Sept. 2016 "Todd Gray", Light Work, Syracuse University, N. Y.
June 12 - Aug. 28 2016 "A, The, Though, Only" , Made in LA 2016, The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
June 10 - Aug. 13 2016 "Time Machine / Hippie Dandy", Meliksetian | Briggs, Los Angeles, CA.
Back to the Bone - Part I
Carrie Mae Weems and Todd Gray
The Metamorphosis of Todd Gray
For his exhibition A Place That Looks Like Home, artist Todd Gray re-frames and re-contextualizes images from his personal archive that spans over forty years of his career as a photographer, sculptor and performance artist. Gray describes himself as an artist and activist who primarily focuses on issues of race, class, gender and colonialism.
His unique process of combining and layering a variety of images and fragments of images allows him the opportunity to create his own history and “my own position in the diaspora.” Working with photographs of pop culture, documentary photographs of Ghana (where he keeps a studio), portraits of Michael Jackson, gang members from South Los Angeles and photo documentation from the Hubble telescope, Gray asserts what he refers to as his own polymorphous identity that defies definition. Inspired by the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, Gray invites the viewer to participate in an “ever-unfinished conversation about identity and history.”
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Todd Gray: A Place That Looks Like Home
Oct 7, 2016
Todd Gray & Hamza Walker
July 20, 2016
For one year, the artist Todd Gray wore the clothes of his friend and mentor the late Ray Manzarek, a founding member of the Doors. An act that went beyond artistic homage or memorial impulse, Gray’s gesture is being restaged for Made in L.A. 2016. In this program, Gray’s readings from letters he wrote to Manzarek’s widow about his desire to bring Ray “into the orbital sphere of the art world” will be followed by a discussion with Hamza Walker, co-curator of Made in L.A. 2016 and associate curator at the Renaissance Society.
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Made in L.A. 2016: Todd Gray’s Letters to Dorothy Manzarek
July 13, 2016
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Funny, an artist’s desk brings to mind the impression of white collar activity. Rightly or wrongly, I like to think of time spent working out visual and conceptual puzzles as activities better spent on the table rather than the desk. Blue collar, lightly starched. I start the day using a computer to cull through my exhaustive archive of Michael Jackson photographs taken in the ’80s when I worked as his personal photographer, then I review my archive of images made in Ghana where I maintain a studio. The computer is my tabula rasa, allowing me unrestrained travel through multiple archives, imagined and real. The selected images are printed out, framed, and then collaged together as low relief sculpture. On top of my five-by-eight-foot table is a milky white gridded cutting matte, large enough for my assistant and I to work without bumping into each other while cutting photos and attaching frames together, while listening to Sun Ra, MC5, Funkadelic, Fela Kuti, PiL, J Dilla, Stooges, Miles Davis and, these days, David Bowie (RIP).
Todd Gray is presented by Meliksetian | Briggs, Booth D16, at Art Los Angeles Contemporary, January 28—31.
—As told to Char Jansen
Todd Gray’s tightly executed assemblages have an irresistible aesthetic uniting cosmic montage, colorful textiles, and musical legends. The artist sets his own archival pigment prints in found antique frames, drawing layered, non-linear image constellations. Pop culture, intimate moments, and the vast universe come together with his vintage photographs of Michael Jackson, documentary photography from Ghana (where Gray has a studio), and visions from the Hubble telescope.
Jori Finkel | January 20, 2016
The single biggest surprise about the coming edition of “Made in L.A.,” the Hammer Museum’s biennial featuring artists who are locally based, is just how international the exhibition looks.
According to the show’s curators, Aram Moshayedi of the Hammer and Hamza Walker of the Renaissance Society in Chicago, this focus on the creative value of expatriates or immigrants was not intentional but natural, given the cosmopolitan nature of Los Angeles.
The biennial, which began in 2012, was meant to feature emerging or under-recognized artists. But curators have made a potentially distracting exception for Mr. Ruby, whose experimental sculpture already appears in museum collections and galleries such as Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth. “Good art is good art,” Mr. Walker said, adding that the curators would focus on a never-before-exhibited series involving welding tables.
