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American Art

The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  R E M I N I S C E N C E S

bullet Preface
bullet Foreword
bullet Grandfather     Dictated by Ary
bullet The Village     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplement to the Village
bullet Vilna     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplemet to Vilna
bullet Coming to the United States     Dictated by Ary
bullet Back of the Store     Dictated by Ary
bullet Omaha     Dictated by Ary
bullet Ary in New York - 1919
bullet Ary in Paris
bullet Ary Comes Back to the United States
bullet Ary's Marriage
bullet Summer Cottage in Harmon
bullet The Studio on Fifty-Ninth Street
bullet We Return to Paris
bullet Cuernavaca-Houston
bullet Ary and Music
bullet Ary and the English Language
bullet Ary Stillman - Thoughts on Painting

The Studio On Fifty-Ninth Street (1942-1955)

I think I should begin this very important chapter in Ary's life and mine by quoting from two letters, which I received in response to the booklet sent out by the Foundation early in 1968.

Blue Accent

Blue Accent

Paul Burt, a New York lawyer and long-time friend of Ary's, wrote, in part:

"…the brochure of Ary's paintings. How marvelous they appeared even in the reflected view of photos of the original oils and how full of memories that I count among my most precious.... I saw once again that old brownstone building on 59th Street, the worn steps leading up three flights to a door, which opened on a studio warm with the spiritual and intellectual essence of a singular man and a singular woman with whom I was bound by ties of deepest affection. There on walls or hiding modestly in a corner were paintings, masks, curios of all kinds and a piece of two of tapestry. Then there of course was Ary ever ready to enter into warm talk on any theme and give a visiting friend the delicious warmth of his sweet sincerity. Of course, and let's never forget it, you would bustle in around five and make straight for that tiny kitchen to heat up a pot of tea....

"...I have come to understand that Ary was a powerful influence on me in developing my insight and mature judgment, such as I have, and that he showed me infinite patience to my brash youth and blatant opinions. He was in many ways my guide and mentor and so subtly that it was many years before I even came to know that he had showed me the way."

The second letter was from Oscar Weissbuch, a friend about Ary's age, an amateur painter who spent most of his free hours following the exhibitions in the galleries on 57th Street and there-abouts:

"...The Stillman-Lack Foundation — it's Ary's life and feelings — to help others. As I looked through the pages the pictures transported me back to the 59th Street Studio where I enjoyed such wonderful evenings… And then came the pleasant shock — the photo of Ary — what a pleasing likeness and that smile. The smile brought back memories of one particular evening when I asked Ary if he suddenly acquired one million dollars what's the first thing he would do. Frances, do you remember, he said, "I would buy 3 pairs of slacks." (But Oscar didn't remember quite accurately. I remember that evening myself, and Oscar's question. Ary's answer was "I'd buy a pair of slacks.")

So that was the essence of 59th Street. We had acquired the studio about six months after we were married. Before that time we had lived in Ary's tiny little bachelor studio a block further East, and had spent the summer in a storybook little house in Harmon, on the Hudson River. I had been opposed to renting the place at first, for the price frightened me — an increase of 100 percent, from $30 to $60 a month. But Ary was confident we could make it, and of course I gave in. It was a row of old brownstone buildings, studio apartments upstairs and the Plaza Auction Gallery, Caruso's Restaurant, a jewelry store and a cafeteria down below. Various painters lived in this row of houses — Mondrian had lived in one —at 15 E. 59th Street, I believe, and the story was that the lawyer who was his benefactor continued paying rent on the studio some months after Mondrian’s death, because Mondrian had made some paintings on the walls, and the lawyer couldn't bear to part with them. Boris Margo and his wife Jan occupied one of the studios for a time, and Theodore Brenson had the studio above us. He wasn't a very welcome neighbor because invariably the telephone would ring just as he had let the water run for a bath, and he would answer the phone and forget about the water until we would hear it drip down into our bathroom and we would have to go up and bang on his door.

