Carving out a little time for myself. . .

Spoons! Ebony, dark walnut, maple, bacote. . .so dang pretty! 

Nothing stresses me out more than being incapable of making. It’s my stress relief, pure catharsis, for me to get something out of my head and into my hands. Most of my projects require days and weeks of work, so when I need a quick fix, I’ve found that carving is my go-to.  

Especially, spoons. 

Extra large spoons made for Memphis designer Sean Anderson

The biggest spoons were 18" long! Safety glasses for scale.

A perfectly round bowl, thin but not flimsy, with a rich grain and elegant form. It flows into a slightly rounded handle, thin as a switch but strong as it follows the grain. Then I introduce a little bit of chaos. The clean lines and minimal design degrade, they split, they grow, they expand. Holes are eaten away, but not in the normal way for wood. Instead, I draw my inspiration from how rock corrodes, or the knobs of bone joints. Merging these elements of visceral organic forms with contemporary clean lines is like music to me. 

Starts off as a boring block of wood...

A few rough sketches...

Then the bowl gets carved, the silhouette is cut, and the handle gets rough shaped!

Planning for most of my spoons is nominal. I like using naturally felled, or cast off pieces that no one else likes as the base. I flatten one side, and start drawing directly on the lumber. I’m quite meticulous on the bowl. Lining up the handle, or stem as I sometimes think of them, and keeping that straight is important. It flows directly towards the center of the bowl. It’s classic and recognizable. Gives the carving purpose. From there, I drag the pencil around the excess to give myself a rough shape. Intentionally, I leave a lot of fluidity to this. The less control the better. 

 

Cutting out this rough shape on a scroll saw, it’s then on to shaping and carving. Bowl comes first, in order to make sure I don’t fuck that up after having the whole thing finished. Then I use a mixture of belt sanders, rotary carvers and sand paper to shape the back of the bowl, the handle and decayed end. After sanding, the spoon gets oiled heavily (mineral oil and bees wax) and left overnight. I cure my spoons several times, which means washing them as you would for normal use, with warm soapy water, then letting them dry. Light sanding, oil, sit, wash and repeat. It helps guarantee that the spoon has soaked up as much oil as possible so that it last longer. More on this later, I promise. 

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The spoon is done. It’s a process, and one that’s hard to explain. It’s fifty percent micro-managing, fifty percent letting go and just seeing what happens. I think that’s why I like making them so much. They’re utilitarian, but also sculptural. They’re designed for use, but I like the idea that people are almost intimidated to use them. ‘It’s just too pretty,’ someone told me once, when I asked her if she used the spoon I made for her much. ‘Use it, it’s just wood,’ I told her. ‘That stuff grows on trees.’

 

A time-lapse of one of the spoons being carved

Toys Toys Toys!

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Some projects are destined to be great from the beginning. This project was one of those. 

I met Lori Paranjape after I had worked on a project with one of her coworkers. She had expressed that she wanted some unexpected elements to the show home she was designing for Barrow Builders, and my name was thrown into the mix. 

 

I could tell from the get-go that Lori just . . .  got it. We sat down, discussed some of my prior projects and she showed me the floor plans and renderings. I always prefer to see a site in person to wrap my brain around it, but as this house was literally just studs at this point, drawings it was. 

 

I went to my drawing board and spent some time working on ideas. I wanted something really fun and innovative that would make a show stopping background for this playroom. It had to be gender neutral, whimsical, but still sophisticated. 

 

The first idea I pitched included filling the wall with a massive composition comprised of chalk. A series of 3” deep wooden frames of various sizes stacked on top of each other, then installed at an angle to create some really strong movement. Then filling those frames with thousands of pieces of chalk, with only the ends exposed. We both loved the idea, but it somehow just wasn’t right. 