The 2016 biennial also features some projects outside the museum walls. The writer Aram Saroyan, known for his ultra-minimalist poetry, offered up the exhibition’s subtitle: “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only.” And the photographer Todd Gray’s project involves a sort of living memorial: he plans to wear the clothes of his late friend Ray Manzarek, the founding member and keyboardist with the Doors, for the full length of the exhibition.
The Hammer Museum announced the lineup for its third "Made in L.A." biennial on Tuesday evening, and perhaps the most interesting through-line is the lack of any theme imposed by curators Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker.
Instead, the shape of the exhibition opening in June will be formed largely by artists who resist or defy categorization, challenging notions of what an L.A. artist is.
“We were simply operating within the already given theme of 'Made in Los Angeles' -- to take that at face value and to understand that within that, that announces a certain kind of heterogenic activity in the locale,” said Walker, director of education and associate curator at the Renaissance Society, a contemporary art museum in Chicago.
The Hammer biennial, this year carrying the full name "Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,” showcases emerging and underrepresented artists in a variety of disciplines including sculpture, painting, film and video, fashion, music, literature and performance.
Over 12 months, Moshayedi and Walker visited about 200 studios in Southern California, roaming as far south as San Diego, as far north as Ventura and as far east as Joshua Tree. They whittled participants down to 26 -- the slimmest “Made in L.A.” exhibition yet. The museum’s 2012 biennial included 60 artists; its 2014 event featured 35. But paring back participants was a purposeful less-is-more strategy.
One key exhibition won’t take place at the museum at all -- and you may or may not be able to see it. Artist Todd Gray will create a memorial to his late friend, the Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, by wearing Manzarek’s clothes, in his everyday life, for the duration of “Made in L.A.”
“It’s a living sculpture,” Walker says.
The idea is meant to challenge notions of ephemerality, as well as what constitutes a museum space.
Deborah Vankin | January 19, 2016
August 9, 2012
By RYAN NABULSI
By Cate McQuaid | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT | MAY 26, 2015
“Todd Gray Upends Expectations”
Todd Gray’s “Red Light” at Samsøñ.
Photographer Todd Gray, in his assemblages at Samson, craftily breaks down iconography and expectations about Africans and African-Americans with canny juxtapositions. Gray was Michael Jackson’s personal photographer in the 1980s; these works mix images of Jackson and his crew with photos shot more recently in Ghana, where the artist has a studio, and images from the Hubble Telescope.
“Welcome to Planet Earth” has as a backdrop an old, majestic tree, shot from below. Gray shot it in Ghana, outside a former post in the slave trade. In the center, an image of Jackson: We see the pop star from behind, as another performer pushes him forward; a light glares between them like the sun. Jackson has his hands clasped behind him, and given the context, it’s as if they were shackled and he were being offered up for sale. Did Jackson pay a terrible price for his celebrity?
These assemblages telescope time and space, making potent connections. They also have formal poetry. “Akwidaa, Takoradi, Inglewood” sets an image of a Ghanaian woman in a brilliant red headscarf beside one of a Jackson brother in a cowboy hat. The cowboy hat hangs against a photo of graffiti in Ghana, which reads like a painting, and expresses anywhere-but-here aspirations of travel.
Gray’s use of starry Hubble images in some of these works adds another dimension. Everyday reality bumps against extraordinary fame, and the constellations link to both — they foster dreams, yet they are all of ours to gaze upon.
Review: In Todd Gray’s “Room,”
Michael Jackson illuminates questions of racial identity
Todd Gray explores his experience as the late Michael Jackson’s personal photographer and how it defined and redefined his life in the multi-layered installation “The Gray Room,” at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery through August 31.
Gray is best known for “Before He Was King,” a 2009 book of photographs he took of the future “King of Pop” from 1979 through 1984. Those pictures are the core of this show. Gray uses them to comment on issues of identity and race by juxtapos- ing them with his other work: masks cut in half and reassembled in a grotesque jigsaw puzzle and “Ghost Clouds,” abstracted photographs of black models obscured by white foam cut into shapes resembling clouds.
On one level, this arrangement imbues the photos with a religious aura,as if they are icons, something to be revered, honored, respected or even worshipped. The portraits overpower the surrounding pieces (but what can compare with Michael Jackson?), and the effect is rather bland. But it does frame the discussion Gray wants to provoke.
