Christopher Benfy could not write a boring book if he tried and he has three previous books to prove it. These are narratives about Emily Dickinson and other figures of her time, eccentrics in Japan during the Gilded Age, and the months Degas spent visiting relatives in New Orleans in 1872-3. All three are at least four-star productions.
Now in Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay he has written a book that is more personal than the others, a thoughtful book in which he talks about his family and how he discovered their stories by accident or by intent. His mother was a Quaker from Cameron, North Carolina, where the sand hills segue into the Piedmont, and where the kaolin is so pure they transported tons of it to England in the 18th century to make high-quality porcelain.
His father escaped to England from Berlin as Hitler was coming to power. His father's family was very wealthy and powerful in pre-war Germany (they owned the largest publishing company in the country) but his aunt and uncle, the Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers, left the country with nothing and made a new life for themselves at Black Mountain College near Asheville in North Carolina. Benfey skillfully ties the many strands of his family together as they intersect.
When I lived in Durham years ago I drove around the country roads of central North Carolina and visited potters working out of a chinked cabin on a home-made wheel. One center of pottery making is Jugtown, NC, where the pot on the right was made. The families there have been making pots since well before the Revolutionary War and their work was breathtakingly simple and beautiful. Benfey meets some of the new generation of potters from that clay-rich area who are making pots that are anchored in that history but moving in new and creative ways.
This is a slow-moving book as it wanders through the author's youth and travels and talks about art and how important it is to all of us, not just the people creating it. He brags about his grandfather, who was a brickmaker and mason. He tells of a short teenage apprenticeship to a pottery-making family in Japan. And he makes his reader slow down and think. The subtitle of the book is, Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival, and it is exactly that.
2012 No 77