Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay

You are not supposed to review books months before they are published, but with Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival by Christopher Benfey I cannot resist. I read an arc (advanced reading copy) in a couple of greedy gulps and enjoyed every minute. It was not written as a book for potters, but I cannot imagine who would like it more.

Benfey, who is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and an Emily Dickinson scholar, takes a look at his family roots on both his mother and father’s sides, going back generations. At the heart of each family story, each turn of events, he comes upon clay. Perhaps, we would all find mud workers in our family trees if we looked deep enough, but in Benfey’s case, he does not have to look far. “The narrative, “ he writes, “has more to do with geology than genealogy.”

Benfey spent his childhood in the Quaker section of a decaying river town in Indiana but his family did not come from the Midwest. His maternal grandfather and great grandfather were brick makers and bricklayers in the clay rich Piedmont area of rural North Carolina. Here, there were thick seams of plastic clay, generations of folk potters, tobacco farms, and just a half hour away, the experiment that became Jugtown. His mother grew up in the brick house her father had made. Jugtown pots filled his parents home in Indiana and his grandparents home in North Carolina.

When he was in his teens, his parents decided to spend a year in Japan, his mother, for her paintings, his father, a professor, because his interests were moving from chemistry to alchemy. In Japan, Benfey lived with a family of potters in the Tamba region. The father and son spent their days on the wheel, while the mother and daughter sat on the floor and made lids for the thrown jars. He was taught to make lids.

Later, working on this book and visiting his parents in North Carolina, he went to see Mark Hewitt, whom he wrote in the New York Review of Books, makes “big ass pots.” Throughout this first part of the book, Benfey expounds and explores, giving us lots of history.

He then turns to his father’s family, and here we are surprised to find, not Quakers, but a prominent assimilated Jewish family in Germany who lost everything under the Nazis and had to flee. His father’s father, Eduard Benfey, was a supreme justice. His paternal grandmother Lotte was a member of the great publishing family the Ullsteins. The Bauhaus artist Anni Albers was Lotte’s sister. This brings Benfey to look at Josef and Anni Albers, the Bauhaus, and of course Black Mountain College, which Josef Albers directed in its early years.

Wanting to know more about Black Mountain College, Benfey enlists his friend and potter Mark Shapiro and drives north along the Connecticut River to visit Karen Karnes. I interviewed Karen Karnes, MC Richards and Ann Stannard some years ago, during the last year of Richards’ life. But I am always ready to read about Black Mountain, even stories that I have heard. Benfey does not disappoint.

The last portion of the book is devoted to white or Cherokee clay.  This gets complicated. The white (kaolin) clay beds in North Carolina were known by the Indians and by the wildlife (who licked it to soothe their stomachs), long before the arrival of the Europeans. In the mid eighteenth century, the Georgia-based potter Andrew Duché realized that this white clay could be used to throw porcelain pots. His father, Anthony had been one of the first American potters to make stoneware on the continent. He wanted to be the first westerner to make porcelain. The journey to the Cherokee clay pits was treacherous and filled with danger and mishap but he managed to bring back a ton of clay. He never really succeeded in producing porcelain on a commercial scale, however, and, hoping to work with English manufacturers, sailed to England where he told of his find. The great Josiah Wedgewood was intrigued, but sent his own agent, Thomas Griffiths to obtain exclusive rights to the white clay. The first runs of Wedgewood blue Jasperware were made from the clay dug in the Cherokee pits and shipped across the Atlantic. Kaolin was soon found England itself, so it was no longer necessary to import it from the Piedmont.

Next, the botanist, explorer, writer, and artist, William Bartram rediscovered the white clay. Benfey’s mother is a direct descendent of Margery Mendenhall, William Bartram’s aunt. That, says Benfey, makes William Bartram his distant cousin. Whew!

Lots of connections and tangles, all, in the end, leading to our favorite material:  clay.  In the telling, Benfey looks at process, art, exile, and the threads that tie our lives together. I can only give the barest outline here. Put it on your reading list. It pubs on March 19, so you will have to preorder at your local independent or get your librarian to order it for you.

British Medieval Floor Tiles

I have been looking through Hans Van Lemmen’s short illustrated book, Medieval Tiles. Not that I am thinking of making another floor, which is what most thirteenth century tiles were used for, but the holidays are almost here and we are in a frenzy of cleaning and doing postponed repairs. One of those repairs is to put new tiles on the hood over the stove to replace the ones that tragically fell off. Well, tragic is perhaps too strong a word, as no one was hurt, but the stove’s shiny black enamel was chipped and that was if not tragic, irritating. Our theory is that the wooden hood that Joe built expanded and contracted with the cooking heat, eventually weakening the bond. But I fear the truth is, I did a bad mortaring job.

Medieval tile makers produced tiles in wooden molds or cut them from sheets of clay using metal templates. Sometimes the edges were angled in, so the faces were close together when installed but underneath there was room for mortar. Tile making, like throwing during so much of history, was seasonal work, with the clay being prepared and allowed to weather during the cold winter months, and the actual tile making and firing taking place in the summer. The craftsmen were anonymous with all the prestige going to their customers who commissioned the work.

