Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival
by Christopher Benfey
The Penguin Press
Pub. Date: March 15, 2012
Book received from: Publisher via 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.
Benfey has an incredible family, filled with historical figures and artists who have inspired many. With an aunt and uncle who were a major part of the Bauhaus Movement, a father who survived Nazi Germany, ancestors who were some of the first explorers in America, a mother bred in the Quaker lifestyle, and others who made their footprint in some way, it is no wonder Benfey would want to connect them all the where he is today.
As he travels to the clay pits, to the tobacco farms, to Germany, and back again, he not only discovers himself, but he finds that there are more connections between the landscape and his family’s history than could be imagined. As he learns about the history of pottery making in America, it also becomes apparent that the hands that have made the pots could just as easily have been his own, and in many ways are.
When researching a family history, or anthropology of any people, it is easy to get drawn in and begin to romanticize their realities, simply because they are different or unknown in some way. There are times Benfey seems to be drawn into this trap of an anthropologist, as he sometimes gets lost in the details. He seems to stretch for a connection that isn’t necessary to the story from time to time, when he has a history that is already steeped in richness on which to focus. However, it is clear that he not only found what he was looking for on his journey, but immersed himself in every detail along the way.
Red, Black, White is a narrative of learning about one’s past, and what it means in relation to today. Benfey has not only given us his personal family history, he has set a context in which the rest of us can place ourselves in relation to the earth around us, while giving us a crash course in Americana. We learn that a mountain holds its own stories, just as the clay can travel between time and space, and a brick is the foundation of it all- but they are each traced back to a common history, just as people are. If nothing else is gained from this book, one should at least walk away with a curiosity to search out what and who helped them get to where they are today; it is our past that has made us, and it is just waiting to tell us its stories.
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This book can be purchased at Amazon.com, as well as your local independent bookseller.