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The Butcher, The Baker, The Badass

April 20, 2014

Laura Fieselmans Man & Hog follows a day in the life of Ross Andrew Flynn at the Eddy Pub in the heart of the foothills in North Carolina. Photographs by Aaron Canipe.

Ross Andrew Flynn is a butcher and a baker and a badass. He scores baguettes with an odd number of slashes “like the French.” He knows that pigs are either black or white and enough about golfing to distract the health inspector. He hosts couch surfers and crafts them pasta from scratch. He sports a Royals ball cap and a three-week beard. He travels to Texas to butcher the spoils of an annual wild boar hunt but is “not much of a hunter” and doesn’t “know anything about guns.” His only worldly want is a vacuum packing machine. He has a dog named Red Eye Gravy; a woman named Eliza is his heroine. He detests that we in America “got rid of the role of butcher because we didn’t see value in it,” and insists that we must bring it back. He hacksaws through skulls.

It’s 6:55 a.m. on a North Carolina Wednesday in November. The full moon hangs just above the tree line in rural Orange County. Ross Andrew Flynn can’t find his glove. The kitchen staff always loses his glove. “Any time anyone sees it, they just throw it somewhere in a fit of disgust”, he says. He pauses in front of the knife rack, studying, and then pulls five for the morning: two shorter boning knives (five and seven inches), a longer curved blade, a cleaver and an enormous blade that resembles a machete, though machete is surely the incorrect culinary term. He sharpens the knives on a whetstone with a certain air of meditation and gentleness. He clears a stainless steel work surface and preps it with a cutting board and several dishtowels. He ties on a fresh white apron. The day is underway at the critically acclaimed Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. Saxapahaw is a rural Piedmont community, where the Haw River runs by unexpectedly upscale lofts, artist studios, and the Saxapahaw General Store: “your local five star gas station.” Ross Andrew Flynn is the pub’s part-time butcher, has previously served in the roles of baker and bartender, and is a part-time farmhand for nearby Cane Creek Farm.

For Ross Andrew Flynn, all of this began as a fascination with small-scale farming. He graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and what sustainability-minded twenty-something isn’t dreaming about eschewing a professional career to tend fields of heirloom vegetables as he graduates? The magnetism of the growing do-it-yourself culture among young people proved irresistible. As legendary book editor Daniel Halpern puts it, “The passion my generation felt about poetry and fiction has gone into food, I think, into making pickles or chocolate or beer.” It’s certainly true for Ross Andrew Flynn, who leaves a trail of home-smoked pork belly and charcuterie experiments in his wake.

It’s 7:04 a.m. “You wanna help me with this pig?” Help is an understated verb. “Watch out for the toenails,” hollers Jeremy, the baker, as we duck into the walk-in cooler. “They’re sharp!” he warns. Resting on a rolling cart in the center of the refrigerated room is an entire hog split down the center by the local meat processor. It’s already drained of blood and has hung for a week. I shy away from the back hoof, the hairy leg skin, and pointy nails giving me pause – indeed, they are sharp. But Ross Andrew Flynn grabs the front foot and we go for it. We shuffle across the kitchen with the first half, which weighs in at 90 pounds, and heave it onto the prepared workspace.

While he works, he tells me about his work with Cane Creek Farm, Ossabaw Island Hogs, and Eliza MacClean, the farmer behind the operation in the heart of Alamance County. His time on the farm is an ongoing endeavor that precedes his time at The Eddy and strongly shapes his budding butchery practice. The Ossabaw Island Hog, a descendant of the Iberian hogs left by Spanish settlers off the coast of Georgia in the 1500s, is their featured product. A self-proclaimed Noah’s Ark of other species – including a variety of heirloom chickens, Saxony Ducks, Katahdin Sheep, Nigerian Dwarf Goats, and miniature donkeys – joins the Gloucestershire Old Spots, Farmer’s Hybrids, and Cane Creek’s very own Crossabaw breed.

Eliza boasts a degree in Environmental Toxicology from Duke University and is the mother of twelve-year old twins. She is an idol to Ross Andrew Flynn. Her farm is a shining example of crop and animal rotation where the animals have free range to graze, root, and wallow. The sows dig nests to give birth and raise their piglets. The result, writes Peter Kaminsky for the New York Times, is meat that delivers “waves of exquisite porkitude.” Ross Andrew Flynn’s first jobs on the farm were those of every beginner farmhand and immersed him in covering strawberry beds, washing leeks, and feeding animals. He drove trucks, cleaned freezers, and built fences.

