Artist of the Month - An interview with SIMON CROFT
Simon Croft photographed by Peter Herbert
"The 2022 LOUDEST WHISPERS exhibition proved a revelation for many of the 36 artists involved, with major developments for several of our artists.
One of the highlights included the 13th offering by Simon Croft. Simon (he/him) is trans and makes artworks that explore and reflect on his experiences of trans life. In doing so, his work touches on many aspects of gender and life experience that have much wider relevance. His art questions our relationships to our bodies, our gender, and societal norms – how, when and whether we fit into those norms or confront their limitations - and the joys and challenges that accompany this.
These past 13 years have seen him produce a series of multimedia artworks ranging from personal beginnings to wider views of life relating to aesthetics, politics, sport, identity, language, laws, and literature. Alongside this, Simon has developed the training and consultancy arm of trans-led charity Gendered Intelligence where he is currently Director of Professional and Educational Services. Simon also has a background in commercial manufacturing as an engineer and in the not-for-profit sector as a governance specialist.
Simon transitioned in 1998, nearly 25 years ago, in a period when there were virtually no legal protections for trans people and when legal gender change was not possible in the UK. The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) came into force in 2004, with applications opening in 2005. This finally enabled Simon to marry his long-term partner, Susie, in 2006. They have now been together over 32 years. The introduction of the GRA coincided with the period from 2003 to 2006 when Simon studied for a Fine Art degree at Kingston University.
Our interview for the Arts Project series Artist of the month celebrates these 13 years with 13 facts and figures you may not know about Simon Croft and his work."
THE ARTS PROJECT
13 FACTS AND FIGURES ABOUT SIMON CROFT AND LOUDEST WHISPERS
In his last year at Kingston, Simon created HAIR SHIRT PARTS 1 and 2. This was first exhibited at Loudest Whispers in 2009 and remains one of the most personal and sensitive works of this series, focusing on Simon’s experience of physical embodiment and its interaction with his sense of self and with the perceptions of others. Can you tell us more about the importance of this early work and how it speaks to our relationship with our bodies?
“Hair Shirt” is a two-part work that draws on my experience of transition. It uses clothing as a metaphor for the body - as a body is clothed by fabric, so a person is clothed by their body, and the choices we make regarding it can be both intensely personal / intimate and a means by which we publicly communicate ourselves to others.
The two “Hair Shirt” works reveal the importance to me of finding my first proper beard hair after starting on testosterone, of growing the beard itself, of presenting that sign of visible masculinity which most men can take for granted. They embody the eagerness with which I anticipated the physical changes of transition, keen to finally ‘grow up’ and put on my adult ‘clothes’, whilst at the same time still experiencing other people’s mistaken perceptions and assumptions of my gender, as symbolised by the embroidery ring. The work also subverts the idea of a hair shirt as penitence and reclaims it as a subject of pride. For me, it is very important to be proud to own a trans body and to resist institutions and conventions that demand otherwise."
2. There are 2 rugby balls in KICKED INTO TOUCH (2021). Can you tell us more about how this related to developments across the sporting world when there was controversy over World Rugby’s blanket exclusion of trans women from women’s rugby in 2021?
"In mid-2020, World Rugby released proposals to ban all trans women from playing rugby. The proposals also banned trans men, unless they were physically vetted and signed away all their rights. Despite significant responses from many rugby clubs across the world saying that the proposals were unnecessary, unreasonable, and damaging to the inclusive name of rugby, World Rugby went ahead and introduced them anyway.
I consider that such a ban further reduces trans people’s already limited access to sport, affecting people’s opportunities to keep fit and look after their bodies. It ignores the impact on the mental wellbeing of those already playing rugby, who face having to give up the game, losing the friendship circle, camaraderie and support that may be crucial to them.
Whilst there are discussions to be had, there are undoubtedly trans-inclusive ways to approach sport that are both fair and safe. Blanket removals of trans rights, rooted in fear and prejudice, will not break the spirit of trans folk.
‘Kicked Into Touch’ deconstructs several rugby balls, and, using the colours of the trans flag, shows the seeds of a trans inclusive version of rugby rising from the dying flower of the old game."