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The second idea was a large scale iteration of a doll house cross-cut so that it only protruded a few inches from the wall, sort of like a three dimensional line drawing. I would then assemble grids inside the room of a single object en masse to denote what the room was. For example, miniature copper pots covering the ‘kitchen’ wall. This was such a great idea, one that we came up with together, until I ran the numbers. The materials for just the miniature grids would have been 70% of the budget alone. Hmm, not gonna work. 

 

We both had a sort of epiphany moment when we looked back through some of my past work, and Lori pointed out that she loved the excessively organized quality to a lot of my work. I realized this was the character quality that I wanted to emphasize in the room, and we both decided a solid grid work was just what this room needed. I loved the contrast of a kids room, literally designated to be the messy space, had an element of OCD organization to it. Hmm, a strong contrast of ideas in one work? Sounds about right. 

 
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I started collecting toys en masse. Rubiks cubes, army men, spinning tops, yo-yos, rubber duckies, tiaras, etc. I always love the sourcing of my materials, and the strange looks I always get. Figuring out the quantity of materials needed for projects like this is always tough. I decided the spacing between each piece, finalized the composition with Lori, and did a LOT of math. Once I knew that magic number, I added an extra 30% to account for any mistakes. A great rule of thumb I interpret loosely for any project that requires a TON of material is to figure out how much you need, and then double it. You’ll probably be close. 

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The toys were mounted onto rigid insulation foam, fast and easy. Then painted using a Wagner paint sprayer in a custom color. 

The toys were mounted onto rigid insulation foam, fast and easy. Then painted using a Wagner paint sprayer in a custom color. 

 

Next, it was on to assembly. Each toy needed a single nail glued to the back. That nail was then pushed into panels of rigid insulation foam that we had left from another project. Once a paint color was decided on, I sprayed all the pieces directly on the foam. It kept them upright and gave me an incredibly easy way to transport the toys. 

The Handy Dandy on a ladder. . . practicing some gymnastics...

The Handy Dandy on a ladder. . . practicing some gymnastics...

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Installation also went incredible well. Making sure your lines are level is always number one priority, as well as your spacing. I’ve learned to use custom spacer boards to make this process a lot easier and fool proof. I marked off the placement for each piece, working from the  bottom up. Since the toys were attached to the nails already, I worked from the top down using needle nose pliers to drive each nail into the wall. Overall, the actual installation took about 9 hours on site. Not too bad for such a large piece. 

 

The end product was SO worth it. There’s nothing better than being up close to a work for so long, and then having that moment that I can step back and drool a bit. It’s even better when the whole house gives you the same impression. I'm honored to have been included in a stunning design, and loved working with Lori. Collaboration leads to beautiful things, my friends, and I like beautiful things. 

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More examples of Lori's incredible work can be found on her website here or her Instagram here!

Grayton Beer Styled Event

Nothing is better than finding clients you instantly connect with, and when it’s someone as inspiring and loving as the folks at Bloomsbury Farm, it’s just a game changer. When I had the chance to work with them on doing a launch party for Florida based Grayton Beer, I leapt for it. 

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I wanted something that felt in line with their current slightly rustic beach party vibe, but with a Tennessee spin. Luckily, I’d had an idea kicking around my brain for a while that this was perfect for. Vintage axes and hatchets slammed into a table top, a forest backdrop and ice cold beers just seemed too perfect. 

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Before we even finalized the project, I started collecting. Even if the project fell through, I knew I’d do something cool with them. We found an amazing chef to pair the beer with a perfect menu, settled on our location (an open air rustic structure surrounded by lush greenery in the middle of the farm) and started setting our scene. We needed it to feel upscale, not too ‘good ole boys hunting cabin’. We paired leather chesterfields with a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk as a coffee table and placed them right next to the massive stone fireplace. A few other leather wingbacks, some slabs of reclaimed wood with axes for decoration, and it was perfect. 

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Designing events that relate a clients image and persona, but incorporates a sculptural element that pushes the boundaries of what styling should be is where my heart is.

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So. Who’s next?