It’s 7:11 a.m. Flynn begins the process of transforming pig to pork. Step one is to pull out the umbilical cord – the only aspect of the process that makes him squirm. He uses a plastic baggie as protection from the little tube that runs the length of the spine and tosses the disembodied cord aside. Step two is to divide the half pig into thirds: shoulder, loin, and ham. He pulls a fine-toothed hacksaw and a machete from under the workstation. Saw, slice. Slice, saw. “Never use the saw on muscle and never use the knife on bone,” he explains as he maneuvers back and forth between the tools. He transfers a tub of fist-sized hunks of fat from last week’s sow into a giant cauldron on the range to render as lard while he works. He stops sawing for a moment to stir the light pink cubes. They steam as they come to temperature, and the whole affair smells foul. Back at the pig, he separates the shoulder from loin between the third and fourth ribs despite the industry standard of cutting between the fourth and fifth ribs. He has the restaurant’s menu in mind, conscious that his cut will give an additional pork chop.

Ross Andrew Flynn approaches butchering as a near sacred act. Jennifer McLagan’s Odd Bits is his Bible. His fascination with the cookbook was born when he witnessed, week after week, the lesser-known cuts of meat and tubs of lard from Cane Creek go unsold and lose value in the freezer. He began taking these remains home, poring over McLagan’s text for inspiration. “Headcheese for the Unconvinced” was an early experiment. Shortly, terrine appetizers and pork belly main courses became the norm in his home kitchen; his shared house of dudes was unaware of their fabulous fortune in roommate choice.

His working relationship with this restaurant began at the bar when Ross Andrew Flynn needed a second job to pay the bills that farming couldn’t. He didn’t mind the mixing and pouring aspects of bartending, but the late hours cramped his early-morning farming style. Something had to change. One night, he and Jeff Barney, part owner and then-head chef at The Eddy, were drinking together at the bar. Three-quarters drunk, he butted in on a conversation Jeff was having with the head baker about replacing someone on the baking team: “Jeff. I hate bartending. Can I bake? I can bake.” Thus, he began his baking career.

Jeremy is the head baker: tall, lithe, and an ex-administrative assistant at UNC. For two years, Ross Andrew Flynn was his trusty sidekick, both on site by 5:00 a.m. They made sourdoughs, baguettes, sweet rolls, kitchen loaves, café loaves, brownies, doughnuts and eight dollars an hour. Theirs is a five-deck oven with a re-purposed squirt bottle as a steam injector. Dough proofs in racks of bus tubs while finished French loaves stack against the wall. Flynn insists that the rye rolls are their finest product. The operation is barebones; the smell was so compelling, I inhaled the mini-baguette Jeremy gave me in the parking lot, unable to restrain myself long enough to get home to butter and jam.

Two years as a baker offered intimate access to the kitchen and to the trials and tribulations of the restaurant’s underbelly. Ross Andrew Flynn cultivated a deep understanding of the disconnect between farmer and chef. His experience raising and delivering animals for Cane Creek, his time in the professional kitchen, experimentation with Odd Bits at home, and deep frustration with the processor positioned him for his next big thing. Enter Ross Andrew Flynn: the butcher. “Jeff,” he said one morning in the kitchen, “I know that I can’t do it perfectly, but I think I can do better with the hogs.” He proposed a win-win-win solution. Cane Creek wins because they pay the processor only to kill, hang, and minimally process the hogs instead of full butchering into restaurant-quality cuts. The Eddy wins because they get a less expensive animal and higher quality cuts. Ross wins because he moves from baker to butcher at nine dollars per hour and a shift that begins at 6:30 a.m. Perfect.

It’s 7:29 a.m. Isaiah Allen saunters in, full knife set tucked under his massive bicep. Isaiah – then a chef at the Hotel Sienna’s Il Palio and now head chef at The Eddy – is present this morning to swap butchering techniques with Ross Andrew Flynn, because his restaurant has begun purchasing whole animals from Cane Creek and breaking them down in house. Self-taught, home-grown Ross Andrew Flynn is trading tips with a AAA Four Diamond restaurant – the one at the hotel where Michael Jordan stays when he is town and where a yellowfin tuno crudo antipasti goes for $17.00. He’s a total badass.