Gray believes that Jackson was a shaman of sorts, whose followers gath- ered at his concerts to share in the ecstasy of his performances. In a tele- phone interview, Gray spoke of showing a picture of the pop star to some Ghanaians during an African trip. When they said, “That is my brother,” he realized that the singer was more than a celebrity. He was a transcendent figure who made connections across geography and language.
A young Michael Jackson in a detail from Todd Gray’s installation at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.
“Waiting” to go on stage, 1980.
Gray also examines Jackson’s persona through the lens of cultural imperialism, or as he puts it, “mental colonialism.” In his 1980 photo “Waiting,” a pensive Jackson, dressed and soon to go on stage, has turned away from the camera, eyes half open. The full force of the flash washes out his skin tone. His hair reflects the flash as well, showing a gathering of loose curls. This is
the singer “Before He Was King,” before the physical transformation of his later years. Gray believes that Jackson was a black man who died a white man, a metamorphosis that speaks to the demeaning of blackness in Western culture — something to be washed away, cleansed, banished. The light of the flash in this photograph has begun the process that the light of fame, popularity and money would complete. The masks and “White Cloud” pieces reinforce the point.
In this context, the distorted masks make reference to such philosophers as Frantz Fanon, Audre Lorde and bell hooks, who use personal stories as political messages to frame critiques of Western culture and majority-minority relationships. Jackson’s story is doubly personal in the sense that Gray, who got called an “Oreo” in his youth, came to see his own struggles with authenticity in Jackson’s fraught racial identity.
The photographer repeats the critique in his performance piece, “Caliban in the Mirror,” which plays in an adjoining room. In one section, Gray beats out a rhythm on a hand drum while seated next to a chalkboard, while images of Jackson intermixed with racial slurs are projected on the wall above him. Later, Gray dons a large Afro wig to portray a professor conducting a mock college class on the trappings of majority culture, explaining that “theory is just shit white folks make up.”
The performance feels heavy-handed in comparison with the rest of the show. One can reach the same conclusions viewing the photos and other artwork. Consider, for example, the photographs “Beat It MJ” and “Beat It Gang,” both shot on the set of the music video “Beat It” in 1983.
Cultural colonialism at work? “Beat It MJ,” from 1983.
In “Beat It MJ,” the flash has once again washed out Jackson’s skin. He looks like a specter of his 1980 self. His posture, eyes and general physical appearance show the weight of fame. Clothed in his iconic red jacket, one hand reaching across to pull up a sleeve, he is slumped slightly forward, exhausted. If one reads the image from Gray’s viewpoint, it suggests that Jackson has succumbed to cultural colonialism.
In contrast, the dancers in “Beat It Gang,” costumed in gang attire and photographed in a way that makes their skin tone darker, mimic thug postures and hand signals. Yet the postures — submission and defiance — are two sides of the same mental colonialism.
“Beat It Gang,” also from the 1983 “Beat It” music video session. Ultimately, the portraits are “The Gray Room’s” strongest elements. But the installation is sure to generate a healthy dialogue about the cur- rent state of identity politics, race relations and colonialism, as well as Jackson’s life.
Jet Set Saturdays: From My Universe: Objects of Desire Part II at See Line Gallery
Todd Gray installation detail from My Universe: Objects of Desire Part II Curated by Janet Levy.
One of the pleasures of the life of a Jet Setter is that rare moment of discovery when you hear or see something that is so beyond chic, it’s transcendent. During the Art Los Angeles Contemporary Fair I had the opportunity to hear Todd Gray, a well-known as a photographer and conceptual artist, talk about his work at See Line Gallery, unbeknownst to him. Among various gems of vocational regalia recounted as I sat there in my anonymousness was a story of how he met Michael Jackson and worked as his personal photographer when Jackson was a young star. Jackson, by Gray’s account, was clearly his own creation – like Elvis or Liberace, a cultural phenom, paralleling the role of the visual artist. Gray, aware of the Jackson associations, has brilliantly raided his own historic photographs in order to create associations that resonate as both conceptual and poignant.