Photos by Hannah Messinger and Andrew Yontz, shot at Bloomsbury Farm. 

Resurfacing, but not literally

When I moved to Nashville, I didn’t have a space to make personal work anymore. I made due as best I could, but building sculpture in an apartment is tough. 

Instead, I pivoted for a while, working in two-dimensional processes of collage but with a ‘builder’s’ take on it. Layering odd subject matter with unexpected patterns or texture was the basis, but adding in a completely random line of text got me geeked. It was my first interest in words and literature in a visual arts component. 

Suddenly these mashed up elements had an opinion, a meaning, something to say. The best part was that I had nominal control over it. I liked the fact that I never knew what a finished piece would look like. Adding snippets of song lyrics to a floral print soldier traipsing across a field just because I heard it when I was working added such an element of chaos, but somehow they harmonized too. It was great.

While planning a series of sculptural dining experiences today, I stumbled across my old stash of cut silhouettes. Bumblebees of varying sizes, AK-47s and Disney princesses. You know, the usual. 

I’ve got to find a way to use these. It was serendipitous, and got my mind going a thousand different directions. Miniature maquette stages, or life size reinventions, there’s so much I could do with it. 

I love it when something from our past comes back, and suddenly this random offshoot of our story, a once-upon-a-time tangent, is made relevant. 

Anyone else have experiences like this?

Pair of Japanese dancers, hand cut from vintage paisley patterned paper

Pair of Japanese dancers, hand cut from vintage paisley patterned paper

Concept Sketch

I don’t often get to sketch out concepts in any more than a simple black line drawing, and I don’t even really share those that often either. I’m officially taking this Sunday off, which means I get to pursue “creative passion” or whatever, and work on things that I don’t necessarily have clients for. It’s everything from art installations concepts to words and phrases I think are funny. Sometimes it’s a social sculpture idea. Other times, it’s lyrics and snippets of commercials. Frenetic, I know, but they’re usually things that I just HAVE to get out of my head.

 

Anyway, today I was playing with a retail or branding concept. Takeaways, where technically everything is ‘stealable’. Theft is encouraged, as each piece is signed and numbered with gold inlay. Each piece has content, which is all relatively irrelevant. 

Implements. 

Implements. 

 

For me, I ask the question on what this qualifies as. Is it a marketing concept, guerrilla in nature, but altruistic and non-destructive as well? Or is it sculpture, toying with and poking fun at the concept of consumerism and value. They’re worthless upon acquiring, but once procured, they retain individual and entirely separate experiences, scratches and scrapes. They acquire their own organic provenance. 

 

Or maybe it’s just a pretty way to show things. 

 

Project Scope:

The panels would be constructed out of multi-layers of ply, similar to apple ply, with a walnut or dark stained front and back. The edges would be exposed, unstained or altered. 

An acceptable substitute is solid dark walnut. 

Thinner boards of similarly treated wood are laser etched with text and emblems to make them seem similar to other classically bulk produced marketing material (ie. key chains, flyers, letters, magnets, stickers, etc.). They will feature information for a brand/company/person/thing/etc.. Maybe Emily Dickinson poems?

The back of each will have information, regarding number in series (which functions as a searchable reference number on a coinciding website maybe?) as well as the Handy Dandy Productions logo. This will either be gold foil or brass inlay. 

Some boards will be hung from brass pegs, either on top of other boards or elsewhere. 

The collection will sit on one level, be it shelf or table, in a manner of overlap that is mutable to circumstance. It will be unattended for one hour each day. 

 

So…what do you think? (I hope you realize how terrifying and difficult a question that is)

Would you take one? Would you take more and sell them? Hoard them? Burn them?

Or do you leave it for someone else to steal?

Or do you vote for commercial use? 

 

Welcome to my weird obsessive thought process.

Faux Wormholes, Antiquing Lumber Series

Many of you have asked how I make new wood look old. It's definitely a process, and so I wanted to share with you some of the techniques I use , along with what they do and why, so that you can mix and match as you'd like. Here's another technique for you! 