It’s 8:00 a.m. Flynn sets the ham aside. “I’ll smoke that ham later. Margins on sandwiches are pretty good.” Ross Andrew Flynn knows that he can stretch this particular cut across many plates by making it delicious on the grill and then slicing it into sandwich meat, turning the profit The Eddy needs to keep afloat in a small town like Saxapahaw. Next the skin comes off the loin in 2-inch strips, a small pile mounding on the edge of his workspace. Thus far, this little pile of skin is the only thing he intends to discard. He’s for real about using the whole animal. He and Isaiah trade ideas on chicharrón, fried pork skins. They swap stories about the local meat processor, both of them disgruntled about the poor quality that comes from asking one entity to both kill and butcher animals: “there used to be processors and there used to be butchers,” Flynn says, “and then we asked the same person to do both things. And the quality is not the same.” A sloppy cut along the backbone fuels their frustration, and one of the men relays the urban legend they both know about the farmer who delivered four cows to the processor and went back to fetch the meat a week later only to find the cattle in the exact same pen in the processing yard where he left them, totally unfed for seven days.

“There’s a bottleneck,” Ross Andrew Flynn explains, “There’s no great way of getting meat directly to the consumer,” but the reality is that “we’re lucky to have a processor so close, because the truth of the matter is that many processors have gone out of business.” Processors are going out of business in part because they are limited by a slew of US government regulations which mandate that animals the size of this hog be killed in USDA-certified facilities. Their hands are tied in an attempt to both meet demand and produce a quality product. Both men are disappointed by the cuts that come from their processor, but “no processor does a particularly great job,” says Flynn. “We’ve asked those processors to do a whole lot of things, and if we had butcher shops, the butchers could focus on quality cutting.” His eagerness to be part of the solution to this problem is tangible as he saws through the rib cage, his left arm under the loin to give him control over the cut, all of it somehow reminiscent of a massage therapist making a neck adjustment. Ross Andrew Flynn really is a butcher.

It’s 8:35 a.m. Tenderloin, New York strip, porterhouse, chops, rib eye – Ross Andrew Flynn knows his hogs, explaining to me where and how to slice to get just the cut I might want. “This is a super lean pig,” he says in an on-going commentary about how he must butcher the animal differently for the restaurant than he would for himself, “I would love to leave the skin on.” His earnestness about the ways that I might achieve my own New York strip and Porterhouse cuts somehow imply that I, too, have a 180-pound $550 pig in my cooler and will be slicing it up myself tomorrow with the choice to leave the skin on or off. He saves trimmings for sausage and the fly leaf lard to render for the bakers. The spinal column ooze doesn’t faze him. The spare ribs and belly are his two favourite cuts. “She’s a Yorkshire mix. We’ve been trying to breed a leaner pig.” He admires their handiwork as he cuts. The fresh white apron now features pink polka dots.

It’s 9:12 a.m. He makes the cut for osso bucco and sets the neck bones on a roasting tray for stock. Suzanne Nelson, the woman behind Cozi Farm and supplier of chickens and produce, walks in to pick up the compost. “Suzanne, have you seen my glove?” hollers Ross Andrew Flynn. She says she took it home to launder, and will be right back with it and some slaughtered-this-morning chickens. Flynn darts over to pull the sourdough out of the oven while baker Jeremy has stepped out for a minute and pauses to stir the rendering lard en route back to his pig. We talk lard. The restaurant cooks and bakes with it – often “rather than messing with unknown seed oils” – as part of their use-the-whole-animal philosophy. Ross leaves them with several gallons each week. The completely rendered pork bits are floating on top of the vat, now tantalizing us with the aroma of bacon. “The Italians salt those rendered bits and press them into a thin cake.” Rillette is another must try: lard simmered with herbs and then whipped when cool with more herbs, packed in crocks and covered in fat.