It takes 3 minutes to watch your remarkable short film RELIQUARY 2 made in 2008. The film with its sense of illusion has valuable links to the genre of conceptual experimental films with its pure and simple grasp of time and space. How does the experience of watching this contrast with your other non-film work and what did you want to share with viewers here using film?
"This was indeed an experimental piece – a very simple process with an uncertain outcome that I expected to have to repeat many times to discover a finished piece. In the end it was one of those serendipitous moments that gave the finished piece in a single take.
It begins with the image of a simple ‘Play School’ house, which is one that recurs in my work as a metaphor for the body (as described in #4 below). In this instance I was exploring the idea of ‘constructive destruction’ – the idea that at times you need to clear away the old in order to allow the new to appear and flourish.
I see it as a line drawing in space that effectively unravels, giving a sense of a film playing backwards although it is running forwards. I wanted it to be both disconcerting and meditative, leaving people unsure what they were seeing - until the very end offers some clues but no definitive resolution.
I think that in contrast with my non-film work, this is both a far less ‘resolved’ piece and a fuller documentation of process. I have always been keen to re-engage with film for that reason – process is core to a considerable amount of my work but is typically invisible in the finished piece. I haven’t yet quite found the place or way back into that. It does feel like unfinished business."
There are 4 windows that can be found in the 4 houses that make up TEMPLE (2016). You’re a graduate engineer and there is a sense of precision that feels mathematical in the way your work is conceived and constructed. Can you tell us about the source of inspiration that informs this piece with 4 houses, two of which contain 4 windows?
"Temple was inspired by the History Month theme ‘Religion, Belief and Philosophy: A Leap of Faith’.
The basic house motif is one that I often return to in my work. The idea of a house as embodied by the children’s TV ‘Play School’ house is very recognisable to people of my generation. To me, it represents the idealised detached house with a central door and 4 windows that we were taught to aspire to, but which bears little relation to most people’s actual homes. This discrepancy between the house we are taught to draw and the homes we live in, parallels the discrepancy between the way we are culturally expected to behave in line with binary gender stereotypes, and the enormous diversity people exhibit in their real lives as regards gender. It also speaks to the discrepancy between the sorts of idealised bodies we are expected to have, to aspire to, or to find desirable, as depicted in many media, when real bodies come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, and configurations. It plays on the phrase “My body is a temple”.
The large house has specific meaning and multiple connections to the theme. It is covered in ‘bricks’ made from images of the actual manuscript of Lobzang Jivaka’s autobiography (Jivaka was previously, and more widely, known by his Western name of Dr Michael Dillon). Jivaka was one of the first trans men who transitioned with the aid of hormones and surgery. He studied at Oxford pre-transition, where he rowed in the women’s eight, gained a medical doctorate at Trinity College Dublin where he rowed in the men’s eight, and served as a ship’s doctor before becoming a novice Buddhist monk in India where he subsequently died before becoming fully ordained. His autobiography remained unpublished for over 50 years after his death and was still unpublished at the time ‘Temple’ was made. This also links to the themes of Q6."
There are 5 parts to GLOBALLY SPEAKING ( 2018) with one part different and smaller than the others. What is the idea and inspiration behind this decision?
"Four of the works show a country outline with one of the most dominant / well known terms associated with its gender divergent people carved into it. The fifth work, deliberately smaller, multi coloured and multi layered, is made of the card removed from around the terms in the other four. Overall, the series reflects on the importance and power of language – who is included in particular terms, who defines those terms, who uses them, how those terms are subject to borders and boundaries, and what happens when there is no word for your experience and it remains unspoken.
The individual country works also invite viewers to consider wider aspects – American Samoa was colonised by the US; how might that have impacted on the experiences of people there? ‘Traws’ is a direct translation of the English term ‘trans’ – what terms have existed or could exist in the Welsh language? ‘Hijra’ is a term associated with the experiences of some people assigned male at birth (and some members of the intersex community) in India – what is the experience of masculine-spectrum people assigned female at birth? And in England, ‘trans’ is often thought of as a fully inclusive term, yet there are many people whose gender identity doesn’t align with their assigned sex, who don’t feel it speaks to them. Language evolves continually – what words might we be using in 10 or 20 years from now?"
