Graduate School Interview

I haven’t posted in a long time due to all the studio art courses I’ve been taking in preparation for graduate school. But it was all worth it because in March, I was invited to interview at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC)! I started to read a few different blog posts about people’s experiences interviewing at the various programs and frankly, some of them really terrified me. My stomach would start to churn, and I finally decided to put all of those posts out of my head as I prepared for my interview.

When I went to WUDPAC in April, I had such a great experience! I was so nervous, but the day went really well, and I felt like I needed to write about it so there were some positive stories out there.

I interviewed on a Monday, so I flew in Sunday morning. I had really great hosts who picked me up from the airport. We went back to their apartment and basically spent the day trying to calm me down. We took a relaxing walk in the beautiful Brandywine State Park where I saw a beautiful abandoned paper mill, chatted about their interview experiences, and made dinner. I went to bed early since we had to be on campus at 7:30 am.

The day started with a 45 minute talk by Debbie Hess Norris, the chair of the program. She went over the basics of the program, the curriculum, and the faculty. She was so warm and friendly, it really put me at ease. After the talk, we took the chemistry test. I had been told not to stress out too much about the test because it had probably been a while since everyone had their chemistry. I felt really confident about the general chemistry questions but some of the organic chemistry questions I completely guessed on.

After that, the interviews started. I was the second to last interview of the day, so I had a long time to wait. I was first taken on a tour of all of the different labs, where I also met the second years in each discipline. This was one of the most informative parts of the tour. All of the students emphasized how their advisers chose very diverse projects that were tailored to their interests.

I also spent some time in the break room, where there were copious amounts of food and where the first and second years hung out. It was a great way to meet the other students in the program and get a sense of what it’s like to study there and how I would fit in.

At some point I did my drawing test, which consisted of sitting in a small room in front of a still-life. I had twenty five minutes to draw the whole still-life – and no eraser! I really did not feel good about my drawing and hated that other people were going to look at it but after talking to students later, it sounds like no one felt comfortable with their drawing!

I also did a color test which is similar to this color test online. This was the easiest test and only took ten or fifteen minutes. I felt great about this one!

I then did a thirty minute writing response to a prompt I was given. The prompt was fairly straightforward since it’s personal and about an experience you’ve had. I also felt pretty good about this and was happy to get all the tests over with!

Finally, it was time for my interview. My stomach was in knots, but I was also happy to get it over with. Debbie came to get me, and I walked to the interview room with her. She’s an extremely nice person and really put me at ease. Once were in the room, someone took my studio art and started laying it on the table for me. My presentation was loaded on the projector, and I was ready to start. They tell you that you probably won’t get through your whole presentation because the committee interjects with questions. I started speaking and got many questions. Most of them were easy and what I expected – why did I choose that method, why did I use that material, etc. A couple questions threw me off, mostly because of nerves, but in general I felt really prepared. After my presentation, the committee looked at my studio art while I chose an object to do a verbal condition report on. I chose a print, since that’s what I felt most comfortable with, and I was asked simple questions about it – what damage did I see, how would I treat it, what would I tell a curator about exhibiting the piece, etc. Having worked in conservation labs, these were all easy questions to answer. The interview ended with some more questions about my experiences and activities outside of the labs. I said thank you and left feeling elated!

My experience at WUDPAC was really great. I never felt intimidated or uneasy. I was nervous, of course, but everyone around me was very warm and inviting. I am excited to say that I was accepted into the program and will be joining the Class of 2016 in the fall!

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Care of Paintings class at the Campbell Center

Thanks to a generous scholarship from the Illinois Collections Preservation Network, I was fortunate enough to take the class “Care of Paintings” with Cynthia Kuniej-Berry at the Campbell Center. Nestled in the small northern Illinois town of Mount Carroll, the Campbell Center offers a number of collections care and historic preservation courses. Someone once described the Campbell Center to me as being like summer camp for conservators — which is exactly what it felt like! This was a three-day course — I arrived on Sunday night and immediately went to a small reception and met my fellow classmates. There was a wide variety of backgrounds — from archives to registration to museum administration. It was really fun to meet so many people with shared interests.