As he fusses with the vat of lard, Isaiah and Ross Andrew Flynn exchange professional dreams. Isaiah wants to run a rural organic farm with a pecan-lined driveway, a professional kitchen on site, customers who spend big money to have a farm-to-table experience guided by a chef, and $500,000 to realize the dream. “I’ve got $10,000 in the bank,” he beams. “Speaking of half million dollar plans,” pipes in Ross Andrew Flynn, “we’ve all got ‘em.” He dreams about black pigs. “Ninety-nine percent of the pigs we know here in the US are white. I want to do black.” He’s talking about the Iberian hog, a black pig with spindly legs once raised throughout Europe for its dark, fatty meat. In this dream, the hogs would be finished on acorns and nuts, as they were in the old world. The closest thing in America today are North Carolina hams finished on the remains of the peanut harvest. Ross Andrew Flynn would butcher his black pigs and prepare European-style charcuterie, giving everything generous time to age. “I’m talking about a product that doesn’t exist in the U.S. right now.” His eyes sparkle.

It’s 9:29 a.m. He ducks into the walk-in cooler and walks out with a pig head in a plastic bag, nose and ears and eyeballs and glassy stare and all. He pauses to discuss barbeque needs with Jeff and they agree on a plan for the week. The head comes out of the bag. The bullet hole from the processor goes through the left-side of the forehead. He wants the brains. “Isaiah, man, can you help me?” Isaiah grabs the left ear and presses down the snout. Ross takes up the right ear and his hacksaw. He talks about brine and headcheese and “Cheese & Just a Little Brain Fritters,” his favourite Odd Bits recipe. “Frying,” claims the book, “and the addition of cheese often helps persuade people to try something they think they don’t like.” The sawing begins; he’s working through the skull. Little bits of cranium sawdust fly. They wrestle with the head; this is no small task. All conversation stops, the sheen of a slight sweat materializes on both of them. The saw comes down through the snout, back and forth between the nasal cavities. It’s all a bit much. He turns his body to shield something. I peek. He’s teasing bloody brains from the center of the head. Ross Andrew Flynn is a total badass. He rinses the brains in several flushes of fresh water. The front-of-the-house manager passes through. “They always come in while I’m doing the grossest stuff,” he giggles. The two halves of the head go into a pig-head-sized stockpot to soak. The right eyeball floats near the surface, watching. My field notes from this moment read, in a rather shaky hand, “I lose it as he hacksaws through the snout.”

The problem with black pigs is they take fifteen months to mature, while white pigs are ready for slaughter in eight to nine months. In a culture where time is money, this minor detail looms between Ross Andrew Flynn and his charcuterie dream. Nonetheless, preparations are underway. He’s pleaded with Eliza MacClean for Cane Creek to raise the hogs and he is confident she will if he secures a market – it’s the only thing for a true heroine to do. He is in conversation with the owners of The Eddy and Saxaphaw’s General Store about financing. He’s eyeing a space in the town’s miniature row of storefronts – a currently derelict space flanked by the two aforementioned establishments. He’s clear about the vision: a separate butchery that crafts and markets the highest-quality products on site and sells otherwise unsold inventory to the restaurant and café to be plated as specials. He’s talking with investors and architects and combing online butcher forums for lessons learned and potential employees. Ross Andrew Flynn is realizing his dream.

It’s 9:45 a.m. The vat of lard is rendered. The skull is soaking. The cuts are cooling. The four piles of trimmings on the worktable – skin, fat, bones, and meat scraps – disappear into storage containers to be utilized later. Tomorrow Ross will craft his signature charcuterie items for the restaurant’s menu. Three hours ago half a pig lay on this table and it is now in pieces across the kitchen becoming dinner as we speak. He darts over to the café, still in his apron. He returns with a steaming cup of fair-trade blend and perches on a clean table in the corner, resting for a moment before he embarks upon the second half of the hog. Ross Andrew Flynn is a butcher.

 

 


CHEESE AND JUST A LITTLE BRAIN FRITTERS

from Jennifer McLagan’s Odd Bits

The recipe is very straightforward. Just make sure the cheeses are very finely grated; a microplane is the ideal tool.