In the group show, “From My Universe: Objects of Desire Part II” at See Line Gallery in the Pacific Design Center, Gray has created a mysterious installation featuring among others, photographs of himself covered in shaving cream as a white-faced monster. The photographs have been cut out higgledy piggledy along the contours of his creamy white form creating ghosts that hover in the gray gallery space in juxtaposition to his photographs of Michael Jackson and African ceremonial masks. Gray has sublimated the notion of race here by creating a “gray” context signed for by the painted gray walls.
Todd Gray installation from My Universe: Objects of Desire Part II Curated by Janet Levy
All of the referents here are mixed up in each the other and are directly or indirectly implicated as participants. The African ceremonial masks stand nobly in front of the photographs as they would in a private home. The masks reference modernism with their obvious appropriation of the genre by “modern masters” such as Braque and Picasso. Then there is the spirit of Gray himself, his billowy shaving cream portraits hovering in the dim room, ghost-like and highly personal, the parallel “white face” to Jackson’s cream bleached skin tone. Because Gray has personalized the experience of viewing the masks and Jackson with his own image, the whole history of art and popular culture is animated in a palpable and interesting way. See Line Gallery director Janet Levy had a direct role in facilitating Gray’s experience of the space, encouraging him to take risks like hanging on a gray wall and including the African art.
ALL THE ARTS, ALL THE TIME
AUGUST La Times Article 12, 2010 | 6:20 PM
Based both in Inglewood and Ghana, husband-and-wife collaborators Todd Gray and Kyungmi Shin bring together American pop culture and African spiritual traditions in a loose, wide-ranging installation at See Line Gallery. Titled “Spirit Shack,” the work explores the fascinating nexus of celebrity and spirituality but unfortunately never quite gels.
The centerpiece is a ramshackle structure of wood and corrugated metal in which one finds a hat, an African drum and a typewritten script. These are artifacts from a performance (which I did not see, although segments are documented in a video) in which Gray played the drum and recounted stories of living with rock star Iggy Pop. Also inside the shack is a photo of Gray, his naked body covered in shaving cream. This motif is repeated in two wall pieces, in which the African American artist cut photographic images of his “whitened” body into curling, tentacle-like shapes. Interesting in their own right, the images are monstrous distortions, but also abstractions or even swirling clouds. The coating of shaving cream raises questions about race and visibility, but also refers to the makeup and masks that transform the body in African shamanic rituals.
Shin addresses ritual in two cartoonish sculptures: a vaguely African mask and the head of a deer-like animal lying in a pool of super shiny red “blood.” Both heads are covered in silver sequins, a gesture that recasts them as “bling” and links them to another work by Gray, a photograph of a similarly sequined Michael Jackson. The King of Pop’s face is irreverently obscured by a taxidermy boar’s head, a gesture that renders him both shaman and beast.
The installation raises intriguing questions about the interplay of global media, African traditions, race and representation, but feels like the beginning of several investigations rather than a synthesis. “Spirit Shack” moves in many compelling directions but would have benefited from a deeper look into just a few.
-- Sharon Mizota
See Line Gallery, Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave. Suite B274, West Holly- wood, (917) 604-3114, through Sept. 10. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.
Images: “Spirit Shack” sketch (top) and installation view. Courtesy of See Line Gallery. Photo credit: Kyungmi Shin.
Photo from Todd Gray’s “Shaman Series” Courtesy of the artist
UNDERSTANDING THE NEW POP ART
One morning, as “The King of Pop” was waking from anxious dreams in his bed, he discovered that the media changed him into a monstrous bug. “What happened to me?” he thought. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his body, flailed helplessly.
Michael Jackson’s transformation was not as sudden as Kafka’s metamorphic rendition; the public saw it coming for years. In fact, it was largely ignored until it became undeniable. Jackson, once a brown-skinned heartthrob, became, well, something else.
Even in a ‘post-racial’ America, Jackson is still a late-night punch line: “now that Barack Obama has been elected president, producers in Hollywood say they think America is now ready
for a black James Bond and a black Wonder Woman. Isn’t that cool? yeah, hell, America may even be ready for a black Michael Jackson.”–Conan O’Brien.
