Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay by Christopher Benfey

Lately it seems pretty rare that I get a chance to sit and enjoy the beauty and escapism of good literature. With a new baby in the house and a four year old on the loose, the days of sunny afternoons huddled with a book or staying up all night to finish just one more chapter are by-gone’s. Even further out of reach are the days of getting absorbed in some rich critical and theoretical writing. (I know my brain could once compute that language, but lately it seems more aligned with the language of superheros and motorbike noises). So I was pleasantly intrigued when contacted by TLC Book Tours to do a review of Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay by Christopher Benfey. I thought to myself, “Here I have an excuse to force myself to steal away some moments for reading. It’ll be work therefore I can hide away under a cozy blanket with my book and ignore my kids for a bit, guilt free.” Alas the reality was far more akin to 3am reading sessions while I rocked a disgruntled child back to sleep, less than idyllic, but a reality I love regardless.

So in the wee hours of the morning I was swept away on a journey of discovery of the lineage of a family, jumping around from place to place – japan, mexico, germany, small town here and there USA. Just as the potters Benfey writes about who seek to carve out the pure vein of coveted clay, Benfey carves out for the reader a family’s past and the many influences upon it which create character and perspective. Reading somewhat as a who’s who list of famous and noteworthy people that were either part of his family or family friends makes the story at times seem almost like someone at a cocktail party showing off – I mean really your grandmother’s cousins played with Walter Benjamin?! But I guess if my family history was equally as rich in history and noteworthy characters, I’d have written a book as well.

So why would this book be of interest to review on a ceramic blog like musing? Well much of the book is a reflection upon the lives of artists and potters. Benfey has a way of speaking about makers and the objects that they create in a manner that any maker can relate to: the knowledge of skill, of tradition, detail, value, intrinsic to a pot. The romanticism of the maker and their relationship to the land. There were moments in the book where I was left with a pang of guilt for my “weakness” of use of purchased clay, rather than dirtying my hands digging and working from scratch in the wilderness, finding my own clay and having it create the unique marks only such clay can inscribe on an object.

I was also compelled by the book to think about my own past and experiences in education, academic and otherwise and to try to view my own past in a new light of how certain circumstances led me down the creative path I’m on today. By taking a step back, could a see a broader picture of influence? How were events and the people/artists I’ve meet intertwined in my own life and work.

When it comes to reading, a book needs to grab me within a chapter or two, or it gets put away to collect dust. Life to me is too short for books that don’t speak to you. For me a good book isn’t always about great writing either; a good book makes me think, and Benfey’s accomplished that. There were times when I felt like I was being taken off on an unrelated tangent which frustrated me, but overall the book was compelling and filled with interesting people and stories. At one point one such tangent breaks from telling us about Black Mountain College, Bauhaus aesthetics, and Anni and Josef Albers, to talk about the meander pattern, Greek Mythology of Homer, and the story of the Labyrinth and Daedalus. I found this section and the idea of the labyrinth or meandering to be a perfect metaphor for the book itself. There is a meandering to Benfey’s story telling. But in the end he carves out a path and leads you out of the labyrinth.

If you have an interest in such things as Black Mountain College, Japanese ceramics, Wedgewood and the quest for porcelain in the United States, American potters like Mark Hewitt, or love insight into family histories I would suggest that this book would be of interest. I’d love to hear from others what they think of this book, their likes and dislikes or the questions it posed to them.

In the meantime you can read a few other reviews of the book by checking out the TLC Book Tours website or following the links below:

Travel Spot Iwriteinbooks’s blog Twisting the LensAvery Pottery and TileworksWhynot PotteryBookstack