3 eggs
½ cup/¾ oz/25 g very finely grated Gruyere, packed
¼ cup/⅓ oz/10 g very finely grated Parmesan, packed
2 Tbl finely chopped chives
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
½ tsp fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 sets poached pig’s brains
1 Tbl cornstarch
1 cup/7 oz/200 g lard

Preheat the oven to 200°F/100°C. Place a baking sheet lined with paper towels in the oven.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs, then slowly whisk in both the cheeses and the chives, orange zest, and salt, and season with pepper.

Slice each brain lobe into ½ -inch/1-cm slices and toss them in the cornstarch to coat. Transfer them to the batter and stir to mix; you will have something resembling a lumpy pancake batter.

Melt the lard in a heavy frying pan over medium heat; you should have about ½-inch of fat. When hot, drop a little batter into the oil; it should sizzle and rise to the surface. Now add a few spoonfuls of brain batter mixture to the fat; don’t overcrowd the pan and adjust the heat so the fritters bubble gently. Cook the fritters about 3 minutes, or until set and golden on the underside. Using a slotted spoon, gently turn them over and cook for about another 3 minutes. As they finish cooking, transfer the fritters to the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Serve right away.

 


Laura Fieselman works and writes at the intersection of the farm and the kitchen. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and will embark upon the pork-belly-turned-bacon adventure of her daydreams any day now. 

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The Light We Cannot See

February 22, 2015

 

We have little time and a lot to do. Photographer Michaela OBrien unveils the invisible, tempting aura of a painful love.

Two hearts Aglow

I only see a little bit of you.
I only see a little bit of
myself. The rest I ignore.
Or the rest remains unseen.

The Beginning Ultraviolet Rays

Heat emanates from our bodies in a Boston parking lot. Lobster chowder at No Name, bells and busboys, spoon-feeding each other liquid, nervous laughs. Under the dim moon we trample seaweed, two black forms in the night. I’d only heard of you; I’d never seen you before. I expect to play in short waves, nicely, blindly. But we grow long, in our peaks and troughs, to fluoresce finally. In steady clicks we come down to narrow the aperture of our eyes, with a sharp focus on the whole plane.

Days and time were short and monitored for years before you met me. Everyone who had a say sent you away in high school, to the middle of the land, between coastal light and heat. In Minnesota you could only make fire with two pieces of wood, observed in a dark cave. They warned you of your shallow vision. With a field so unending, you’d focused on but one point. Over and over again you’d ingested too much of the physical world. You’d plunged too far to achieve one ecstatic point, while the rest dissolved off the sides. With force your biological pupils adjusted to allow all the incoming rays. Snow slowly transformed from a blinding white light to a matted, calming surface, textured and natural.

For me, reality was so small, a tiny hole and a single point in a light­-proof box. I felt very little, but knew a lot. Obedient to The Order of the Crown and the Cross. My sight became inside­-out and inverted, pinhole perfection, extremely sharp, but very dark. I realized: the smaller the hole, the sharper the gaze, the dimmer the image.

I’ve forgotten almost everything but I remember coming to while crying on the grass, vivid red on green and sparkling asphalt in the distance. Surrounded by holy gothic structures, it happened one crisp fall night at our nation’s top private Catholic college. I remember the stranger who happened upon me, our eyes touched, it was the best feeling I’d had in years. That was the last sight seen through that single small aperture I’d left exposed, for years, to no one. Then the sirens came closer and scooped me up.

You and I would find out later that, with blurry addicted, depressive vision, we’d sat in all types of similar chairs, plushy or leather, in rooms with yellow green walls, reserved. The chemical rays had left us overexposed and withering in an unseen light. Doctors put pills on our eyes to help us focus and compose even before the lids could lift. We accepted how little we knew and how little we could see.

 

The Middle Visible Light

Derek is a recovering heroin addict. Since the age of 15 he’s been in and out of rehab. He goes to a college for recovering addicts in Minneapolis. We started talking online after a friend of mine was in rehab and I stole his screen name from her. We chatted until days morphed into months. After a while he just wouldn’t leave me alone, but I didn’t want to talk anymore until I saw him in person. He’s visited Boston many times and is moving back to New Jersey to be closer to me. Now he’s my boyfriend. We’re getting new identities. I won’t leave him alone.