Kingston, NY
Kingston, New York
oil on canvas
20 x 16
Foundation Collection, TX

The apartment consisted of a studio room, with north light — the room about 27-1/2 feet by 14 feet, a tiny little bedroom, large enough for only a single bed, a small kitchen, small bathroom and a narrow little corridor. We had practically no furniture to bring to it, but shortly after we moved in, when I came home in the evening, Ary announced that he had bought some furniture at the Plaza Auction — he wasn't quite sure just what it was, but they were good pieces, from a nice estate, and he had paid $50 for the lot. When the furniture arrived the following day it turned out to be two single beds with wonderful, almost new mattresses, a large bureau, a chiffonier, and a small desk, all in beautiful, heavy dark wood, and in excellent condition. Ary said I must have a very nice bedroom, a place that would be my very own and that I would enjoy, and he set out to make it so. One of the beds, the bureau, the little desk and a couple of chairs made up the furniture, and the little bedroom gradually was fitted up most elegantly — really luxuriously — all from the Plaza, of course. Ary would make it a point to go in there on rainy afternoons, when there wasn't much of a crowd, and he would make the most fantastic buys. They were all from collections or from estates of very wealthy people. My bedroom curtains were panels deeply covered with hand-made lace designs; the bedspread was taffeta of the finest quality; the glassed-in shelves on the wall were filled with ancient Chinese and Persian pieces. An early pencil drawing — a handsome nude — of Ary's was on one wall, and above my bed Ary's painting of a lonesome street in Kingston, New York (painted in 1941) with a bridge in the background, and a forlorn little figure of a man, with slouched hat, on the otherwise deserted street. This painting, reflected in my mirror, was the first thing that would meet my eyes when I opened them in the morning. Once Ary's brother Eli and his wife Elizabeth, on a visit to New York, wanted to buy this painting, and Ary agreed, but when he took it down to pack it I cried so at the thought of losing "My little Man" as I called it, that he wrote them and asked if he could send something else instead. He sent them an interior from the summer cottage in Harmon, which Emily Genauer had said in the World-Telegram reminded her of Bonnard, but she "liked it better than any Bonnard she had ever seen." Anyway, the "Little Man" was saved, and from that time on we never parted with him — he went to Europe with us in 1955, and later to Mexico and for our five years in Cuernavaca, and now he hangs on my bedroom wall in Houston.

On the door of my closet in the bedroom hung a Mandarin coat, which Ary had picked up for a few dollars at the Plaza, and which he thought "would be nice for me to slip on after my bath." But when I looked at the heavy silk garment magnificently embroidered with various designs, all of which Ary said had a traditional meaning, and when he further informed me that he believed it was several hundred years old, I couldn't see myself using it as a bathrobe.

In the studio itself Ary gradually built up a fantastic collection. There were Spanish tapestries on the wall, small Oriental rugs on the floor, Chinese and Persian bowls and vases and tiles. (And what linens we had — the finest damask and percale, the most exquisite luncheon cloths of Italian drawn work — all bought for a song, on rainy afternoons at the Plaza.)

In this studio, with its cherished surroundings, and with a companion who was thrilled to share his life, Ary was very happy. I was at work during the daytime and the place was his, to work, to dream — and then at the end of the afternoon he would look forward to my coming home. Usually he would meet me at the bus or the subway, then upstairs for a glass of wine and an hour to talk or rest, then dinner. We were terribly poor at first, and there was little money for entertainment. But Tuesday evening and Sunday afternoon there were movies at the Modern Museum — we would hurry dinner on Tuesday so as to get to the museum at 7:30; and after seeing the film we would stop in at Childs on 5th Avenue for cake or ice cream and coffee, and it was a wonderful evening indeed. Sunday afternoons before the movie we would have tea in the Museum's penthouse, then make a tour of the museum, to whatever exhibit was currently showing and also to the floors housing their regular collection. Saturday afternoons there were the galleries, of course, and there we would always meet many friends. Monday evenings in the early days we would go to Miss Francis' open house, at her gallery on East 57th Street. There were long walks — along Fifth Avenue in the evenings, weekends a hike across Washington Bridge or Brooklyn Bridge — an occasional visit to the Bronx Zoo — we would make a day of it, bringing our lunch, and getting drinks at one of the open air refreshment places. Several winters we went quite regularly to evening lectures at Cooper Union; later on when we weren't holding on quite so tightly to every penny there were poetry evenings at the Young Men's Hebrew Association, with poets such as Dylan Thomas, Truman Capote, Carl Sandburg, etc. reading their own poetry. And of course concerts — Ary would stand in line for tickets for Horowitz, Heifetz, Kreisler, Landowska, Serkin, Casadesus, Menuhin, Millstein, etc. to be listened to from the top balcony at Carnegie. And then, in later years, Sunday afternoon Friends of Music Series at Town Hall. Music was to Ary almost as important part of his life as painting. I can recall twice seeing Ary weep at beauty —once when a priest in Siena brought us into a private room to show us a gem of a Lorenzetti Madonna, and once when Wanda Landowska played a Mozart concerto in Carnegie Hall. We heard younger musicians quite a bit since Ary's niece Fredell Lack was studying at Juilliard and she and her friends such as Bobby Mann, Lee Hambro and others, also the Juilliard orchestra, made tremendously spirited and beautiful music.