From the start, Jackson, even as a 9 year old, was placed under a lens. One of those lenses belonged to Todd Gray, who became the late Jackson’s personal photographer and author of Before He Was King, a book of striking portraits of Jackson.
Reflecting his own diverse professional experience, Gray aims to complement Jackson’s pop-culture mythology with a point of view steeped in academic cultural criticism.
Now a full-time professor at California State University, Long Beach, Gray started out as a professional photographer and shot his first album cover at 17. It was the first of 100 covers. He also snapped singers and groups such as Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and the Rolling Stones in public and at music award shows.
Today, Gray is simultaneously post racial and Afrocentric, shuttling between the mainstream art world and his second home in the Ghana bush where he lives without electricity and draws water from a well. His installations bridge conceptual art theory with pan-African concerns.
Gray met Michael Jackson on a Jackson Five shoot. He horsed around with the other brothers but not MJ, so the young star approached Gray to ask why. A friendship began and off they went to Disneyland where, as Gray now recalls, MJ “treated the characters as real.” Gray soon became MJ’s personal photographer.
The Gray Room is Gray’s attempt to place Jackson back into the African Diaspora. The multi-layered Gray Room installation also probes what caused Jackson’s “blackness” to be effectively erased. The installation was on view at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery in the Peachtree Hills area of Atlanta from July 6 through August 31, 2012.
Capturing Jackson in mid-transformation while he was still
a rising star from 1979 to1984, The Gray Room utilizes images from Before He Was King to further a dialogue that has been around since Langston Hughes’ “The negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” essay. As Hughes would suggest (as he makes the argument for all negro artists who seek to break free of the racial modifier), Jackson no longer wanted to be a negro artist, but simply an artist. This means he wanted to be a white artist which, subconsciously (or more consciously for Jackson) turned into “I want to be white.”
During one of the stays of Gray and his art and life partner Kyungmi Shin at their home in Ghana, Gray got a call from curator Janet Levy who had just seen a nick Cave exhibition and wanted to use the MJ photos in a context beyond pop culture. The upshot of the conversation was that Gray agreed to incorporate African sacred objects into an MJ-themed exhibition. Gray saw
a connection between the shamanism of African masking and Jackson’s performance—both produce ecstatic states. In Jackson’s case, girls break down crying.
In developing The Gray Room, the artist drew from his 2003 “Shaman’s Series” in which he uses shaving cream as a way
to “mask (his) identity and interrogate it at the same time . . . pretty much like a shaman who goes beneath to bring insight
to the community.” The series of photos of the naked, shaving cream-swathed artist were shot in Gray’s California studio and during ritual performances in the African bush. They symbolize
UNDERSTANDING THE NEW POP ART
Funky Majesty, photo of Michael Jackson from the Before He Was King book. The photo also was part of The Gray Room installation. Photo courtesy of the artist
UNDERSTANDING THE NEW POP ART
View of Todd Gray’s original 2010 Gray Room installation.
numerous things, including the use of shaving cream as a ritual gesture, the spirits that Gray’s African neighbors see on their land and in the bush, and the death connotation of the color white in traditional West African cultures. Cut-outs from the “Shaman Series” photos are the swirling, white forms that Gray calls “cloud spirits” and “ghost clouds” in The Gray Room installation.
Gray’s art relating to the pop icon also is an expression of his struggle to understand his own multifaceted personal experience. That experience includes being a very socially assimilated yet highly race conscious black man in America who shares his insider/outsider experience with an Asian art collaborator and wife.
Photographs from Gray’s “Afrotronic” series were shown with works by two other Los Angeles artists—Lita Albuquerque and Nancy Baker Cahill—in Blythe Projects’ Miami Project show in Miami’s Midtown/Wynwood Art District, December 4-9, 2012.
From a young age, Jackson was commoditized by his father, and as he aged, being a commodity meant accommodating his consumers. As MJ’s Motown sound evolved into a more crossover pop sound in the late ’70s and early ’80s and the MTv generation emerged, Jackson remained a commodity by assuming an attitude of what Gray calls “mental colonialism.” Gray unabashedly explored this idea in Caliban in the Mirror, his one-man performance piece, written by Max King Cap, that accompanied The Gray Room exhibition. The performance was mostly narrated
by a jive-talking, afro-adorned professor who sauntered around like a black caricature in a cartoon. The performance reprises Gray when he was in his 20s and unaware of how “culture shaped my perception of myself,” Gray later explains. “One is constantly in struggle with cultural forces that lay siege to one’s psyche.”
