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Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival

3.8  ·  Rating details ·  221 Ratings  ·  41 Reviews
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published March 15th 2012 by Penguin Press
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Mar 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, non-fiction, tlc
In this generational memoir, Benfey explores how art has shaped his family. He takes several seemingly unconnected threads and weaves them together into a narrative that demonstrates the impact of aesthetics on his life and those of his kin. The book reads like anecdotes stitched together, telling the history of Benfey’s Quaker roots, his Jewish father’s exile from Nazi Germany, his aunt and uncle’s Bauhaus career and subsequent work at Black Mountain College, and the search for elusive white cl ...more
Mar 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
When TLC Book Tours offered me the opportunity to review this book, I felt both excited and a little unsure. After all, even though I do study art history, American art, pottery and related topics are far from my expertise. I did worry I would have a hard time to get into it, but I shouldn’t have; Benfey’s writing pulled me in from the start.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is a book that defies genre classification. It’s a memoir, a story of family, a book about art, history, nations… It i
Carol Bundy
Jun 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 1945-50-project
Beautifully written, this memoir surprised me. It starts in the usual way -- discussing his parents and the families they came from. But soon departs in what at first seems oddly selective ways. The connections between his three sections are in someways not quite arbitrary but still hard to fathom. Until that is, I begin to realize that I am trapped in the logic of an historian. Benfey, on the other hand, is tracing the connections not of an historical past but of an aesthetic -- or at least, th ...more
In this book, Benfey not only locates his place in American history (and he's lucky that it's such a fascinating place), but locates it beautifully and does a wonderful job of crafting the story in its own kind of meander--bringing together threads that recur again and again: Quakers, pottery, etc. Having read this, I want to read all the books he referenced, go live in the North Carolina hills, learn to weave and throw pottery, learn the Latin names of the local flora and fauna, go to Quaker me ...more
Mackenzie Brooks
Jun 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: diy-phd
Meandering and fragmented in a good way. If you like Quakers, North Carolinian pottery, family history, or material culture, you will probably like this book.
Ann Sloan
Mar 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is not a book I would have selected to read, but then I have named this blog “All Books Considered.” And I was kind of assigned this book for the Artful Reading book club at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum. (Actually, I didn’t realize it was a book club; I thought the authors or some other experts were going to come and lecture – there are two more books in this series.) Anyway, that’s what reading is for – to open your mind to new experiences, not just entertain or inform.

The director of this
Jun 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
I liked this book but I am not sure it is because I am familiar with so much of the various topics he touches upon. He does a pretty decent job of keeping the narrative together as he goes down many "rabbit holes" or divergent paths of connections to his family. But again, I wondered if that is because I am already familiar with most of those diverging and converging threads to his story. I will be interested in hearing what people who are not knowledgeable about North Carolina's pottery traditi ...more
Jennifer Fox
Dec 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A far ranging book about an awful lot of things and people between which the author discovers, acknowledges, or forces a connection. All of them are pretty interesting.
Dec 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: hfu-2014
I read this for my local club. It is not a book I would have chosen on my own, but I did feel that I learned a lot and enjoyed the read. However, there were moments of frustration as often I felt as though the author tried to take on too much until I learned that was simply his writing style. He would be clearly heading in one direction when something caused him to veer into a completely new path and he expected the reader to make that leap with him. And make the leap I did and could, but it was ...more
Richard Godfrey
Jul 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I downloaded this to my Nook while sitting in Global Village Organic Coffe on Hillsborough Street talking to a retired NS State professor (Jim) who mentioned buying it and loaning it out before he read it. The description he gave was tantalizing. And the book held up to it.
I started reading Saturday late afternoon, and finished Sunday evening.
Benfey does a masterful job of tying the three geographic regions into his family history, AND relating the same areas to international history as well.
Jun 09, 2012 rated it liked it
I feel somewhat ambivalent about this book. I think it is well written and at times very interesting, but I also felt that at times the book didn't really hang together that well. What I found interesting was the stories of various immigrants from Europe and the artistic and craft expertise they brought with them, and the way in which this blended with traditions already in existence in native cultures. Christopher Benfey makes many connections, some of which seem appropriate but others seem a b ...more
Aug 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
"He was a dowser of sorts, as I saw him, a feng shui artist, divining his place in the world and seeking an auspicious alignment of earth and stars. The zigzag path he traced over the sand was determined by unforeseen forces underground, the chance pattern of previous visitors and voyagers. From these soundings in the sand, I could imagine him piecing together a fragmented narrative of sorts...."

Tracing pottery, art and brick making to make his narrative, Benfey makes an American memoir of craft
May 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
A beautiful mess of a book, ranging from descriptions of crazy Englishmen seeking out white clay used for porcelain in Cherokee territory, life at Black Mountain, a place I've heard of all my life, and wonderful tales about the author's Aunt Annie and Uncle Josef (Albers). This book took me a long time to get through. The writing is pretty dense and descriptive but seemed to not flow as it should have. On the other hand, he is writing about several different subject at the same time (the Jugtown ...more
Mar 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book may not have been written for me, but its combination of insights into a bunch of seemingly unrelated subjects -- pottery (both English and American), the Quakers, the Holocaust, visual art and Black Mountain College -- managed to touch on a lot of my peculiar interests. I found much of Mark Benvey's reflections fascinating (although he lost me on others, and the rather quick summing up was a disappointment). For those who love pottery and the visual arts, though, this is a book to be ...more
Jaime (Twisting the Lens)
This review is posted as part of the book tour hosted by TLC Book Tours.