Ary always had the radio going — the music stations — while he was working and he painted to the accompaniment of symphonies, concertos, chamber music or opera. Although he didn't know a note of music, he could recognize a composer after hearing him several times, from the structure and tonality of the composition. Art and music were closely intermingled for him; his painting was very rhythmic, and when people would look at one of his nonrepresentational paintings and say, "But I don't understand it," he would say that they shouldn't try to understand, they shouldn't think that he had a literary type of idea in painting —they should approach it as they listen to music. He was quick to appreciate contemporary composers such as Stravinsky, Shoenberg, Bartok, Prokofief, especially after he became so engrossed in working in abstract vein.

Arabesque #4
Arabesque #4
Foundation Collection, TX

Ary had a drawing board with a special lamp, and often, especially during the long winters, he would work late into the night at drawings. In 1953 he did a number of woodcuts, and these seemed to go especially well at night. He would go out after dark and look for pieces of wood that had been discarded on 59th Street, and choose some with a grain he fancied. It annoyed him to have to repeat himself in his work, so every woodcut reproduction was a bit different than the others, in respect to his use of color. And he would usually use his finger to press on the color, rather than a roller, as it gave a more intimate touch. Usually he made only 3 or 4 copies from any one design — the most was about 7 or 8. It was only a few months that he was occupied with this medium. He also made two lithograph stones, at the urging of Margaret Lowengrund, who had gotten together a group of seven artists — Ary, herself, Jon von Wicht, Hans Moller, Boris Margo, Sue Fuller, Will Barnet, to form a group. But he begrudged taking the time from his painting to do any kind of mechanical process, so he begged off, after the group had held a couple of exhibitions.

Ary's first exhibition after our marriage was in December 1942, at the Andre Seligmann Gallery, on 57th Street just off Fifth Avenue. Seligmann had seen one of Ary's paintings in a group show, and had asked Ary to join the group he was getting together. Others in the group were Jon Corbino, then at the height of his success, Frederick Taubes, Henry Botkin, Isabel Bishop, and others. It was a handsome gallery, and one of the nicest features about it was Seligmann's assistant, Faith Waterman, a beautiful, highly intelligent and overall lovely person, who has remained our close friend through all the years. Seligmann himself was suffering from a heart ailment and was a highly emotional individual, crushed by the German occupation of Paris, which had forced the Seligmann to give up the well-known Paris gallery which the father had founded. Ary was able to cheer him up and to lift him out of his despondency many times, but when the war ended Andre went back to Paris, and finding everything so changed, was more than ever despondent, and finally a heart attack caused his death. While it lasted a few short years, the Andre Seligmann Gallery had some outstanding group and one-man shows. Ary had a very good press from both his one-man show and various group shows.

When Andre Seligmann left New York Ary found himself high and dry. Mr. McIntyre and his assistant Hazel Lewis at the old and well-known Macbeth Gallery liked Ary's work and took several of his canvases to exhibit in group shows. One of them, "Fishing Village," shown at Macbeth in July 1945, was chosen by Carnegie Tech for its annual exhibit "Painting in the U.S. 1945" and the following year it was shown in Pepsi-Cola's "Paintings of the Year." Meantime however, Ary's painting had undergone a radical change.