Our class started with the basics: the anatomy of a painting. I was taking this course because I didn’t feel comfortable working my way around a painting, and this aspect of the class was extremely beneficial. As a private practice conservator in Chicago, our instructor Cynthia had clearly taught many pre-program interns before. She emphasized the different parts of a painting and we all did condition reports on paintings which were donated to the Campbell Center. Cynthia also showed us many slides of different types of damage. This was really helpful because it is impossible to see everything that may happen to a painting, but given how long she has been in the field, Cynthia showed us many complicated examples. Since she is also in private practice, it was really interesting to see how people decide to place paintings in their homes. We saw a house that was glass windows all around it and in front of one of the windows the owners placed massive paintings. This, of course, caused numerous conservation issues which she then had to advise on. After we had written our condition reports, we spent a lot of time going through each of our paintings and learning the best way to document damage and the appropriate terms to use for each case. It was really beneficial to be able to see so many different types of damage right in front of us.

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Learning how to dust a frame.

We also spent time doing some minor treatment: using the appropriate brushes and a vacuum, we learned how to dust a painting and its frame. We working on an extremely large painting so this turned out to be a little harder than I expected but we worked as a group and cleaned it up! We also learned about the best way to store and transport paintings, particularly within a museum. We went over the best tools to be using during conservation and even the proper easel paintings should be placed on. All of these little details seemed so obvious once we started discussing them but just didn’t occur to me before.

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Dusting a painting.

As you can imagine, we learned many more things during these whirlwind three days; I wouldn’t be able to cover all of it in a blog post. It was great meeting so many arts and museum people in the Midwest and really beneficial learning from each other. I also specifically signed up for this class so that I could meet and learn from Cynthia, who I had learned so many great things about. She has an amazing background and a wealth of knowledge. I was particularly intrigued by her experience in private practice. I had always assumed that I wanted to work for an institution, but when she discussed how she was able to really work on a painting from start to finish — from researching the art history of a piece, to the conservation aspects, to communicating with the art insurers, it sounded really appealing. I really took away so many things from this course. If you are in the Midwest and have access to the Campbell Center, particularly if you’re pre-program, I highly recommend it! It’s a very warm and welcoming atmosphere that makes your whole time there so enjoyable. If you have any more questions about my experience, please feel free to contact me.

How Women Can Close the Gender Gap in Wikipedia by Documenting Artworks

My latest blog post from the IMA website is re-posted below!

As someone who did not catch royal wedding fever last year, I was still shocked to learn that a Wikipedia article about Kate Middleton’s wedding dress was flagged for deletion. As Slate.com author Torie Bosch explains in her story, an entry about the significance of Middleton’s wedding dress was deemed inappropriate by many Wikipedia users. Some believed that “this is frankly trivial, and surely isn’t notable enough to be on Wikipedia,” while others complained that this was “exactly the sort of thing that made me all but quit as an active user on this project.”

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Replica of Kate Middleton’s Royal Dress. Image by Milly Bridal Studio for MyWeddingDressForLess.co.uk [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Bosch argues that the uproar around this Wikipedia entry exemplifies the gender gap of Wikipedia users. And of course, Middleton’s wedding dress is a valid Wikipedia article — she is increasingly becoming an important fashion icon and her dress is adding to the history of fashion. According to a Wikimedia survey from 2011, only 9 percent of Wikipedia editors are female– 9 percent!

That’s an astonishing low number. Wikipedia states that they would like to increase the percentage of female editors to 25 percent. A leader in this effort and the current Wikimedia Foundation Community Fellow, Sarah Stierch, has organized a couple of “Wikipedia edit-a-thons” where women get together and create new articles about women in history using Smithsonian records.

As I read this article, I tried to think about my relationship with Wikipedia. I have never created or edited an article, yet I use Wikipedia daily. It never occurs to me to add to this great body of knowledge. As a member of the minority on Wikipedia, I feel like it is important to get involved in this process.

Now, let me try to bring this around to art conservation and the museum profession in general.

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WikiProject Public Art. Logo designed by Michael Mikulay.