He has a checkered past, that’s all I can say. I don’t tell anyone any more than that. I love him. He’s my secret, my extremely handsome secret, who I parade the streets with, the highways, the beach, in miniskirts and leather jackets. We pretend we’ll never go back. We see each other all the time, almost every weekend. He’s been clean for three years. He reports back to me from the frontlines of his mind’s eye where for the first time he sees constellations. Among them he places me—seated and smiling—my heels taking turns tapping the moon. From now on it’s all steak and ice cream. He pays for dinner and I’ll do dessert.

In the winters I take the night bus to Chinatown, New York City. I think of the stories he told me: about when he lived below the George Washington Bridge, scrounging for food and other things; about when he overdosed in the bathroom of a friend’s house and died and came back to life; about when he dropped acid during rehab. I haven’t seen any of that. I see the strangely profound shapes the snowdrifts make along the highway and the sober winter landscape. I see the negative HIV tests. Maybe just being will help us recover ourselves. We have little time and a lot to do. I return on Mondays. He tosses me as high as the Empire State Building. Each time is one wavelength of pure spectral color, clear, present. Everything on the plane is in focus. Our gaze is wide. With pupils perfectly dilated, the image is precisely exposed.

He teaches me to pay attention to the narrow spectrum—to the tough ground and to the soft albatross clouds in the sky. It’s everything all the time. Don’t miss it. It’s for us. He comes to Boston every weekend in the summers and springs. The time in a weekend is so short that I’m nervous I’ll never really know him. But he always comes back and gives me more. When he’s with me he doesn’t need scheduled time to heal. We want to be here in the brave light of deep focus. With this framing everything is in focus, the foreground, the middle ground, the background all at once and all so beautifully that it appears a staged scene. It’s been so long since we saw the world straight and allowed ourselves to exist in the visible spectrum, touchable, relatable, at ease with life and what we can see. We forgot about what lies outside our eyes, the impenetrable nature of before and after our light.

The real world seems like an optical trick, a composite master shot of all of the world’s positives and negatives, either/or. Derek and I know that this visible light, for all its trauma and magnificence, is but a sliver in the spectrum. The transmission of six colors, for all their vicissitudes, is like a trend teetering out of fashion. We’ll get used to it. It won’t be new. Three years, together and sober. Our sight gets closer and closer, as each visit shortens. If the camera pulls back, the audience would see the excessive lighting we require to see one another.

 

The End Infrared Rays

The suffering of light caught us in a backyard one Bostonian June at Nana’s 85th birthday party. She sat in the shade under an umbrella beneath her big brimmed hat and Onassis glasses. Sipping on a gin and tonic, she twirled the straw and the ice smashed against the glass. I heard it over the music, over my cousin’s laughter, across the yard. Our eyes met.

He walked in late and slanted with a bouquet of wilted wild flowers from the grocery store. I had just learned to see again and there he stood, a transparent charcoal flame. He stood with a dense affect, an ethereal negative in a black long-­sleeved shirt against the highlights of the summer solstice. He wasn’t there. I really don’t think he was. Nana took the bouquet inside for a vase of water, out of the sun. She stayed inside, in her oversized rocking chair, back and forth. She knew about the suffering of light.

Claps and whistles, home movies and slides, ribbons and wrapping. All I could see was his cloud of smoke outside. Through the window it appeared overexposed with no separation in tones. I watched each puff rise. Then the smoke signals stopped and I saw his car drive away.

My uncle called me just after I left. The large glass jug of coins he kept in his bedroom—one thousand dollars worth—was missing. I found Derek parked in front of my apartment, arms crossed and sleeves rolled. Whimpering, I popped the trunk of his car and crawled around inside. “Tell me you didn’t take the money.” I found five needles. “Don’t touch those, just let me get my stuff and I’ll be gone.” I believed he’d be gone. I was shocked and horrified on the curbside. He drove off high. I’ve ignored his many creative attempts to contact me and continue to do so after many years. I don’t want to cross into the next spectrum after all the effort I’ve put into being in this visible light.

There is a light just beyond us where there is an abundance of supple energy. We can’t see it, but we can feel it. An aura tempting us. The images finally developed in a dark room. Where he was going, the light is like intuition, a perception. He had met an invisible intensity and tried to ignore it.

 


Michaela OBrien is a filmmaker and photographer from the Boston area currently studying in Dukes MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program.


 

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