This had been brewing ever since the early part of World War II. Ary was, of course, profoundly shaken by the war, by the enormity and brutality and hideousness of it, and especially by the tragic fate of six million European Jews. He was in an emotional upheaval that affected every phase of his being, and of course this included his creativity as an artist. I remember long walks we would take in Central Park on Sunday afternoons; we would wind up in some secluded spot and then Ary would give voice to his thoughts and feelings. He would say "I cannot continue to paint the way I have been doing. I am sure that every creative person will have to make some change. For me, the world of surface realities is no longer paintable. For nothing is as it formerly seemed. It is not the surface of things— the look of things — that is real — it is that which is hidden beneath the surface — an inner reality of some sort, that is real. And that is what I must search for. I can no longer set up a still-life, or paint the view of a city street, no matter how much of my own perception and sensitivity I put into the painting. I shall have to dig down deep within myself — back to my subconscious, if possible — and bring out what will be an inner reality.

And then suddenly Ary had made the leap into a new means of expression. Whereas his "Fishing Village" had hung on Macbeth Gallery walls in July 1945, his entry in the Federation of Modern Painters exhibit at Wildenstein's two months later was called "Vista Mystique." Emily Genauer, in the World-Telegram, wrote about this show: "What is it within the past year or so, when the war was a constant, spiritual burden and many artists were beset with serious personal problems brought on by the dislocations of war, that has led them on to find new strength within themselves, to seek a whole new approach to their art, to experiment with new techniques? Is it the times, which have tapped new wells of creative energy in them? And why? There is for instance, Ary Stillman, represented in the Wildenstein exhibit by a picture called "Vista Mystique" . . . "Vista Mystique" is an abstraction, done in the juiciest of paint, in color that glows like a stained-glass window, in patterns that swirl and churn in expressionistic fury. It's complex and highly emotional and I think altogether fine."

In January 1946 Mr. McIntyre of Macbeth Gallery came to see Ary at the studio one afternoon, and asked to see some of his abstract canvases. Ary had thrown himself headlong into his new painting, and had a number of canvases to show. At that time Ary was not occupied with form— he was engrossed in color, and wanted whatever unity and whatever impact the canvases had to come from his use of color. McIntyre looked over this recent work and then said, "I want you to have a one-man show in three weeks. An exhibition we had planned has been cancelled, and I want you to show your new work."

When I came home that evening Ary was terribly excited. It was extremely short notice for a one-man show, but he had enough canvases on hand. However, Macbeth was a very old and conservative gallery, and to have an abstract exhibit was something unheard of for them!

The fact was, the show did encounter opposition, but it was not primarily from the patrons of the gallery, it was from some of Ary's artist colleagues! They were among the representational painters who were putting up strong resistance toward this growing trend toward abstract painting. They felt that their world was threatened, and they were very hostile toward the artists who, they felt, were going over to the "enemy camp." During the previous months a longtime artist friend of Ary's, at a party in our studio, had attacked him and accused him of being "dishonest" in not painting "honestly" what he saw. Ary had felt hurt by this attack, for anyone who knew him even casually realized the quality of Ary's integrity, but of course it didn't deter him in the direction his work was taking. Now however, at word of Ary's coming one-man show at the venerable gallery of Macbeth, we learned through the grape vine that a crowd of artists had decided to put Ary in his place. Sure enough in the midst of the preview, a group led by deHirsch Margulies burst into the gallery ready to "let all hell break loose." What happened I never knew, for at the time I was deep in conversation with one of the guests. Did Hazel Lewis, with her great tact, quiet them down, or what? In any event, although there were some sneering remarks made by the group, they didn't succeed in breaking up the preview reception.

Although Ary's new canvases attracted considerable attention from both the public and the press, and he had a number of fine reviews, it gradually became clear that the conservative patrons of the gallery were quite disturbed by the radical departure from the accustomed which had been taken in showing these abstractions. Miss Lewis reported that one wealthy dowager declared emphatically "To think that I should live to see the day when Macbeth would hang canvases like these on their walls!" In any event, the following months showed that Macbeth was really not the right climate for Ary's new work.

