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.

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