The D'Eon Gambit (2015) is inspired by one of the most charismatic and visible figures in trans-related history. The Chevalier or Chevalière d'Eon (1728-1810) was a decorated soldier, diplomat, author, spy, and expert sword fighter who broadly lived until the age of 49 as male and for the next 32 years until death at age 81 as female. Their anatomical sex was the subject of wagers and debates. The installation in Loudest Whispers was especially poignant as this 3D installation faced the exact location in the Old St Pancras Church Gardens of the Burdett Coutts memorial where the name of The Chevalier is inscribed alongside the names of other French people buried in the gardens. The work involves 6 different kinds of chess pieces. Can you tell us more about why role models are important and 6 people who serve as your own key role models?
"The term ‘role models can imply putting people on a pedestal, and I prefer to think of the importance of visible, ordinary people, being themselves, some of whom may do extraordinary things. I think visibility is crucial – it’s often said that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and there’s a lot of truth in that. Equally, increased visibility of a marginalised group can further privilege the most privileged in that group and render the least privileged even more vulnerable. And individually, visibility can come at a massive cost.
Perhaps I can best answer the question by naming six groups of people who do things I consider important, and which resonate with things I aim or aspire to do:
Artists – It’s crucial for any group of people, including trans people, to be able to see themselves represented, to see different ways of being and diverse expressions and responses to similar experiences, to find ways to explore and think about what it means to, for example, be trans. Arts of all kinds – visual art, film and TV, music, dance etc - are vital vehicles for this.
The Chevalier, as a famous and visible person of their time, was recorded in various paintings (such as "The Assault, or Fencing Match, which took place at Carlton House on the 9th of April 1787, between Mademoiselle La Chevalière d'Eon de Beaumont and Monsieur de Saint George.” Engraving by Victor Marie Picot, based on the original painting by Charles Jean Robineau 1789).
Historians and Archivists – As trans folk, it can be hard to identify our ancestors – those who may have had similar feelings in very different times. Historians seek out those who lived what we might describe in modern terms as a trans-spectrum life of some kind (although it’s impossible to apply current understandings of trans retrospectively, we can often identify synergies). They play a key role in enabling us to feel connected to a history, and feel we have roots. The 2012 discovery of a fabulous portrait of the Chevalier d’Eon by the National Portrait Gallery is one such example. Archivists ensure the history we are creating now for future generations, is preserved and not lost. Writers, Storytellers and Filmmakers – the more stories that are produced, especially by trans folk themselves about their own real lives, and the more diverse voices that are heard, the more the whole spectrum of gendered experiences expands into a vibrant tapestry where everyone can find their connections and see themselves reflected. The Chevalier wrote an autobiography which was only translated into English in the 20th century, despite having been written in the 1700s.
Activists – Nothing improves for marginalised folk unless people make it improve. The world needs those who stand up to be counted, stand for inclusion, kindness and respect, try to create positive change, and don’t give up in the face of bigotry, prejudice and fear. Whilst in one sense the Chevalier wasn’t an activist in the way we might think of today, they were activist in terms of resolutely living a gender different life – just visibly existing can be a political act.
Educators – Most people do the right thing when they understand what that is. Education is the biggest tool to address fear and prejudice – people fear what they don’t understand and become prejudiced when they only have misinformation or assumptions on which to base their views. Educators do nothing less than change the world we live in, and I’m proud to lead such a team at GI (see Q9). Supporters – all those who invest time and effort in supporting trans folk, whether informally as peer supporters, mentors, buddies, friends, family, partners, or formally as counsellors, youth workers etc. Everyone needs allies to stand alongside them at times, and trans folk need cis allies (cis or cisgender broadly means ‘not trans’)."
There are 7 figures that comprise INSIDE OUT OUTSIDE IN (2011). Can you tell us about the significance of the use of mirrors
"This piece considers how our identities are reinforced or suppressed by the approval or disapproval reflected to us from the outside world on the basis of our appearance and behaviour - and how that approval remains highly gendered. As small children, we rapidly learn what we are required to project, and who we are required to be, in order to be found acceptable, to belong. If our sense of self has some dissonance with those social demands, we are placed in the position of having to make choices regarding the extent to which we comply. And whatever those choices are, they have a cost attached. This issue affects everyone to some extent, and for trans people the dissonance can be particularly acute. Who and what is reflected back to us, both in actual physical mirrors and in the mirror that society holds up to us, is often unrecognisable: fragmented, incomplete and disturbing?