Meanwhile, Ary worked on, and in the summer of 1948, quite by chance, he entered into a phase of his work, which was to prove a very important feature of his artistic career as well as a great influence on his future work. He had gone ahead of me to Provincetown for the summer vacation — I was to meet him in several weeks — and he had ordered canvas and paints sent on from the art supply store in New York. Somehow they were delayed in transit, and Ary was impatiently awaiting their arrival, and to while away the time he bought some charcoal and drawing paper and started making abstract drawings. He had, in past years, amused himself by "doodling" small abstract designs, and some months previously he had made a drawing to exhibit in a drawing show which the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors was holding at the Chinese Gallery on 57th Street. But he hadn't continued with it. Now however he became intrigued with the medium; he found that there was such an intimate contact between fingers, charcoal and paper, and it was so much easier to convey an idea in this way than through paint and brush and canvas. By the time the art supplies arrived he had made several dozen small charcoal drawings, and from then on through our stay in Paris in 1956, drawings occupied quite a bit of his time. Later on he felt that the early drawings had been too centralized, and too hemmed in, and he worked for a more open, all-over composition. Throughout most of his drawing experience he was trying to experiment with space and light, and the 1956 drawings made in Paris seemed somehow to presage the "space era."

It was in the fall of 1947 or perhaps the spring of 1948 that Bertha Schaefer opened her gallery on 57th Street. She had been widely known for years as an interior decorator, but for some time she had been eager to widen the scope of her work and to gather around her a group of representative painters. She wanted to advance the idea that one shouldn't choose a painting to fit in with the decor of a room, that one should choose a painting or paintings he or she would want to live with, and then build the tone of the room around the painting or paintings. She talked with Ary about this a number of times — they had been friends for years — and when she was prepared to exhibit her first group show she asked Ary to send in a painting. Milton Avery was in that show I recall, and Will Barnet, Ben Zion, Sue Fuller, Ary and others I can't remember. From this came a continued association for Ary with Bertha's gallery — many group shows, and a series of five one-man shows, beginning in February 1949 through 1954, until we left New York for Paris.

The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors occupied quite a bit of Ary's attention during this period. In 1945 he was Corresponding Secretary, and the following year Chairman of the Exhibition Committee. Often their monthly meetings would be held in our studio. Ary wasn't the "joiner" type, but when he was part of an organization like this, he took it very seriously, and he was eager to help the Federation function to the maximum extent. As Chairman of the Exhibition Committee he organized a traveling exhibition of the works included in the September 1946 show at Wildenstein's. At that time the American Federation of Arts didn't have the broad program of traveling exhibitions that it now has, and large museums were glad to book this show. Ary did all the work himself, with my help in typing his correspondence. He booked the exhibit with the Rochester, New York Memorial Art Gallery, the St. Paul, Minnesota Gallery, the M.B. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, and the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The Federation members were appreciative of his efforts, and at a dinner they held in September 1946 they presented him with a beautiful book on the Italian painter Masolino, which they autographed, and inscribed: "To Ary Stillman, Chairman of the Exhibition Committee, Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, 1945-46 — In gratitude for your splendid work and your great contribution in helping us grow." (Edith Brye, who attended the opening of the memorial exhibition of Ary's Palestinian paintings at the Herzl Institute in New York in May 1969, said to me:
"I wonder if Ary ever really knew how much we all thought of him."

In the early 1950s, while still retaining membership in the Federation, Ary also became a member of the famous "8th Street Club" which pivoted around deKooning, Kline, Philip Guston, Tworkov, and others of the "New York School." But Ary really wasn't one of them; he had his own individual ideas. However, he enjoyed the Friday night meetings. In another chapter I have written about his participation in the discussions. Now as I thumb through his scrapbook for that period, I find a notice of a meeting in 1953 — Ary Stillman, Panel Moderator; John Cage, Composer; John Ferren, Painter; Herbert Ferber, Sculptor; Frank O'Hara, Poet.

During these years Ary's traveling was limited, for I was tied down to a job and Ary refused to go away without me, except for a few extra weeks in the summer. Those summer vacations we often spent at "art colonies" where Ary was friendly and mingled with the crowd, but was never part of a "clique." His essential nature cast him always in the role of a loner. There were summers at Rockport, Provincetown, Monhegan Island — a real paradise off the coast of Maine; short visits to Woodstock. We took trips to Quebec, the Gaspe Peninsula, parts of Long Island, and to Houston, Texas, where Ary's sister and brother-in-law and their family were located. Of course in 1952, with a leave of absence from my job, I joined Ary in a marvelous trip to Paris, the Riviera, Italy and Spain. I have recorded all this in a diary, which is part of the Foundation records.

