Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay

…I was retracing, in some half-conscious way, earlier journeys, trying to feel between finger and thumb some thread of trauma and survival from those earlier generations. I wanted to know how suffering had found us, and what we made of it. I wanted to be able to touch it, like the frayed edge of my serape, with its jagged and esoteric key design.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is a book that  defies classification. It’s a memoir, it’s a study of folk art, of geology, of  history. It’s creative nonfiction at its best, I think, because it weaves several genres together into an interesting, cohesive whole.

Christopher Benefy sets out “searching for patterns in the wanderings of his far-flung family.” He looks for those patterns in geology – the red brick and folk pottery of of North Carolina, where his mother (the daughter of brickmakers and bricklayers) was raised; and the white clay so coveted by early potters like Wedgewood and Benefy’s Quaker ancestor William Bartram, for making fine porcelain. He looks for patterns in the art created at the Black Mountain College, where artists Josef and Ani Albers (his Great Aunt and Uncle) explored the contrasts of texture and pattern in pottery and design. Along the way the takes some side roads into Mexico, Japan, and Nazi Germany. His cast of characters include scholars, artists, craftsman, Quakers, and poets, as well as his own parents whose story he tells with affection and understanding.

Rarely does Benefy go awry in this journey. Occasionally the narrative derails a bit for me – when he wanders too far into the past discussing Josiah Wedgewood or the Cherokee nation. But mostly I was deeply engaged with his evocative journey into the past.

And as one who enjoys the folk arts, and who has always had a sense of appreciation for kinds of objects that serve as functional art – pitchers and bowls and vases – I was able to appreciate the philosophy Benefy shares:

My grandparents’ pitcher on the telephone table was glazed with orange lead and speckled with random spots of black iron that had oxidized during the long firing in the half-buried “groundhog” kiln. The glaze was known as tobacco spit. Only now, writing down the familiar name, do I see what it means: the color of chewing tobacco spat out on the ground.

A work of pottery like my grandparents’ orange pitcher lives in two different worlds. It is beautiful to look at, and Jugtown pots during the last fifty years have migrated steadily from private homes into museums. But these pots were also made for use, for keeping the iced tea cold. The German philosopher Georg Simmel, in a beautiful essay called “The Handle,” wrote about this double life. A pottery vessel, he wrote, unlike a painting or statue, is not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose – if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life. Thus the vessel stands in two worlds at one and the same time.” The handle marks the journey from one world to the other, it is the suspension bridge from the world of art to the world of use.


Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read and review this very interesting book.

Other stops on the tour can be found here.

4 thoughts on “Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay

  1. So glad you wrote this review, Becca. I had never heard of this book, but it sounds amazing – both because of how you describe it’s genre-bending but also because I grew up new the Black Mountain school. Thanks.

  2. I too appreciated the gentle melding of content in Benfey’s book…and the “meandering” of the narrative through the lives of Benfey’s relatives, the artforms for which they were known, and the rich history within which those lives were steeped reads more like literature than nonfiction/memoir in many places 🙂

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