Tilers were paid per thousand tiles. I can’t imagine making thousands upon thousands of tiles, but I did make many, many hundreds for our solarium floor. Making, drying, and firing them was fun though it took a long time. Installing them was not fun at all. I suspect the same was true for those making tiles in the thirteenth century, because they favored regular shapes, often with repeat designs, which is no easier to make than varying shapes and designs, and perhaps a bit boring to do, but makes laying the tiles far easier than irregular shapes would. And, tellingly, they eschewed having to (spare us) cut fired tiles.

Tile floors were a huge improvement over dirt floors, prettier, easier to care for, and cleaner. They were affordable only for the abbeys and monasteries and large manor homes. Van Lammen describes a mosaic tile floor that is 29,000 square feet (Medieval British mosaics were made of fired clay, and purpose made, not bits of stone as in Roman times, or post-fire, broken bits as is done today).

The two primary types of decoration were recessed and raised, both made with wooden stamps. Sometimes potters covered leather hard tiles with a white slip that they then scraped off, leaving the design in the recessed areas. More rarely they used sgraffito. Whatever the decorating method, the tiles were coated with a glossy lead glaze and once fired. They came in shades of red, brown, light and dark green, yellow, cream and black.

Many of the tiles floors were replaced with new tiles as they became worn.  Amazingly, a few floors have remained intact after all these centuries. But most have been lost. Van Lemmen writes, “The two main factors that caused the demise of the medieval tile industry during the first half of the sixteenth century were the introduction of colourful maiolica tiles from Italy through Flanders, which generated a new tile fashion, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. After the Dissolution many monastic buildings were sold, only to be pulled down, and their stones and sometimes their tiles were used for other buildings. Monastic houses in remote areas were not so likely to be used as stone quarries. They fell into ruin, their tiled floors becoming covered with debris to be rediscovered at a later date.”

My hood tiles are made and fired. What we have to do is affix them to the hood – lest the whole family arrive for Christmas and see that a year later, it is still not done. But I am dreaming of making tiles for behind the stove, stamped, I think in the way of the early tile makers, and maybe laid out in a green and white checker pattern. Yes, I will have that done by next Christmas …

The Chinese Scholar and Oyster Jars and Such

He sits alone in the wilderness, surrounded by rock outcroppings and bushes. He is dressed in a loose fitting robe. He is the Chinese Scholar, widely depicted by English potters on blue and white tin-glazed earthenware during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. He was inspired by images on expensive porcelain imported from China and Japan and transformed into something quite different.

The new edition of Ceramics in America edited by Robert Hunter, opens with a wonderful essay by Sarah Fayan Scarlett on the Chinese Scholar pattern, tracing the various cultural filters that affected this interpretation of life in distant China before the image reached England and became a staple exotic of the ceramic export business to the Americas. She suggests that the original Chinese Scholar may have been the eighth century poet Wang Wei “whose most famous verse reads, ‘ I walk to the place where the water ends/ and sit and watch the time when clouds rise.’” I love reading this kind of ceramic history. Knowing these stories adds so much to the experience of looking at one of these antique dishes.

Another wonderful essay, this one by Ivor Noël Hume describes the detective work he and others did to discover the makers and use for a strange, brown stoneware jar found in the mud surrounding an old Dutch fort in Guyana. It turns out the mystery jar was for storing pickled oysters and made in the first years of the nineteenth century by a black potter who was a freeman in New York city for an oyster dealer, also a black freeman in New York City. As he did his research, he came upon other examples of these straight-sided, salt-glazed “cap-hole” jars for the same enterprise. So in a few short, well illustrated pages, we have African American history, early American history, a look at international trade, a mystery, and best of all, a little known ceramic form.

There’s a wonderful section on “The Stoneware Years of the Thompson Potters of Morgantown, West Virginia, 1854-1890.” The photos of the Thompson ribs, coggles, stamps and master stamp molds are worth the price of the book. We read about a “Whately Teapot in the Western Catskills,” “A Seventeenth Century West Virginia Indian Basket Rendered in Clay,” “Planting Pots from Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts,” and an “Unusual Drabware Strainer.”

Included with this collection of essays about archaeological and historical research on ceramics in America, is a major essay by critic Garth Clark on Ai Weiwie. Call me provincial, but I am not agog over Weiwei’s art. I actually thought the Sunflower Seeds installation was a fiasco when the 100 million porcelain seeds began exploding oxide dust.  However, he is internationally revered as a visionary, a human rights activist, an architect, a competitive cook, a hairdresser, and a great artist. His blog rants were published in April to great acclaim. So I was glad to read the assessment of so well informed a critic as Garth Clark who is also known for championing risk in ceramics. Clark’s title sums it up: “Mind Mud: Ai Weiwei’s Conceptual Ceramics”. I did come to a better understanding and appreciation of Weiwei, though I am still not agog. Informed, cautiously appreciative, but no, not agog.

The Chipstone Foundation, which publishes Ceramics in America, considers it a journal. I suppose it is, as it comes out annually. But it is deservedly dressed as an art book. This year’s edition is hardcover with a dust jacket and a bound-in satin ribbon to mark your place. Lovely. Put it on your wish list. It would look oh so nice wrapped in tissue and tied with a satin bow, coordinated, of course, with the ribbon in the book.