Early in 1954 Ary gave what was to turn out to be his last one-man show at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery. It was greeted by the critics as being his best abstract exhibit to date, and it was quite well attended. But he had strained himself painting what were for him large canvases and, never robust, he was weakened physically, as well as discouraged at the failure to receive really proper recognition for his work. I personally have always felt that during these few years his work was going counter to his innate character; that his own particular genius was for lyricism, poetry and fantasy, but that, struggle as he always did to remain true to his own pattern, he was temporarily swept from his path by the pressures of the bigness and boldness of the New York School of painting, the action painting which, rightly or wrongly dominated the scene under the influence of the coterie of artists and critics who made up the "8th Street Club." As stated above, Ary was a member of the club, but never of the inner circle, and his whole nature was very foreign to that of the leaders of the movement.

In any event, not long after his show at Bertha Schaefer's he suffered a hemorrhage in the right eye, and a scar was left on the eye, which distorted his vision. The result was that the damaged eye did not focus the same as the other one. At the same time and, I suppose, the cause of the hemorrhage, his blood pressure, always high, shot up. He could work very little, and night after night when I came home from my office I found him stretched out on the couch, listless and in low spirits.

The following summer Ary didn't feel able to go far away for vacation, and we found a room in a house in Brighton Beach, near the ocean. It was a drab and unattractive house, but Ary found the beach, crowded, as it was, a very relaxing place for him. And the house was only a couple of blocks from the subway, on which he could ride to our studio in New York.

On one of his trips to the city late in the summer, he found in our mailbox at the studio a letter, which to him spelled doom. It was an announcement that the half block of buildings where we had our studio at East 59th Street was going to be torn down to make way for a skyscraper.

Now, for years Ary had been talking about our pulling up stakes and going to a foreign country — France, possibly, or perhaps some country in South America. I had listened by the hour to him, as he wove his dreams about the idyllic life we would have, and we had even decided that the coming fall we would begin to make the break. I myself wasn’t very happy about working all day and coming home so tired that I would fall asleep after dinner, so that Ary and I had little time together, to go out to places of interest and fun, or even to have long evenings talking together, and so I was very ready for a change. But I didn't realize that in his heart, Ary wanted nothing so much as to hold on to the studio. It was his workshop, his home, his security, and without it he would feel that his world had collapsed around him.

The following months were painful. Ary arranged for a renting service to look for an apartment for us, but anything in the heart of Manhattan was priced at three or four times as much as our rent-controlled place; and of course we were spoiled as to location, living as we did just off Central Park, Fifth Avenue, the galleries on 57th Street, with the museums and Carnegie Hall nearby. Anyway, nothing could be found to begin to fill our needs, yet by January 1st we had to vacate the studio.

We finally decided to go to a nearby hotel for the winter months and then in early April to set off for Paris. Packing was a nightmare. Ary felt we should put as little as possible into storage — just his paintings and a few of our dearest keepsakes. All the pieces of furniture and art objects which had made our studio such a fascinating place and so typically Ary's world, were to go. We sold some, gave some to friends and relatives, and then at the very end, had the Spanierman auction house take the remaining tapestries, Persian and Chinese vases, bowls, art books, etc. to sell at auction. Ary couldn't bring himself to attend the auction. I went by myself, sadly watching as the pieces, each one so precious to us, were bunched into lots and sold hastily, casually and for a few pitiful dollars. Ary remained upstairs in the studio, sunk into a deep depression.

That depression didn't lift for many, many months — for years, in fact! In our hotel on 58th Street Ary sat in a chair in a corner of the room for hours on end. I couldn't help but think of our aquarium of tropical fish. When a fish became sick he would retire to a corner of the bowl and stay there, completely withdrawn, without moving, without eating. So poor Ary was like one of the sick little fish.

April finally came and we were on the way to Paris, where I hoped the beloved city would have a healing effect on Ary. I felt that away from the rat race which New York had become, in the midst of the beauty and aesthetic sensitivity of Paris, which was the ambience best suited to Ary's spirit, he would find his equilibrium again.

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