An unlikely benefactor

Patron: Painter and sculptor tests state limits on financial contributions with support of long-shot mayoral candidate Kaufman.

July 09, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

After years of handcrafting and giving ceramic angels to almost anyone who wanted one, artist Sally Kearsley has become an unlikely angel herself -- offering to spend up to $100,000 for the campaign of a long-shot Baltimore mayoral candidate, the gadfly A. Robert Kaufman.

The wealthy scion of an old Virginia family, Kearsley has contributed the maximum $10,000 total to three groups supporting Kaufman and his running mate, City Council presidency candidate Dave Greene.

And she might put up as much as $100,000 "in support of those ideas she shares in common with Kaufman," says her attorney Anthony L. Brennan.

She shrugs off suggestions that Kaufman can't win, saying they share a similar history of civil rights and community activism. And she has money to spend.

Legal questions

But her level of giving raises legal questions about the political contributions.

A donor is permitted to give up to $10,000 during any four-year election cycle, including $4,000 to any candidate, says Kathleen Hoke Dachille, the assistant attorney general who advises the state election board.

"It seems to me," Dachille says, "if an individual gives to three committees but only two candidates, there may be an over-contribution."

Still, she added, "An independent expenditure without the knowledge and consent of the beneficiary is not subject to any of the limits." Also, such an expenditure doesn't have to be reported.

Reports from candidates on contributions are due Aug. 17.

Brennan says Kearsley is exercising her First Amendment right to free expression. Not quite free: She's paying for pro-Kaufman ads on the sides of MTA buses, which quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and advocate "A New Deal for Baltimore."

Kaufman believes the contributions are legal and says he's "delighted."

"I'm grateful," he says. "And I was very surprised. But surprises like this I can take more of. It puts us in a league we might not otherwise have been in before."

Unlikely benefactor

So who is this improbable benefactor who has made perhaps the largest visible donation thus far in this year's election? Brennan says simply: "She's a wonderful, warm, generous person."

Many people agree with him.

Small and frail, Kearsley is recovering from a stroke and an operation for an aneurysm about 18 months ago. She rarely leaves her high-ceilinged, old-fashioned apartment at the venerable 100 West University Parkway building, where she has round-the-clock nursing aid.

She spends much of her time in her four-poster, canopy bed surrounded by nostrums and notions and her cats, Whirlybird, Lamb Chop and Sweet Georgia Brown. Approaching 69, but not particularly cautiously, she sits cross-legged on her bed and chain-smokes nonfiltered cigarettes in a holder, alternating smoking and taking oxygen from a nasal tube.

She's bright, witty, energetic in conversation, and amazingly frank. She's primarily a painter but has made dozens of ceramic angels.

Powerful artist

"I love them," says Ruth Pettus, a well-known Baltimore painter who calls Kearsley a painting buddy. "But her great strength is in her painting and in her graphic work. I think she's a very powerful artist."

Kearsley showed her work occasionally at Louie's Book Store Cafe when Jimmy Rouse, another talented artist, was proprietor. She would sometimes sit at a back table and discreetly sketch the patrons in oil pastels.

"She's what I'd call a pure artist," Rouse says. "She's doing it right out of her soul."

Kearsley's paintings often have a strong spirituality. A large, somber painting in her apartment is called "The Resurrection of Lazarus."

"I think I'm a passionate painter," she says. "A kind of pure yearning and love for God, that's what prompted me to paint for most of my life."

She's a Roman Catholic, but not particularly observant.

She came to Baltimore about 25 years ago, seeking treatment at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, and stayed on.

"I love Baltimore, and I love the people," she says.

She grew up in a talented, distinguished and well-to-do family.

Her father, George Conrad Westervelt, a 1901 Naval Academy graduate, helped design the NC-4 flying boat, which in 1919 became the first plane to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. In 1916, he helped William Boeing build his first aircraft, the B&W.

Her mother, Rieta Langhorne, was a cousin of the Langhorne sisters of Virginia, renowned turn-of-the-century Southern beauties. One of the sisters, Lady Astor, nee Nancy Langhorne, became the first woman in the British Parliament. Sister Irene married Charles Dana Gibson, who created the All-American Gibson Girl ideal in her image.

Kearsley is dismissive of all the pretensions of the Virginia Langhornes.

"They just weren't that much," she says, apparently referring to a 500-year-old family history. "In England we had a castle, and we had an army. We were used by the English to defend the border against Welsh invasion. We weren't nobody much."

Among other things, the Langhornes were into Kentucky coal-mining, which for a long time buttressed the family fortune.

Between World War I and World War II, her father left the Navy, helped drain part of the Everglades, made money in Florida land speculation and helped pioneer the cattle industry in Florida.

All of that has left Kearsley comfortably wealthy. She has invested freely in what she considered good works and never worried that the beneficiaries were long shots, whether poor kids, or world peace -- or even a political candidate with a slim chance of winning.

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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