Yet at the same time, a mirror ‘resists’, it pushes back out. The dolls’ surface resists definition, saying little about them, instead commenting on the environment in which they’re located, changing depending on the site and angle at which they’re viewed. The Russian doll is a gender-neutral figure – only when its surface is painted does it take on an identity. By covering these dolls with mirror - some fully, some partially, and including marked or damaged fragments - they draw attention to that surface and how it functions."
PHOENIX (2020) is made from a copy of Robert Allen’s 1954 autobiography “But For The Grace”. Each piece was burnt out of the original book using a pyrography (wood burning) tool. In your notes for this piece, you draw attention to the fact that Allen, born in 1914, transitioned in 1944 whilst World War II was still raging, and that shortly before the start of that war, 20,000 books and journals from the library and archives of Magnus Hirschfeld's ‘Institute of Sex Research’ were publicly burned in Berlin by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’. This included a vast amount of material relating to trans folk. I know you have a personal collection of well over 400 trans-related books. Which 8 would you choose as being particularly important to you and that you most value?
"Of my collection, it’s worth noting that only 9 were written before I were born in 1966, and only 36 before I transitioned in 1998.
Stories of trans lives have historically been devalued, dismissed, suppressed, distorted, and misused. But we come back like the phoenix of this artwork, telling our own stories in our own voices; voices which are becoming more diverse as time moves on. My collection now includes works by black, brown, non-binary, autistic, gender fluid, non-Western and religious people which were rarely valued for commercial publication until recently, though that diversity can’t be represented in the short list below. And that still doesn’t represent anything like the full spectrum of experiences. For example, I am conscious I am not seeing stories from Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Australian, Samoan, Fijian +++ trans folk, at least not in English translations.
Initially, I sought out stories and writing which spoke to, and helped me understand, my own personal experiences – white, English, abled, atheist, trans masculine – and those examples are strongly represented in this list. My reading and interests have since become much broader and are framed differently, partly by my own developing understandings of privilege and what’s important, and partly by my day job (see Q9)
It’s hard to choose just 8! In some instances, these are examples of groups of books that I value, for example, early autobiographies, storytelling, critical thinking, etc:
1. Body Alchemy by Loren Cameron, 1996. Cameron was the first trans man to publish a book of trans masculine photographic portraits, including nude self-portraits, which was instrumental in my own self-understanding.
2. The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman, 2009. Bergman is a great storyteller who I’ve also seen live. This is a wonderful book of well-observed short essays about trans life based on his own experiences.
3. My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein, 1998. One of several books by Bornstein that could have made the list. Bornstein writes with pointed humour and generosity of spirit. I particularly love the ‘workbook’ style of this book. I remember seeing her speak at TransFabulous in 2008 during which she removed what she wore on her head, which I think was about being fully present in her unadorned embodied self in that moment. After her incredible and amazing talk, I spoke to her and said what a moment it had been that she felt able to remove her hair in that space with everyone’s eyes on her and to be in that vulnerable moment. She replied, ‘Thank you for calling it my hair’.
4. From Juliet to Julius by Julius Kaggwa, 1997. It took me over 10 years to get a copy of this autobiographical book which was published in Uganda. I eventually got a copy via a contact in South Africa. I was keen to hear stories from other countries and they were (and remain in many instances) very hard to find in English translation, especially written from within those groups or communities and not framed via a (white, Western) academic lens.
5. Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions by Lobzang Jivaka (previously Michael Dillon), 1962/2016. This is the autobiography mentioned in Q4 which was published 50+ years after the writer’s death. It can be hard to find our ‘ancestors’ as trans folk, and this is a truly amazing life story spanning 1915-1962.
6. TransNational Geographic by Neeve, 2002. A tiny self-published book of poetry that I bought at the Amsterdam Transgender film festival. It has a beautiful, imaginative visual layout and amazing poems, some of which I was lucky enough to hear performed live at the festival. A little jewel.
7. TERF Wars: Feminism and the Fight for Transgender Futures, eds. Ben Vincent, Sonja Erikainen, Ruth Pearce, 2020. An excellent series of papers that explore and debunk current anti-trans narratives.
8. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, 2021. A recent critically acclaimed novel that doesn’t reduce trans life to the tired old trope of medical transition, but instead presents nuanced, complex, messy, flawed characters and experiences who don’t toe the line of stereotypical trans narratives.
And to sneak in an ‘extra’…
Trans Studies Quarterly, Duke University Press, 2014 onwards – this is a bit of a cheat as it’s an ongoing series. TSQ was the first, and I think is still the only, trans specific academic journal. It always raises new perspectives and topics – there’s always something to think about. This is one resource I go to learn about trans experiences that may be very different to my own – experiences of trans women, black and brown trans folk, indigenous experiences, people with disabilities, people who are neurodivergent, people of faith, and intersections with fat studies for example."
The training function of Gendered Intelligence was formalised 9 years ago. Can you tell us how it came about, how it has grown, why it’s important and how it intersects with your art?
"Gendered Intelligence originated to provide activities for young trans people. Because of our growing knowledge and skills, the organisation developed as a result, and they were occasionally asked to deliver training on an ad hoc basis.
In 2013, I was working with them as a freelancer on various projects when I noticed this. I realised there was a widespread need for good, clear, positive trans awareness training and that if GI offered that as a chargeable service, it would likely do well. In my view it was essential not only to support young trans people through youth work activities, but to get out there and change the world they and all trans folk lived in, so we all had better experiences.
As I already had a strong training background and considerable trans-related knowledge, Jay (co-founder of GI) asked if I fancied formalising the training offer. So, I did. I standardised and modularised the training to make it consistent, put systems in place to track and evaluate it, to manage enquiries and quotes, to invoice, and to follow up.
When I started there was perhaps one session every 4-6 weeks. Within about a year there was more work than I could manage on my own. I was travelling and training nationally – there was huge demand. We reached out to another person we knew who was training as a sole trader, brought them in, and started to form the basis of a department. Year on year, the training grew, at least doubling annually for the first few years – and this was essentially achieved by word of mouth. We recruited more people and have continued to grow.
When the pandemic arrived, our delivery dipped initially as we had to convert everything for remote delivery, but it soon recovered. Last year our training department of 7 people trained over 7000 people via nearly 300 sessions. In total, we’ve now trained over 30,000 people across more than 1500 sessions. As mentioned in Q6, education changes hearts and minds, and I am lucky to work alongside some amazing trainers who excel at what they do.
I stay up to date with issues affecting trans folk because of my work, and that feeds into my artwork – ‘(L)Awful Situations’ and ‘Kicked into Touch’ being two examples."
There are 10 short statements on the seeds used in SEEDING IDEAS (2019) which were suspended from the ceiling of the gallery. What is the source of inspiration for these and why did you choose 10?
"This piece comprises 10 dandelions ‘seeds’, each with a short idea relevant to trans people (and others) written on it, both on the ‘seed’ body and the flight fronds that allow the seed to fly. The 10 statements are: Sex is not binary; Gender is a spectrum; non-binary is valid; Gender fluidity exists; Biology is not destiny; Queerness is creative; Complexity is OK; Behaviours matter, not bodies; Past doesn’t override present; Labels don’t define us.
Peaceful activism is very much about seeding ideas, discussing nurturing and supporting them, and allowing them to grow into something amazing. I specifically chose dandelion seeds for several reasons.
Firstly, I love dandelions! They are such a sunny, positive, bright yellow, and their puffballs are a joy - intricate, delicate and beautiful. Yet so many people think of them as weeds, something undesirable; they dismiss their beauty or try to wipe them out, but they always keep coming back. What is a weed, but a very successful plant? I think this is a great metaphor for many of the issues LGBT+ people have faced over the years, but we are strong and positive, and we take root and grow, and we remain. The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the French “dent de lion” (lion’s tooth) referring to the tooth-like shape of the leaves. And good ideas do have a bite!"
Your work often includes examples of how words are powerful indicators of how we think. The installation ‘Convincing’ (2012) uses the phrase ‘You’re very convincing’ and the response ‘Thank you, So are you’ and you offered a piece entitled ‘Normal, Natural, Real’ for the Arts Project’s 10th anniversary show.