Though it’s documented that women do not contribute to Wikipedia, it’s hard to know how many female art conservators are contributing – I’m guessing maybe one or two, if any. Anecdotally, I know that most art conservators are female, and that the membership of American Institute for Conservation (AIC) is greater than 3,000 so this seems like a good base to look to for contributors.

I should also point out that AIC created its own wiki site that has some good information in it, but the information in there is not easily found by search engines.

While the AIC Wiki could be useful, I’d like to suggest that art conservators start adding their knowledge directly to Wikipedia. I think we’ll all agree that it is much more reliable than it used to be.  Imagine if as a profession we added our knowledge to Wikipedia, how much we could help improve the readily-available information about caring for collections (and we’d be making a significant dent in the gender gap along the way)!

For a profession that is as relatively obscure as ours, and one dedicated to preserving our cultural heritage, it’s important to make our knowledge as accessible as possible, and a crucial way of accomplishing this is to contribute to Wikipedia articles on conservation.

One way to do this is to start documenting discreet collections of artworks by individual artists.  For example, what if we had Wikipedia articles about every Van Gogh ever painted, that included correct information about all of the pigments he used, and the different kinds of canvases or supports he painted.  That would be useful and interesting for conservators and art lovers alike.  Or, we could do all of the pieces by Judy Chicago, or Louise Bourgeois.

INCCA-NA has taken this idea and started the Artist Research Project.  Their first artist is Tony Smith, whose 100th birthday is in September of this year. Smith is well-known for creating large-scale outdoor sculptures around the world.  This project was recently mentioned in the New York Times “Arts Beat”.

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Amaryllis by Tony Smith. Picture by Michael Hicks from Saint Paul, MN, USA [CC-BY-2.0]

To participate in this project, follow these seven easy steps:

  1. Find the Tony Smith sculpture closest to you.
  2. Research it.
  3. Document it by creating a Wikipedia article about your artwork.
  4. Take pictures of it.
  5. Upload those pictures to Flickr.
  6. Add those pictures to the Tony Smith Flickr group.
  7. Tell people what you did!

For more detailed information about the project, follow this link.

I see this as a kind of first effort, almost an experiment, to see if conservators and others that care about artwork can work together to create knowledge about a discreet collection.  In the end, I think the sum of knowledge could be incredibly useful for conservators. It would be beneficial to know all of the paint systems he used, the exhibition history of the artworks, and images of what the pieces look like right now.

By contributing to Wikipedia articles on conservation, we can address both these issues at once: we can help bring attention to our discipline by coming to information seekers rather than requiring them to come to us, and, as a profession made up primarily of women (male conservators are welcome, too, of course!), we can help to address the gender gap on Wikipedia.

Propane Tank and Blow Torch and Wax, Oh My!

This summer, I have been interning with Richard McCoy in the Objects and Variable Arts Lab at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Check out my latest blog post on the IMA blog (re-posted below) about waxing bronzes with fellow intern Katie Roth.

IMA conservation interns Anisha Gupta and Katie Roth

It’s been a record-setting summer, but not hot enough to stop me and fellow objects conservation intern Katie Roth from braving the heat to conserve several sculptures on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Our most challenging project has been Isidore Konti’s fountain, Nymph and Fawn. The fountain is placed at the top of the ravine garden on the historic Oldfields estate. It’s also surrounded by prickly and somewhat poisonous foliage (like poison ivy!). To start the project, Katie and I made our way with IMA conservator, Richard McCoy, out to the pond and formulated a game plan.

Nymph and Fawn by Isidore Konti (1917)

This treatment project was to re-apply a wax coating to the surface of the sculpture with the goal to prevent further deterioration of the bronze and maintain its historic appearance.
First things first, we washed the sculpture with Orvus soap and water to remove all the dirt and grime that builds up from the sculpture being outdoors. Nymph and Fawn was covered in cobwebs, bird guano, and plant debris.

Nymph and Fawn covered in cobwebs.