The tool I use for this technique looks like a medieval torture device. It's designed to make lots of little tiny holes in wood similar to those made by small worms and beetles when they eat old lumber, especially my arch nemesis Powderpost beetles. You can sit there for hours with an awl or sharp stabby device, but who has time for that. This process takes long enough as it is. 

Instead, there's this, the torture device. I used a scrap piece of plywood I had in the studio and 1.5" drywall screws to make it. Pre-drill a bunch of holes with a small bit randomly over across the board, trying to keep them as perfectly straight as possible. Then, put in the screws, pushing them through the board so the sharp ends are as close to level as you can make them. 

They don't have to be as long as mine are. All you need is about a 1/4" of exposed screw tip to gouge the little holes and you're good. 

(Oh, and please do not use this on people...It's for wood only. Maybe clay or something. But not people. Use of this tool is for adults only and at your own risk.)

 

Then, you attack the lumber. Holding the block like a chalkboard eraser (do they even still make those?), slap the sharp side of the screws into the face of the wood. Repeatedly. Like, a lot. Some of the holes will be a little deeper than others, and that's fine. Remember, you're trying to make it look 'organic', so you can get away with a fair bit of sloppiness. 

If the board has a pretty wide center, like the board on the right does, I like to focus on that area. Its a tiny thing, but I like details like that. Bugs like powderpost beetles tend to eat more of the outside or the deep inside of wood, occasionally passing through the middle. Consider it a nod to authenticity, but really, just make a bunch of small holes. 

 

Once you've pulverized the board, it's time to apply the stain. With a dark stain like this (I used Minwax Early American) the pigment and base that make up the wood stain will sink into the holes more than the face of the wood. It's sort of like marinading meat; the seasonings are filling in the broken fibers and leaching into the surface better than if they just puddle on top. Now that I'm no longer hungry, I can continue. 

I like to use a pretty heavy amount of stain, and recommend using a natural bristle brush. It'll get into the small perforations a lot better. Then use a shop cloth, rag or paper towel to remove the excess that's sitting on the surface. You'll notice the holes are considerably darker than the surrounding area. As the stain dries, the stain that's in those holes will slowly spread into the wood around it, accenting them even more. Sort of like spalting (streaky black lines  that look absolutely gorgeous in wood, more on that later).

If you're using a very light stain, and you want more contrast there's a little trick to it. Use a foam brush to apply a much lighter application of the lighter stain. You're really just trying to tint the surface, but not get too much in the holes. Repeat 2-3 times until it's the color you want. As soon as you do that, use a brush to apply a darker stain, like dark walnut, over the first stain. Immediately wipe off the excess. Don't let the stain sit there for more than a minute before wiping it off.

Essentially, you're trying to saturate the top layer of the wood with the lighter color, then  get the darker stain into the pores you've made. Another way is to apply the dark stain first as normal, then come back and sand off the surface of the wood once it's fully dry. Then you put the lighter stain on. But that takes time...and I'm usually too impatient... 

Anyway, use this in conjunction with the rest of the techniques to get better looking, faux antiqued wood! Just remember to seal the project with polyurethane or polyacrylic when you're done! 

 
A fresh clean pine board, ready to get slapped.

A fresh clean pine board, ready to get slapped.

Make sure to hold the smooth side...hey, I've just got to say it. 

Make sure to hold the smooth side...hey, I've just got to say it. 

Holier than thou (I had to...)

Holier than thou (I had to...)

Stain time! 

Stain time! 

Removing the excess stain

Removing the excess stain

Voila, a worm eaten board! 

Voila, a worm eaten board! 

Vinyl Sleeves 2.0

I say this a lot, but there's something unendingly incredible about seeing an idea in your head become something tangible. I wanted to show a little bit of the process behind one of our installations we just finished, our Album Art Strips. They were commissioned by Razor and Tie, a NY based record label, for their new recording/writing/coworking space here in Nashville. 