Discovering what makes us the person we are is a lifelong journey for most. For Christopher Benfey it was a trip across the country, an ocean, and time. Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay takes us on a trek in search of what it means to be a part of something, no matter how insignificant it may seem. It is the dirt that connected him to his family’s past, and in that dirt, Benfey found home.
Catherine Byers
Apr 28, 2012 rated it really liked it

For anyone who has thrown a pot or a shuttle or loved the materials with which they explore their craft, this book follows stories that feel familiar. I found myself wanting to figure out Anni Albers' weave structure or sink my hands in some white North Carolina clay. The author's family heritage is impressive and includes folk of wide ranging talents. My only gripe was with the very last section on Whistler, which seemed an afterthought. Still, an engaging read.
Laurie Frost
Oct 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Almost a 5: I thought that the final third of the book, White Clay, wasn't nearly as strong as the first two parts, which were fantastic. You learn about writer Christopher Benfey's family, but in an oblique and subtle way by way of pacifist Quakers in WWII, exiled artists -- especially the Albers -- throwing pots, the community of Black Mountain College,Grimm's fairy tales, and so on even to Coleridge's Xanadu. Lovely writing. I revise: this is a 5.
May 24, 2012 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book. Benfey has a very interesting family history and he hits on a lot of fascinating themes and important figures in the arts throughout the last century. I couldn't help but feel as though the narrative was missing a main thread pulling me along though. If it had been much longer I'm not sure I would have finished. Some great little stories, though, and an inventive method of seeking family history.
Jun 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography-memoir
A beautiful and unforgettable family memoir. There is so much about this book that spoke to me. Benfey's juxtaposition of art, family history and geography is a work of art in itself. I especially enjoyed reading about the many potters whose lives and work were so much a part of my own art education. The format of the book - a "meandering quest", as Benfey calls it - works perfectly in this biography.
Jul 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
Very well written. Benfey has an amazing ability to make connections that bring deeper meaning to artistic spirit and the general experience of life. I especially enjoyed the section of the book that discuss the connection between the Bauhaus School and Black Mountain College.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in art, the act of creation and the connection of art to all that surrounds us both in form and formlessness.
Mar 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
One of the most interesting books I have read in ages. Beautiful family memoir spanning generations and an amazing trove of art history spanning the US, Europe and Asia over multiple generations. If you have any interest in the arts, art history between mid-1800's to post-WWII in the US focusing on pottery and ceramics but intertwined with music, literature, philosophy, this book written with love and respect by Christopher Benfey about his own roots and finding them is a must read.
May 16, 2013 added it
Shelves: abandoned
I persevered until I got to the half-way point of the book, and then I just had to quit. The author meanders around, talking mostly about his family history, and it just seems self-indulgent to me. I mean, I would get tired of listening to a dear old relative tell these stories, so why would I want to hear them from a total stranger? The NY Times had it as one of their 100 Notable Books of 2012.... I guess I must be missing something.
Jul 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
A series of lectures strung together using the author's family history as the touchstone into the history of Carolina pottery, the Albers at Black Mountain College (Anni Albers was the author's great aunt), the search for the elusive white clay. Lovely mediations on what it is to create art and the thin line between creating art and craft.
Jul 14, 2014 rated it liked it
I had such hopes for this book. I am interested in so many of the things he covered; pottery, hola cause exiles, Bauhaus artists, the Cherokees, the Carolinas....
But it hopped around so much. Some lovely writing but I had to force myself to finish...all interesting to him because it revolves around generations of his family, but this is not a book I will prass on.
Feb 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013
Meandering, unstructured and littered with too many names of people... Heine? Ok, I forgot who that is. Richards? Who is that? Anna? Is she Whistler's mother? Ugh.

But still delightful if you can get past the few insufferable chunks. Part II - Black Mountain was my favorite for its unique perspective on the Holocaust that few people can say they've heard before.
Kim G
May 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
I really liked this, but I can see how others would find it exasperating. If the phrase "a rambling meditation on..." gives you hives, run. But if you have an appreciation for interesting migration stories, the history of American art and craftsmanship, or quirky family memoirs, this book is lovely on a lot of levels.
Jun 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
A dream of a book, wide ranging, discursive, yet pulled together in a brilliant web of scholarly connections. From 18th century pottery to the Albers at Black Rock College, from the Brilliant Bartrams to Whistler's portrait of his mother, Benfey ranges across American art and history in a deeply personal meditation that leaves me in total admiration. Loved it.
Mar 09, 2014 rated it liked it
I wish I could give it a 3-1/2. Fascinating stories, particularly about Black Mountain College, but I found it a bit disjointed to read. It touched on many things I knew nothing about, like the valuable veins of white clay. I wanted to like it more than I did.
Sep 19, 2013 rated it liked it
For someone who is now living in Western North Carolina, this book is filled with information about artists and people who made history in NC. Not well written but tells a good story. I learned a lot.
Jan 13, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to like this one, but I found that it was too disconnected, tried too hard to be "literary," and spent too much time name-dropping. There are some interesting stories and connections behind all the aspects I disliked, but they weren't enough to keep me reading.
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