After sufficiently scrubbing and bathing the duo, we pulled out the propane tank, blowtorch, and wax that was specially made at the IMA for outdoor bronzes.  Then we set up our propane tank, hooked up the blowtorch, and started heating up the surface. The goal is to heat up the sculpture so that it reaches the melting point of wax. You know the surface is hot enough when it looks wet — this is because the heat is pulling out the moisture from within the sculpture and bringing it to the surface. The wax is then rubbed on the surface and begins to melt like butter. Once enough wax has been applied to an area, a brush is used to evenly coat the surface. Katie had a penchant for the torch, and I was more than happy to hand over the heat while I waxed and brushed.

Katie washing the sculpture.

We found a nice rhythm, heating and waxing until we had completed three-fourths of the sculpture: both of the sides and the back. Now, the trick was to find a way to wax the front–the side facing the pond. Because Nymph and Fawn is placed so close to the edge of the water, the front isn’t easily accessible from the shore. After some careful consideration, we determined that to wax this side we’d need to get in the pond. After putting a stick in the water to determine its depth, we found that neither of us was tall enough to stand in the pond (particularly not me, at a mere five feet and two and a half inches!). To solve this problem, we placed our stepladder in the water, then climbed out onto the ladder from the edge of the pond (with the propane torch!) to heat and wax from that angle. Luckily, it worked! And though we each very sustained minor burns, no one fell into the pond — though I don’t think we would have minded cooling off a bit.

Anisha heating up the bronze with a blowtorch.

The next day, we came back to apply a cold paste wax, Trewax, using a brush. Cold wax is applied as a barrier between the sculpture and moisture in the air.

Finally, the following day, the whole surface was buffed to a shine using damp cloths. This ensured that the wax was fully absorbed into the bronze and evenly coated the surface.

After a few days of hard work, Nymph and Fawn gleamed in the sunlight. I’ve noticed in my time at the IMA that many aspiring artists like to sit near the pond and paint or sketch the pair — we’re happy to have cleaned them up for everyone to enjoy.

The finished product!

If you’re interested in learning more about the conservation of bronzes, check out the blog post by former IMA interns Jessica Ford and Katherine Langdon about their work cleaning the bronze Sewall torches at Herron High School.

For more information on the conservation and maintenance of outdoor bronze sculptures, check out the following resources:

Caring for Outdoor Bronze Plaques, Part II: Cleaning and Waxing (whole title links to http://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/10-05.pdf)

Considine, Brian B. Conserving Outdoor Sculpture: The Stark Collection at the Getty Center. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010. Print.

Naudé, Virginia Norton. Sculptural Monuments in an Outdoor Environment: A Conference Held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, November 2, 1983. Philadelphia, PA: Academy, 1985. Print.

Naudé, Virginia Norton, and Glenn Wharton. Guide to the Maintenance of Outdoor Sculpture. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1993. Print.

Conservation in the News

As a recent graduate, I have been thinking a lot about my future in the field of art conservation. Any career in the arts and museums is tough, but it is particularly difficult when the general public does not know that your field exists. I love telling people about conservation because they are usually so fascinated by it and want to learn more. In my experience, there is a genuine interest in the field and people seem to understand the importance of conservation (once they know what it is!).

Damage on the Picasso from the Menil Collection

It has been particularly intriguing to see how conservation is covered in the news. A month ago, the New York Times wrote an article about a conservator at Brown University who found a piece of paper signed by Paul Revere. This article, though creating a romanticized notion of conservation, nonetheless brought attention to the field. (If you’re interested, the UIUC Rare Book and Manuscript Director wrote a response to this article.) The New York Times has also recently published two conservation-related articles on its front page (see here and here), as well as the Wall Street Journal (see here and here).

This brings me to the most recent scandal from the art world: the vandalism of the Picasso in the Menil Collection in Houston. A museum patron catches a man defacing a Picasso, using a stencil to spray-paint an image of a bull and the word “Conquista”. There were two particularly appalling things about this video: the suspect claims to be doing this to “honor Picasso’s work” and the “stunned” man who filmed this thought it was “pretty cool” that someone vandalized a painting. I don’t think Picasso would feel honored, nor would he think it was cool.