We started with drawings. We knew we were going to use album art, but how do you reimagine them into something new and innovative? I also didn't want it to be blatant. Half the fun of these installations is about making them constant discovery moments. You can look at it every day and see something new. 

Here's the sketch that the client and I settled on.

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We liked that it had great movement and filled the wall without covering it entirely.

Then we prepped. Three sheets of plywood cut down into random width strips, cut again into random lengths, then sanded. I used a weather resistent Loctite industrial gradecspray adhesive so that humidity and durability wouldn't be an issue long term. I left overhang so that the sides could be trimmed to fit perfectly. Then we sandblasted the surface to 'age' it. I took the images down enough that you can still recognize some of the albums, but they weren't this crazy hodgepodge of color, image and text. 

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I left the tops and bottom of each panel uncovered so that it could be screwed to the cinderblock wall. It's still really hard work, but a hammer drill and good masonry bits make it so much better.

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Once the panels were all attached, we went back and covered the exposed ends. Cut them to size, a little steel wool and sanding and it was done. 

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So, what do you think?  

Super fast, incredibly cheap gold backdrop! ​

If you're like me, you don't have six weeks to glue thousands of sequins onto canvas to make a backdrop. You also don't want to spend a ton of money either. So here's a great backdrop for less than $10 and takes less than a day to make! 

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All you need is gold or silver spray paint (I HIGHLY recommend Rustoleum Bright Metallics) and thin plastic drop cloth (I used a .7 mil thickness 9'x12'). 

Open the plastic drop cloth all the way, shaking it out thoroughly. Then ball it up tight. You want a lot of wrinkles and creases in the plastic. 

Then lay out your drop cloth or hang it on a big enough wall. Make sure it won't roll into itself and ruin the paint job. Tape it down or use rocks to keep it in place.

Then start you spray painting! Make sure its a good even coat, holding the can roughly 8-10" away from the canvas.

I worked in rough sections, from top to bottom. Avoid making visible lines by going back over your work in 'camo' like patches. 

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Once your drop cloth is covered, let it dry for a little while. Rustoleum is a great brand because it dries so quick with great coverage. If you need to store your backdrop, roll it instead of folding. Paint can flake a little, or stick to itself if it's not fully dried. 

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Install is just as easy! Use rope, chain, nails, whatever you'd like! The more depth and swag the better. The folds show the strong contrast and brilliance of the paint.

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Easy as that, you're done! Less than $10 and a few hours later you have a beautiful back drop! 

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Copper Table Base

There's nothing better than when a client gives me a blank canvas. Give me a single idea, and let me run with it, and I guarantee you'll have something incredible. That's why I was so excited when a good friend of mine said she wanted a table. She was open for almost anything, as long as it looked good and had a story to it. My specialty. 

As a rule of thumb with any tabula rasa project, I always start with my materials. As many of you know, I'm a materials buff. I prefer a mix of old/reclaimed with new/modern. I instantly thought about a stock of wood that I was holding onto for a special occasion. Reclaimed heart of pine (from a type of tree that's since gone the way of the Dodo) two inch flooring that was pulled up from the floor of Al Gore Sr's tobacco barn. Absolutely stunning. And absolutely filthy. 

Years of tobacco being smushed into tongue and groove meant a LOT of gunk. I thought about the best way to clean it out, and had an idea. It's like gum. I waited for a pretty cold day, left the wood out overnight, and started into it the next morning. The tar like substance had hardened in the cold, and chipped out pretty easily. Then, four hours with steel brush got out most of the rest. Then, I got to work. 

I assembled the boards into 3'x6' slab, using pocket screws underneath that were then covered over by two brace planks. I did a little rough hand planing (with the grain, for once....fancy that) and sanded the slab into scuffed and marred perfection. Then I coated it with several layers of matte Rustoleum polyurethane, and called it a day. 

But then I needed a base. I wasn't too happy about pairing something pedestrian with then historic lumber, it needed something amazing. Soon after, I found my answer. An image of an incredible table. Marble top. Copper legs. Made for Garde in LA. 

Photo by David John

Photo by David John

And I had my answer! 

I used 1" copper pipe for the legs, and 3/4" for the brace in the middle. I decided that since the table top was inherently rough, I wanted the base to juxtapose. Instead of letting the pipe verdigris, I sealed it with a gloss coat to keep it nice and shiny. 

The end product was awesome...probably one of the best tables I've ever made. I finished it off with a single initial of the client who commissioned the blank slate table and called it a day. 

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Miriam Designs Jewelry Display

I always love problem solving. Figuring out ways to showcase an item in a way that is beautiful, but doesn't detract from what's being shown. Complementary. It also has to be ultimately useful and utilitarian. I also love the idea of a display being versatile and easy to adapt to a changing line of products. These are my favorite challenges. 

I met Gracie Moakler at Porter Flea (an incredible maker's market) this past holiday season. She purchased one of my vases, and we got to talking. Turns out the vase is for her new studio, which happens to be in the same building as mine. After talking for a few moments, she asked if I'd be interested in designing a display for her jewelry. I leapt at the opportunity. I'd always loved designing and building fixtures while working for Anthropologie, and I missed that part of the job immensely. Here was a chance to do it again, but for another company with great style and an inspirational drive. 

The end product was awesome. The entire unit is wall-mounted, sitting on a bracket so that it can be easily moved or travelled with. The half inch birch plywood features a shelf at the bottom and is riddled with very small holes to accommodate copper nails. Essentially, it's an upscale pegboard with barely-there holes. 

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From there, I designed geometric walnut busts that could be mounted in several different ways. The busts featured similar holes, allowing the copper pegs to support necklaces of different lengths and styles in different ways. 

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My favorite part is what sits on the shelf. Eight inch lengths of dark walnut are drilled with 2"x2" grid of more holes, though larger than those on the plywood. These hold mixed lengths of copper pipe, which support shelves of varied sizes. These are designed to hold bracelets, earrings or necklaces and can be arranged in so many ways. Additionally, the 8" pieces can be removed from the shelf and used as a table top display! 

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I was so excited to work on this project, and Gracie was a great client! Here work is stunning, and I'm glad I got to help showcase it. Check out her site here: www.miriam-designs.com/

If you or anyone you know needs help with a retail design or display, let us know! 

I think it's important to keep your eyes open and aware at all times. I know that sounds sort of stupid, but it's rather heartfelt. This afternoon, while on the plane, I made one of many peaks at the swiftly passing landscape 10k below me. Lo and behold, the skies below looked almost like an opal or multihued tiger's eye. I did a double take, raked the earth below with my eyes, and found a fire far below.
The smoke, dispersed over whatever winds over however many miles had created a semi-reflective surface for the sun's rays. The dappled clouds created infinite and sporadic sunbeams that then bounced back into space.
It was stunning.
I looked around, rather excited, to see if anyone else was being a wonderstruck 7 year old like I was. Nope. The magic was either lost or unnoticed on most of the other passengers.
I guess I should have shared...but I doubt anyone would have been as excited as I was. Alas, I settled for snapping a barely decent photo, that doesn't do anything bear justice. Oh well.
Keep your eyes peeled people. You never know what's in store :-)

Transient

An introduction and statement of intent

Well hello there. Sick of me yet? Good. 

Here's a brief idea of what you'll see from this blog...eventually. I'll be sharing my how to's, tips and tricks that I've stumbled upon for the last ten years of making stuff. 

Images will be shared of works I'm proud of, where they came from, what inspired them and why I think they're pretty freakin' cool. 

I'll also show you and talk about some of the things and people that get me really geeked. Gotta share the love! 

If you have any requests, I'd love to hear 'em, and I'll do my best to provide! 

Until next time, have a great day! 

-James