The title ‘(L)Awful Situations’ (2017) is another play on words referring to the ways in which legal provisions (or the lack of them) can affect trans people. One such provision is ability to have a legal gender other than M or F; another is the ability to self-declare one’s gender. Over 11 countries now enable each of these options, but not the UK. Can you tell us more?
"Not only do our thoughts shape the words we choose to use, but the range of words we know shapes and sometimes limits our thoughts - things we have no words for often remain invisible to us. How can we talk about or understand non-binary identities, for example, if we don’t have a term like ‘non-binary’? How can we talk about the privileges attached to cisgender life experiences if we don’t know the word ‘cisgender’?
Words and categories are extraordinarily powerful, and like all powerful things can be used in positive ways, or in ways which cause harm.
What does it mean not to have a legal category that accurately describes your gender, not to have words on your documentation that reflect who you are, and how does that affect how people regard you? What does it mean not to be able to choose the words and categories that you feel best describe you, and be subject to the perceptions and decisions of others? Globally Speaking (Q5) also connects to this theme.
These works aim to draw attention to where the power lies in these situations. In trans lives, power frequently lies with legal, medical, and governmental systems and not with trans people themselves."
Over 12 years, is there any other important and successful element of the series of works that you would like to tell us about?
"I think one other piece I would like to mention is ‘Suited’(2014). “Suited” is a life-size suit jacket made out of black card, collaged all over with the opened-out cartons from “Sustanon 250” (testosterone) injections, representing my personal usage for about 4 years.
It is hung on a simple, free-standing frame, so it hangs at roughly the level it would be at if I was wearing it.
It links to ‘Hair Shirt’ as regards reflecting on how testosterone has ‘clothed’ me in a body which shows the world who I feel myself to be – a smart suit I am proud to be seen in.
With hindsight it is a commentary on the paradox of visibility and invisibility – walking through the world, no-one ever sees me as anything other than a cisgender man, but claiming this as my ‘suit’ is claiming visibility of an particular experience which is of value.
I was really flattered that Suited was subsequently chosen as a display piece and is now part of a permanent collection in the Bishopsgate Institute as part of the ‘Museum of Transology’ https://www.museumoftransology.com/. "
The latest and 13th artwork is a very timely work. ‘Pawned’ (2022) forms a link with several previous works especially those which speak to power dynamics, such as (L)Awful Situations and Kicked into Touch.
‘Pawned’ is a chess set with the pawns painted in the colours of the trans, non-binary, gender fluid and agender flags and the main pieces painted in the colours of the 2 dominant English political parties, placed on a partially mirrored playing surface.
It comments on the fact that politicians often say they will support marginalised folk and address their needs to garner votes, but often fail to act on these promises, leaving those communities feeling betrayed and used like pawns in a game. A typical example case is the current U-turn excluding trans people from conversion therapy legislation, and previously the 2020 failure to update the GRA to a self-declaration model despite a national consultation coming out strongly in favour of doing so.
Can you tell us about how you perceive this now, how it could be resolved and where you see yourself developing in the years ahead both as an artist and an activist?
"Trans people’s rights are completely unsupported by the current government and that undoubtedly causes a range of issues from lack of non-binary recognition, to lack of access to appropriate and timely medical care, to lack of access to sport, and more, all of which which should be called out and challenged.
But at the same time, most ordinary people are fine with trans people having rights, being included, and being respected - they are supportive of us. In GI training we see this reflected in most delegates across many settings every week. I believe positivity and kindness will make the difference, and that eventually those inclusive perspectives will in turn be reflected in better laws and provisions. As with all marginalised groups, we need to remain positive and keep working towards that goal. Making sure people are aware of the situation is an important part of that.
As an artist, I am keen to continue to explore trans experiences, gender, and the positive aspects of trans lives, as well as to draw attention to issues, inequalities, and problems.
I have plenty of new and unexplored ideas, and I still want to revisit and develop some of the themes and approaches I’ve already worked with. I would like to do a few random courses for inspiration – I’ll try anything from felt making to book binding – I often find a new technique can generate new ideas. I love mirror – it always speaks to me. And maybe I’ll get back to that experimental film!"
Photo by Simon Croft
Congratulations on your recent 'An Evening With Simon Croft' which was a live event staged for Outings in Art
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Simon, thank you for being our Artist of the Month.