What I did like, though, was that the museum was able to take the painting down the hall to the conservation department so that it could immediately be treated. I am not in favor of defacing works of art to draw attention to our work, but I think it is important for conservators to take this opportunity and show the public exactly what we do.

Luckily, since the painting was immediately taken to the lab, spray paint removal should not be too difficult. The first thing to do would be test the spray paint and determine the chemical composition. Then the conservator can decide which solvents would best remove the chemicals. The spray paint has not had time to sit and become ingrained into the paint layer, and I’m sure the conservator has seen much worse!

I feel like I see conservation in the media more and more (I recently saw a crime show where the perpetrators stole an obscene number of van Gogh’s from an art conservation firm and stored them in horrible, non-archival tubing. I could just see the paint flaking off!). While it’s very encouraging to see conservation in the media, it is not enough to simply be mentioned now and again. I think the theme of the latest AIC conference, outreach, speaks to that. Every conservator I have met is extremely passionate about their work, and I know that as we continue to educate the public about the importance of our work, the public will begin to share our passion for–and our insistence on the importance of–conservation.

Conservation work on Jefferson’s Bible

Though I was not able to attend the AIC Annual Conference in Albuquerque this year (due to final exams!), I have been so pleased to be able to peruse the AIC website and read about all of the presentations. One that caught my eye was conservation work performed on Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Bible. Janice Stagnitto Ellis, Senior Paper Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History, along with Emily S. Rainwater, Post Graduate Fellow at NMAH and Laura A. Bedford, Assistant Book Conservator at NEDCC, worked on this 200-year Bible.

The Bible, entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English”, has the most fascinating history, which is summed up quite well in an article in the University of Virginia Magazine. Jefferson was raised to be quite religious but questioned some aspects of Christianity as he grew older. He did not believe in miracles but was a devout follower of Jesus Christ. In 1804, he decided to create his own Bible by cutting out all references to miracles in the New Testament and pasting them together He then took these 84 pages to Frederick Mayo, a bookbinder in Richmond. The compilation is known today as Jefferson’s Bible.

The Bible went to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History to be conserved in 2011. The conservation work is, I am so happy to say, detailed on a site dedicated to the Bible, as well as in a three minute video.

What an exciting project! I particularly loved learning about the organic and inorganic analyses. I’m so sad I missed this presentation but the conservators really put a lot of time and effort into giving the public as much access as possible to the work, through the website and video. Given this year’s AIC conference theme, outreach, hopefully we will see more and more institutions doing the same thing.

Chicago-Area Lab Tours

Living about two and a half hours away from Chicago, it’s sad how rarely I go to the city! A couple weeks ago, though, I had the opportunity to go to Chicago with some of the lovely ladies of the Oak Street Conservation Facility. We were on the road bright and early with only one thing on our mind: conservation!  I was so excited to spend the whole day touring one conservation lab after another.

Our day started at Northwestern Library’s Conservation Department. I had never been to Northwestern before and the campus was truly idyllic; it felt like a magical forest, a bit foggy with lots of trees and little paths. We made our way to the basement (of course!) to the lab. Tonia Grafakos, the head of the lab, gave us a tour. It was surprising to learn about the differences between Oak St. and Northwestern — for one, their collection of backlogged books that need repair is much smaller than Oak St.’s! We had the opportunity to see their neat collection of international Obama memorabilia, which ranged from paintings in barber shops to lollipop sticks to gum wrappers. The conservation department always gets to work with the most interesting and strange things!

Given our long drive up to Chicago, it was already time for lunch! We stopped at a cute place called Tapas Barcelona, right down the street from Northwestern. They really had great tapas, especially if you love goat cheese like me!

The next stop was the Art Institute of Chicago. We had the opportunity of touring the prints and drawings and book labs. As expected, the labs were beautiful. I couldn’t get over how much counter space there was. We looked at all sorts of projects, one which included piecing together a five foot print that had been cut into 56 individual pieces. It was incredible to see how the conservator, Kim Nichols, put it all together, carefully studying the pieces and how the artist worked. It has taken her four years and she’s almost done!

