived in the streets of New York, and art, as practiced in the studio, are not separate pursuits. Be it sculpture or video, painting or photography, like a city and its people, they are one and the same.
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ABOUT CLAYTON PATTERSON
By BALDO DIODATO
Clayton is a picture hunter, his game is never banal but refined and thought-provoking. He is a "fitter" able to assemble pictures by giving them a mysterious and estranging quality. He complicates the meaning of his works creating in natural and broad spaces. Then a small drawing gives the opera's reading key. Eventually Clayton introduces an ironic game to break the seriousness of his work: usually either a riddle or a syblline sentence to be solved. This is the language Clayton speaks. A complete and devoted artist who loves art and looks for armony even in chaos.
Clayton è un rigattiere, anzi un cacciatore di immagini, ma mai banali, perfino colti e raffinate. Poi è un "montatore" capace di dare a queste, una volta assemblate ulteriore qualità straniante e misteriosa. E ancora per complicare la lettura agli spettatori spazi innaturali e dilatati dove magari un piccolo disegno quasi invisibile crea la chiave di lettura del racconto, infine, per spaziare la seriosità del tutto e introdurre ironia e gioco, l'aggiunta di una frase sibillina da decifrare e interpretare. E' questo il linguaggio scelto da Clayton Patterson per esprimere la sua creatività di artista personalissimo, con un amore dichiarato per l'arte, per la bellezza e l'armonia, nel suo caos quotidiano.
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ABOUT CLAYTON PATTERSON
By JEREMIAH NEWTON
For nearly 30 years, one of the seminal figures of the Lower East Side and East Village, has been Clayton Patterson, a tall, energetic, mysterious, no-nonsense figure of a man prone to wearing a rabbi’s black longcoat and walking fast. He possesses a remarkable face grounded with a devil’s goatee, and children in the area say that in his veins runs electricity for blood. There is some truth here.
After he left the wide-open plains of Alberta, Canada, he wisely found his way to Manhattan Island. As an artist, he brushed shoulders with other now-legendary greats ñ Haring, Basquiat, Schnabel, while continuing to work on his own giant sparkling and beeping sculptures which eventually covered a good portion of his Essex Street loft. Another creative era began with his wondrous drawings and paintings exploring his mystical side. With his wife Elsa, he created fanciful baseball caps embroidered with a rosary of grinning devils, flying bats, rabid skulls, and various and sundry mystical signs, which celebrities flocked to purchase.
He is the ‘perfect’ archivist for this forever-changing land, and soon began using an early video camera and a 35mm photo lens recording his vanishing and changing community. Clayton’s collections are made up of items that most of us would scorn ñ empty crack and heroin packages with trademark names stamped on them, small labels that has plaintive words written on them or tiny bizarre drawings drawn onto gummy labels that people have affixed to tenements, post office boxes, etc.. These many items are something that most of us just wouldn’t notice. However Clayton, on a mystical journey with the discerning eye of a modern-day Bernard Berenson, finds art and artifice wherever and whenever he walks through the streets, and his archives groan under the weight of so many preserved dreams.
So let us welcome this forever-outrageous time tripper and his art as a whole displayed in his Outlaw Art Gallery. Remember, this is where the yellow brick road ends, and your authentic journey may begin.
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ABOUT CLAYTON PATTERSON
This was during that period when I was angry with you for neglecting me. I got it in my head that perhaps you didn't value my friendship any longer once I quit using drugs. And so I wrote: