Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Michael Cooper: Finding Your Way

by Richard Whittaker, Jim Melchert, Aug 21, 2020



The conversation that follows, a treasure, is one of several that I never got around to publishing. Somehow I’d set it aside and gotten so busy I’d forgotten it. Rediscovering it, I marvel at its charm—and revisiting the images of Michael Cooper’s work, I’m astonished once again.
     Thinking back, I remember I’d been talking with Jim Melchert one day when he asked if I’d be interesting in driving up to visit an old student and friend of his. Well, yes, of course. Did I know Michael Cooper? No. I hadn’t heard of him. Thus, a few days later we were on our way driving north on Hwy. 101 to Michael Cooper’s home and studio. Jim hadn’t set out an agenda other than the wish to pay his old friend a visit. I asked if I might bring along my trusty Sony Walkman and do a little recording. No reason not to, he thought.
     What followed was one of those unexpected gifts. We ended up visiting for close to three hours, which included lunch when Michael’s wife joined us. All in all, I recorded an hour of conversation. It begins as Michael starts telling us about his childhood.
(all photos - r. w.)

Richard Whittaker:  And you were saying that your dad had a shop?

Michael Cooper:   It was my uncle and my grandfather. They had a cabinet shop.

Richard:   And you said you were pestering your grandfather?

Michael:   Yeah. We lived close by and I was going down there as a youngster. Then eventually, I started out sweeping the floor, restacking the wood, and fiddling with cabinets, to whatever extent they would let me.

Richard:   So your grandfather was basically bringing you along to get you started there.

Michael:   Yes, but it was old school. They weren’t catering to any kid. I’ll show you a project that he and I worked together on. So, I learned a little bit about woodworking and then blacksmith work and lathe work at the blacksmith shop.

Richard:   Like at what ages?

Michael:   10 to 13, I’d say. By then, basically, I had a pretty good sense of that world.

Richard:   Okay. And where was this?

Michael:   Lodi - outside of Lodi, actually.

Richard:   Were your parents into farming?

Michael:   My dad was a grocer. His father and mother had a fruit stand, but it burned down. Then they made a store and sold groceries. One of my most interesting stories is, when I was a teenager, I was held-up at my dad’s store. At gunpoint. That’s what later started the gun series I did, you know, like that one there [pointing]. A lot of people assume that I picked up my artistic talent from my parents. My dad had ability, but he’d never had a chance to really do anything. He moved right from being a kid into the family business of the grocery store. But he was starting to do some work on the weekends with a couple of guys who were developing a modular building system for low-cost housing. They would make panels that could be stacked into crates and put on ships, or lifted with a helicopter. This is way back. He’d made a model of this system, and that was something they could take to a potential client. They could assemble the model pieces and show what this system would be like. But when they were cutting some full-size panels, my dad cut his hand off.

Richard:   Oh, my God.

Michael:   Yeah. So now he’s a grocer who can’t work. But they re-attached his hand here in Santa Rosa and flew him down to Stanford where they did about 20 other surgeries. And while he’s recovering, he was thinking about the model making: “That was a lot of fun.” He thought. So, he’s in his early 40s, and becomes an architectural model maker. And he lived another 30 years doing that

Jim Melchert:   What a story.

Michael:   Yeah. This was back in early ’70s and, like a lot of people, he grew up in the family business. So, we were the corner store out in this little village, near a grammar school. We eventually moved close to the store because the store used to get broken into at night. People would be looking for cash or liquor. We didn’t sell liquor, and the cash was taken home each night. So, we literally moved close to the store, and my dad got a gun. I don’t think he ever took it out of the drawer, but we saw it.

Richard:   Didn’t Viola Frey come from Lodi?

Michael:   I heard that, but I never met her.

Jim:   Isn’t that interesting?

Michael:  I couldn’t introduce myself to her because I never had the courage to go up to a well-known artist and say, “Hi, I know who you are.” But I had an excellent chance to do that one day when I was with Robert Arneson.

Jim:   Oh, you should have. He would have been pleased.

Michael:  I was too afraid. I was standing there just as close as I am to you. I kick myself to this day, because it was a perfect opportunity. We were both outside of this party at Fletcher Benton’s, when he had this big deal party opening up his brand-new studio to his friends and so forth.

Richard:   Now Jim says you were a student of his at UC Berkeley?

Michael:   Yeah.     

Richard:   So how did you get into art?

Michael:   I loved art in grammar school, but you don’t think about your little bit of art stuff as anything you might do. I didn’t take any art in high school, but when I started in college, and wondering, “What am I going to do?” My high school counselor said, “How about engineering or architecture?”
     I thought, “Okay.” So I took a pre-architecture engineering class. It was a big lecture hall with a couple of hundred people. The first thing they did was scare the crap out of everybody who wasn’t math oriented, and I immediately checked out of that class.
     So, I was taking some of the general ED requirements and just sort of floundering. I’d always done decently in school because I didn’t want to be a slacker. I did take an art class and really enjoyed it, but I thought, “What do you do with it?” So, I ended up going to San Jose State as a late sophomore, where I started taking commercial art and illustration.
     They had a real good program, but I didn’t quite get trained to where I could literally go out with a portfolio, and somebody was going to say, “Yeah. You’re ready to go to work.” I would have needed another year or something. But during that time, to support myself, I started working in the three-dimensional design shop at San Jose State. And because of my background of doing these other things from being a kid, I knew as much as the teachers did about putting a bandsaw blade on, or changing a jig saw blade, or telling somebody to be careful here. So, they would leave me alone in the shop, and I had the keys, so I came and went. And during that time, I did two or three neat projects. One is that chair over there in the corner. You have to go sit in it. And I made a car out of fiberglass and steel and stuff, a little one, which later got stolen.

Richard:   This is on your own time when you had access to the shop?

Michael:   Yeah. If no one was working I might go in there and start fiddling. 
Richard:   So, you had the impulse to make some stuff for fun?

Michael:   Yeah. One of the pieces that was in my Master’s show, and is now in the Oakland museum wherever they store stuff. It was a little scooter that got more and more elaborate over time. I’ve shown it a lot. Fletcher Benton bought it; then he donated it to the museum for a tax write-off, but it was exhibited for a couple of years.
     Anyway, one of my teachers in commercial art, was Sam Smith. He was a very well-respected graphic designer in Palo Alto with his own firm. He started teaching quite late, but was brought in, because he was a real good professional. So during my last year in the  program he said, “You seem to like this three-dimensional stuff.” And Sam Richardson - did you know Sam? [known for pieces composed from layers of plastic to resemble sections of the landscape.]

Jim:   No, no.

Michael:   Well, Sam had an office right across from the school shop where I worked. I mean, I wouldn’t even approach Sam and say, “Hi, Sam. How’s it going?” I’d just kind of wander in when there were other students talking to him, and I’d listen. I liked what Sam was doing because early on, he was doing some drawing and painting on slight three-dimensional surfaces. Then he started his landscape sculptures, which were fiberglass, foam, lacquered paints and plexiglass; those were really magical. I watched him doing these things a little bit at school and just from listening to him, I got interested in going to galleries. So I started to see some galleries in San Francisco. And one of my friends, who was a student in sculpture at the time, paid my way to see a big show at the L.A. County Museum - Sculpture of the 60s…

Jim:   Oh, I saw that show. It was fabulous. Maurice Tuchman was the curator.

Jim Melchert in one of Michael Cooper's chairs.

Michael:   It blew my mind. But I was still completely inexperienced in the art world, and in the sculpture world in particular. But it really got me excited. So, I did the undergraduate requirements in sculpture that I didn’t have, and that took another year. Then I got my MA at San Jose State. Then I went to Berkeley to get an MFA, and to stay out of the draft.

Richard:   And seeing that show in L.A. was kind of a revelation and transitional moment?

Michael:   It was a big, big point.

Richard:  [to Jim] Now, you were at UC Berkeley when Michael came into the MFA program? [yes] And you were at Cal for quite a while, weren’t you?

Jim:   Yes. I took several leaves of absence, so I wasn’t there straight through. It was from about 1965 to 1993. But altogether, I was away on leave for about nine-and-a-half years. But yes, it was a long time.

Michael:   But those prestigious things you were able to do, like the American Academy and the NEA.

Jim:   Right.

Michael:   Did they just more or less automatically ask you?

Jim:   I had to apply. In each case, it was for three years. But I realized I needed to have more time. So, I spent four-and-a-half years in Washington [NEA], four years in Rome [American Academy].

Michael:   How’s your Italian?

Jim:   Now, I don’t use it so it’s not very good. But I could have a conversation like this when I was living there. Not now. 
Michael:   I went to the Academy there.…

Jim:   I’d forgotten that you were there!

Richard:   Was that through Jim that you got to the Academy?

Michael:   No, it was before. Bob Strini was a year ahead of me at San Jose, and his major was in ceramic sculpture and, as a student, he was a big influence on me, because he was the best student technically at craft. I mean, his surfaces were perfect. He would paint with lacquer on clay rather than glazing.

Richard:   Wow, that’s interesting.

Michael:   And of course, that completely pissed off [Herbert] Sanders who was such a traditionalist. Strini was doing these glazes that were magic. Sanders was big in the ceramic world, but on the complete functional side, where traditional glazes were very, very important. Well, Strini was totally an energetic student; you couldn’t keep him out of the shop. He’d hoist himself up from the outside of the building and crawl through a window to work.

Richard:   Is that literally something he did?

Michael:   Yeah. We all did. It was kind of a standing joke. Sometimes the security guy would come around and ask, “What are you guys doing in here?” We’d say, “We’re doing our art projects.” Which was true.

Richard:   That’s so funny. And you had to break-in?     
Michael:   Well, not after a point, because I had the key. The ceramics was in the Industrial Arts building, but the shop was in the regular art building. They were separate buildings.

Richard:   So, your teacher or somebody said, “Okay. These guys, let’s just give them a key.”

Michael:   Well, they couldn’t legally do that, of course. But I had a job there, so it was legal to do it. But I did plenty of things that weren’t quite probably right.

Richard: [laughs] I just love the story of the art students having to break-in to the studio to do their work.

Michael:   We used to sleep on the model’s platform, which had a mattress on it, sometimes to take a break during the crunch towards finals. If you needed a couple of hours, you’d tell somebody, “Hey, wake me up in a couple of hours.”
     We used to do our lacquer spraying in the men’s bathroom. We’d fix all the urinals so that they’d stay on and you’d set up to spray toward the urinals; it was like a waterfall sprinkler.

Jim:   That’s funny.

Michael:   The janitor, Otis, who worked on that end of the wing, was a cowboy. He was an older man and soft-spoken - just a delight. He loved the students. But the guy at the other end of the hall, it was a job to him. So, one guy liked us and the other guy thought, “Are these guys making more of a mess?” It’s so funny.

Jim:   Did Strini go to the American Academy?

Michael:   Yeah. He went there before me. He was there twice. I visited him there and that’s when I realized I wanted a life of this. I stayed for a week or two and Bob and I and his wife traveled around Italy a bit. I really liked it. But we shared a studio for a while—this was before he left, and I got him interested in wood bending. I think in the best sense, we sort of fed each other. It was a little competitive, but we weren’t working in the same area. So, if he was working hard, I’d be working hard. “Are you going to work tonight?” “I’m going to work tonight, too.” You know, that kind of crap.

From Michael Cooper's gun series...

Richard:   That’s great.

Michael:   And we had a couple of the same galleries, and the same problems with galleries, too. So, Bob went to Rome, then he came back and he taught for a little while at RISD.

Jim:   And when were you back in Rome?

Michael:   1980.

Jim:   John D’Arms would have been in the background.

Michael:   And Sophie Consagra came right afterwards. We got to know her a little bit, too.

Jim:   Sophie was my predecessor.

Michael:   Nice woman. John was nice, too. I mean, it was such a different experience, you know? But most of my time, certainly up until the last 15 or 20 years, I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I was always a little lost when I was engrossed in a project because everything is so complicated. So if in the making, it doesn’t suggest what’s next—which often has happened—I’m just stuck.

Richard:   That must be an uncomfortable place to be. How does that work for you?

Michael:   Well, it works badly. There was a lot of staring at stuff that wasn’t finished and trying to figure out what else was going to be put on there.

Richard:   What’s the title of this? [pointing]

Michael Cooper's piece Checks and Balances

Michael:   Checks and Balances.

Richard:   What does it mean to you?

Michael:   I’d rather ask you.

Richard:   I sort of hold my breath when I ask an artist question like that. I know it’s awkward to try to pin an artist down. What was the beginning part for you? You must have had some idea or something?

Michael:   Yeah, I really did. I had listened to two lectures by a doctor from Australia named Helen Caldicott. Do you know that name?

Richard:   Isn’t she the anti-nuclear advocate?

Michael:   I think she was a medical doctor and then she became one of the early crusaders who was trying to say we need to save the planet; we’re going too fast, too far. And she had lots of statistics. She was on NPR. That’s where I heard her first. She was saying how we’re over-populating, we’re consuming too much, we’re wasting too much, we’re overusing our natural resources.    
Richard:   Yes. 
Michael:  [describing his sculpture - Checks and Balances] So, he’s a businessman and he’s stripped off his coat-jacket. But he’s still got his tie. When I explain this, it sounds so stupid. And he no longer has arms because we don’t use our arms or hands anymore; instead, we use computers. Other people make things. So, on this side it’s more Native American with Kachina mask, but here, there are missiles and a bomb. It has these two perspectives, like Native American and military-business things, and trying to come to grips with what we’ve been doing.
     After I got it all done, I felt it was a good piece. But when people were seeing it, they weren’t getting it the way I thought it read. That really depressed me. Then I felt, okay, if I want to say something, I need to write it, or give talks like Helen Caldicott—or do something else. I can’t do it as an artist, because I’m preaching to the choir.

Richard:   That’s very interesting to hear you describe that. When you started this piece, and as it developed, I’m hearing you say is you wanted to make a portrait of some of the issues facing us—things we really need to think about because we’re in danger of something.

Michael:   Right. I was frightened. I thought that with the way we’re going in the world having this idea of always having to be “more productive”—and I assumed her figures were correct—then we’re in horrible trouble. And maybe we still are.
     I heard Buckminster Fuller was going to give a talk, and he walked out, but before he left he said, “We’ve gone too far”—you know, whatever we’ve done to the system of the world, we’ve gone too far. And he left. He didn’t give a talk - anyway, that's what I heard and it may be wrong.

Richard:   Well, one can easily imagine it, and would have to feel it’s very relevant today.    
Michael:   When Gore, when they got that movie done, you know, the one?

Richard:   An Inconvenient Truth?

Michael:   Yes. It frightens you, but no matter how big the fright is, we settle back into our routines, and it’s okay and what does really change? How fast does change occur?

Richard:   Right. It’s disturbing and a big topic, but I’m curious to know more about your process of making these works, which are so elaborate—could you say something about that?
Michael:   Well, I’ve really discovered the way I like to work. I’ve been doing it now very seriously, since graduate school in mid-60s. I used to love to draw. And I used to draw my ideas.

Richard:   Would you say more about the drawing part?    
Michael:   In high school I took four full years of mechanical drawing. I really liked it, but it was one of those things they decided boys should do. It would keep them away from girls for another hour each day.[laughs] And often, we we’d be drawing an industrial part. You had to do your top view, side view and your end view; and then sometimes an isometric drawing using all three aspects. And then we got into house plans and designing houses. I loved the whole thing.

Richard:   So say what you loved about it.

Michael:   You use a mechanical drawing pencil and one of the ways we were graded was literally, on the proper line weight. Some lines have a certain weight and other lines another weight. It gives a different look. Well, I loved trying to do that well, like making corners real sharp.

Richard:   There’s something there about getting it just right. The careful attention.

Michael:   I’ve always like that, because I started out way before high school with model airplanes; that’s when model airplanes were balsa wood and little sticks. It was slow work, and you had to plan; you had to do it in a certain, proper order; and you learned patience.

Richard:   Right.

Michael:   Well, the way I learned patience is by destroying a bunch of stuff. You know, if you make a mistake and continue anyway, you end up destroying what you’ve tried to make carefully. After a few times of that I realized, “This is stupid. If I’m going to do it, I’ve got to relax and enjoy it!” And I did enjoy it. This was in college. Then after college, I finally realized there’s no point in getting mad.
     Once, I was angry because I'd made a mistake and I grabbed a big tool and threw it. It hit the wall, bounced and then hit Bob Strini’s piece. And he was right there! A few years after that, though, I finally calmed down, to where now, when I make pretty good-sized mistakes sometimes, I don’t even swear. It’s just a waste of time. But we got off the subject of drawing.

Richard:   That’s okay. It’s a great story.  But let’s go back to artist’s process of making the work—what is it that makes it rewarding?

Michael:   Well, I like each aspect of it. I really do. I just started a project a few days ago, where I’m finally excited for the first time in at least a couple of years. It’s very mechanical. Then there’s going to be a big visual element. It’s a chair and will be something like that helicopter chair. But it also happens to be a contraption. The contraption part started from my love of those old bi-wing World War II trainer-type planes they used to use for crop-dusters. I love that radial motor, the sound of it. I wanted to make a motorized thing and the sound of it was going to be important.
     So I designed the entire top. First, I designed a single engine with a shaft, going into a central area. I figured out by drawing and looking at the spec sheets of different sized gears, that I could get eight motors into a big cluster [gestures]. Then I figured out the exhaust part. That was the most incredibly critical and wonderful revelation.  For each 450 the exhaust would grow one-inch in diameter. It starts out at one, and after eight motors, it’s eight inches.
     So I did that as a mechanical drawing with a top view, full-size, and a side view. Then I could measure my diameter. I knew one angle was a right-angle, and one angle was a few degrees off right-angle, going towards the center. And when you know the diameter, you can use your calculator and figure out your circumference. Anyway the whole top got made. I pulled it up in the air with my chain hoist. Then I started to design the bottom. There was no connection whatsoever between the top and the bottom until the top was done.

Richard:   There’s something about all this.

Michael:   It was so much fun! But sometimes they’re not. What I like about that type of project is there’s no plan. You can’t plan it. You know the chair I had you sit in that’s real low? You said it fit real good on your back? [yes] Well, I built that real tall leg and just held it up out there in the shop and then decided, “Okay. The seat’s going to be somewhere here.” [gestures]. Then I went from there down to here.
     So you start with knowing one thing—it’s going to have a seat. Then what’s the seat going to be made of? That gives you another known-thing, and you make this connection. And maybe now you’re stuck. So you come back and to your mocked-up version.
     I kept looking at it and thinking of little changes that would work better. But eventually I discarded all of that when I realized I  could make these bent laminations. That was a surprise. So in the process, you know you’re going to get stuck. You just trust yourself that it’s going to work out.

Richard:   It’s interesting how this process is so engaging and even kind of nourishing. Would you agree that there’s something nourishing?

Michael:   I don’t think I’d keep doing it if there wasn’t.

Jim:   It’s like a form of meditation. You’re outside of yourself, in a way.

Michael:   Yes. My days are very regimented. I eat at the same time pretty much every day, and when I’m out in the workshop, I’m very focused. I try to get stuff done. I like the process, I really do. But if there’s a choice between doing something with a chisel and a mallet, or with a grinder, I’m going to do it with a grinder. It’s going to be noisy and messier, but it’s going to be faster.
     Somebody will ask, “How do you control using the grinder?” Well, you just learn how to hold it and do it. This is one of the things I love with teaching. The way I used to explain welding, I said, “Welding is just like typing.”
     Now, I can’t type, but I can find an A. I can find the B, and so forth. So welding is just like typing: you practice. Like with the Heliarc, you’ve got a foot pedal, you hold the rod, and you’ve got a torch. Once you hit the foot pedal down, you can make your spark, and once the metal is hot enough you can add your rod. There’s only a couple of things you have to do, but you have to practice to get decent at it.

Richard:   Right. But that’s just the process.

Michael:   Yes. You have to kind of like what you’re about to do, or why would you do it?

Jim:   I find that there’s a certain amount of factory work that goes into making something, which is very different from the other phases in the process where you’ve got to have your whole attention on this thing. For example, often with glazing, which is a matter of repetitive action, I’ll have the radio on because that’s factory work. There’s a big difference between the two. I don’t object to the factory work. I could hire somebody to do it. But by doing it myself, I’m so much closer to it and I don’t want to give this bond I have to somebody else. Something about the hands on part supports that relationship.

Michael:   Fletcher Benton has always been a good friend to me, and always an advisor. I was an assistant of his for a year right out of graduate school. His work relies on having assistants. And he’ll tell you this pointblank. He says, “I think of what I want to build, but I don’t need to build every single part.”
     Take maquettes built just for developing an idea—they’re crude and done ten times faster. I’ve seen Fletch with Michael, who will weld the parts for him. Fletcher will select a couple of pieces and say, “Okay. Let’s put that right there.” Then he’ll tack that. Then at some point, Fletcher will decide to take something off, or move it. Sometimes they’ll make several pieces in a morning and he might look at those for quite a while.
     Then he’ll decide, “Okay. Let’s make this one this big.” And he’s done. There’s another fellow who will sandblast it and then he’ll paint it.  It was no different really, when I worked for him.
     But I just have to noodle out what’s going to be next, because I don’t even know what’s going to be next. And the shape, it’s going to happen in the grinding. At some point in the process I’ll decide, “Okay. I want that.” I love every bit of it, but that’s why I can’t make much work.

Jim:   Yes. Well see, there’s a real progression with your work, and it’s just so interesting.

Richard:   That’s an interesting process, where you say, “I’m not sure what the shape is going to be, so I work on it, and then I discover it.” That, that’s it right there. We say, “I decided,” but really, I think, the closer look at that would show that something inside says, “yes,” which isn’t really the same thing as saying, “I decided.”

Michael:   Right.

Jim:   [raps table three times]. But see, that’s the body.

Richard:   Yes. You were saying that touch gives something, and it seems like in this culture we’re getting further and further away from touch.

Michael:   It’s real interesting when I have work on display and somebody walks up and realizes I’m the person who made it. I can see they want to touch it, but they know they’re not supposed to. So I’ll say, “If you want to touch it, go ahead.” Because I know they want to.

Richard:   Absolutely.

Michael:   And I’m thinking, you know, when I’m done with a piece, I’m really done. Like I’ve seen Sam Maloof actually caress his furniture; he loves that. He’s not just selling you that thing, he loves what he’s done, and he loves feeling it again.

Jim:   He would read a piece with his hands. I remember one time, someone had this Japanese tea ball, a treasure, and most people would look at it like this, turn it upside down. Pete Voulkos had his hands all over it to read it. But I have one touch story I’ve got to tell you, because it was a profound moment for me. It was Maria Nordman, an artist from Los Angeles in those days. She’s German. Back in the ‘60s at one point, they were tearing down some hotel in San Francisco to make way for the convention center, I think. And word got around that there was going to be a Maria Nordman installation in the March Hotel downstairs, and that you had to be there between five and seven in the evening—absolutely those times.  
     So, we put the kids in the car and drove to San Francisco. It was 5:00, 5:30, and there was a little line. One person was allowed in at a time. One person would come out of the building and the next person would go in, close the door, and so on. Finally, my turn came, and I went inside. There was no light at all, and the door had shut. So, you wait until your eyes adjust. I knew she worked with light, to some extent – she and Bob Irwin would appear in the same sentence very often - and I turned, and to my left, I saw this very large room. It felt like a downstairs lounge or something. Then I began to perceive there was a kind of curtain across across the room, and it was glowing. I thought, “Yes, Bob Irwin would use a white silk scrim in a lot of his pieces.” Then I thought, “God, that’s what she’s done. She stretched this fabric across there.” But it had this extraordinary glow. So I walked over to it and I talked to myself, like, “I’m not supposed to touch this, but I’m going to.” So I put my hand out like this [gestures] and it went right through it.
     What she’d done was, in the exterior wall, with a blade, she’d cut just a slice through it, and  this light was coming through, a plane of light. You didn’t know it was just light until you went through it. Wow. That was one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had, because it was actually physical, but with energy.

Richard:   That’s really amazing.

Jim:   Isn’t that something?  Very memorable.

Michael:   Yeah. Because at the moment you realize there’s nothing there, you’ve already had to go through where you thought it was. Until that moment, you don’t know.

Jim:   That’s right. I was even expecting a little tug, or something.    


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.
Jim Melchert is a renowned artist. He was chair of the art department at UC Berkeley for twenty years. From 1977 - 1981 he directed the Visual Arts program for the N.E.A. in Washington, D.C. He was director of the American Art Academy in Rome from 1984 - 1988.     


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Interview: Gail Needleman Gail Needleman taught music at Holy Names University in Oakland, ... Read More 197068 views

The Dumpster       “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 162179 views