University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library

Our third lab was the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library. If you haven’t already, check out some pictures of this gorgeous library! Airy and spacious is an understatement. This lab was pretty different from the ones we had toured earlier, especially given its environment. Ann Lindsey, the head of the lab, gave us a tour of the space and details about the decisions she made in designing the lab. This was really useful in learning more about the equipment and which aspects of the lab are used for different types of projects. We also had the opportunity to see the automated storage and retrieval system, which is located underground. The materials stored in this area are actually controlled by robots — the materials are placed in metal trays; when a patron requests an item, the robot brings the whole tray up to the library desk, at this point a library employee finds the item from the tray. It was really neat to see this huge space totally run by robots — crazy! It also made me thankful to think that a robot could (most likely) never take over my job as a conservator — hopefully the work is too detailed and involved for any robot.

Automated storage and retrieval system

Our last stop of the day was at an open house for the Graphic Conservation Company. This was a great opportunity to see how a private conservation firm works. I was surprised at how big it was — a big open room with plenty of long tables. Against the wall there were board shears, presses, and other equipment. One of the big projects at Graphic was the 13th Amendment, which took six months to conserve. You can read more about the project in this Chicago Tribune article.

After a very long day, we headed down to the U of I. After seeing so many different types of labs, I felt even more confident that I wanted to go into conservation. Having spent many months looking for a job/internship, I was starting to get discouraged that it would be too hard to break into the field. Meeting so many great conservators across the field and learning about their work was refreshing. It gave me more perspective — there are plenty of labs out there with lots of work, I just need to be patient!

Disaster Response Workshop

A couple months ago I attended a disaster response workshop for cultural institutions, particularly libraries and museums, sponsored by the U of I’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Though I’ve been introduced to disaster response before, it was nice to get a more formal background. The workshop lasted three hours but the speaker gave us many links so we can learn more online.The first part of the workshop was a lecture where we learned about how to prepare for a disaster and then deal with the disaster as it is occurring. The second part of the workshop was a tabletop exercise where we split into groups and discussed how we would deal with a particular scenario.

Here are some takeaways from the workshop:

  • Before the disaster
    • Mitigation
      • keep a log of places that disasters have occurred: when and why.
      • work with the facilities department to maintain good practices
      • identify potential threats
    • Preparedness: Top 10 Things to Do Before a Disaster Strikes:
      1. Prepare a disaster/emergency plan that covers people and collections
      2. Survey your building for risks
      3. Have a communication plan (i.e. phone tree, email)
      4. Prepare a first response action list that includes your emergency response team
      5. Organize emergency contact information for all staff (including volunteers and interns)
      6. Establish salvage priorities
      7. Create collections disaster supply kits
      8. Understand your insurance coverage and funding options
      9. Establish collaborative relationships (like at other institutions)
      10. Train staff in response and recovery
    • For  more information, you can find a disaster preparation and prevention checklist here.
  • During the disaster
    • Life safety — make sure all humans are safe!
    • Incident stabilization
    • Property preservation (i.e. collections salvage)
    • Recovery
      • Returning facilities and services to normal
      • Conduct an assessment
      • Stabilize the environment
        • stop water at source
        • lower temperature and humidity
        • mop up or pump out standing water
        • maintain security
      • Emotional response
        • be kind
        • take breaks
        • be aware of changes in behavior
        • talk it out — debrief after an event

One of the interesting things in this workshop was to listen to other peoples’ experiences with disasters. When I worked at the Spurlock Museum, a small cultural heritage  museum at the U of I, I found a huge pest infestation in a large cabinet of baskets. We immediately started bagging all the baskets in the area and had to do a thorough investigation of where the pests came from and how long they had been feasting. If you have a disaster story, please share!

For more information about this workshop, please visit this link! If you have more online disaster resources you would like to share, please post a comment below.

Welcome!

Hello and welcome to Notes from the Bench! In this blog, I hope to share my experiences in the field of art conservation. Since I discovered the field four years ago, I have immersed myself in learning more about it by taking lab tours, attending lectures, and doing internships. I would like to document these experiences and share them with others who might be interested.

Thank you for visiting!