In a film shown during the performance, images of the coon, pickaninny and sambo—as well as the words—are flashed upon a stark white wall. And if the audience did not comprehend the message of the exhibit from wall installation alone, Gray wants to hit them over the head with this: Michael Jackson was a commodity and in America, either whiteness is commoditized or the eroticism of blackness is exploited. This is the reality of “mental colonialism” and Jackson fell victim to it more publicly than any other African American in the spotlight.
Gray’s Atlanta performance of Caliban in the Mirror was modified to fit the small gallery space, with a couple of scenes eliminated. However most of the dialogue stayed intact. view the full Caliban in the Mirror performance on youTube.
In fending off the forces of mental hijacking in his own life, Gray says he went to Africa to “reconnect with the possibility of who I might have been.” now describing himself as a “stranger in both places,” he says that he “will never know.”
Stephano Patton is an independent writer and filmmaker who lives in Atlanta.
October 23, 2009
I’m with Michael!
After landing an assignment shooting the Jackson 5, the author was told that Michael Jackson wanted him to be his personal photographer. The result: a trove of images, taken between 1974 and 1984, that reveal the future King of Pop’s quiet, soulful side. Related: Gray’s exclusive photos.
By Todd Gray
Excerpted from Michael Jackson: Before He Was King, by Todd Gray, to be published on November 6, 2009, by Chronicle Books; © 2009 by the author.
In January 1980, I received a call saying that Michael Jackson had specifically requested me to photograph him at Disneyland, where he was taping a television special celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom. When Michael was not on the set performing, he took every opportunity to explore the park. The moment the director would release him from the set in order to prepare the next shot, Michael would grab my arm and say, “Come on, let’s hit some rides.” Off we went, the two of us accompanied by a Disney security person, who ushered us through secret passageways, making certain we never waited in line. Michael, who was 21 at the time, loved Disneyland, and while sitting next to him on the rides—the Matterhorn, the Pirates of the Caribbean—I joined right in with his screams and laughter. We really had fun.
Not long after this job, I got another call from the Jacksons’ manager, Ron Weisner, asking me to shoot Michael at a charity event. He said that Michael had instructed him to hire only me when he needed a photographer. Then Ron asked me, “What’s up with you and Michael?” I answered, “We just get along, I guess.” (I had first met Michael in 1974 while photographing the Jackson 5 for Soul Newspaper.) I asked Ron if Michael had given him any indication as to why he wanted only me to photograph him. He said Michael told him, “I like Todd because he doesn’t talk much.” And that’s how it began. I was Michael’s photographer and friend for the next four years. It was the ride of my life.
From early on, I saw how dedicated Michael was to work. He
worked nearly all the time and rarely seemed to relax. A great deal
of time was spent in the recording studio—the Jacksons’ intense focus on creating a flawless product helped make them the success that they became, and Michael was clearly the most focused, hardest working member of the group. While in the mixing booth, making technical adjustments and working the board with the engineers, he would whisper instructions to his brothers about a vocal arrangement, whispering not because the instructions were secret, but because he was shy and didn’t like to yell out his ideas.
In the spring of 1981, Michael and his brothers began rehearsals for the Triumph Tour, which would travel to 35 cities in North America. When Michael found time to relax, he loved to leaf through photographic books. He especially loved books about 1930s Hollywood glamour, richly illustrated children’s books, and coffee table books on photography. Michael would usually hole up in the rear of the bus, while the others spent their time together in front. I also preferred the quiet at the back, and I would sit down with him while he was engrossed in reading.
My photographs of Michael, from 1974 to 1984, show him as the engaging, charming, youthful person he was before the insatiable demands of his extraordinary celebrity bore so heavily on him. As I reflect, I realize now that this was the time before he was King.
Copyright © 2016 Todd Gray. All rights reserved.