The Last Word
More Than Two Years After Her Death, Artist Sally Kearsley Reveals Another Secret—She was Also a Poet
To those few who knew her, the words ring of pure Kearsley: lyrical, rough, macabre, playful, and now almost grotesquely apropos. They form the opening lines of “Style,” a poem Kearsley wrote, in her mind but never on paper, more than a decade ago, and for that small klatsch of artists who counted themselves as her friends, the supreme irony of the words rests in the fact that no one could hear them until long after she was gone.
But, they say, this was typical of her. Sally Kearsley, the artist, activist, and now poet who presided over Baltimore’s art scene from her cluttered Reservoir Hill rowhouse, died in December 2001 at the age of 71. And since then, the public’s apprehension of her full range of talent has come by way of something approaching archaeology. She was a prolific creator, painting and drawing in phases of manic productivity that could last for months on end, but she was also profoundly insecure about her art, and during her lifetime she revealed just a small portion of her work to her closest confidants. It was only after her death that the fullness of her inspiration was finally uncovered.
In December 2002, Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery opened Sally Kearsley: A Retrospective, a survey featuring 10 large paintings that had never been shown before—many never seen even by her friends (Arts & Entertainment, Nov. 6, 2002). They were heroic paintings of epic, cryptic, mythological scenes, rendered in earthy colors with surreal tints, and brought to the canvas with brushwork that boasted an uncommon confidence. The show introduced one of Baltimore’s most dynamic, original, and visionary painters, a full year after she died. And now, it seems, that wasn’t all.
Early this spring, a recording started to make the rounds of Baltimore’s art demimonde, particularly in Kearsley’s small inner circle. It was Kearsley, rasping in her familiar voice wizened by decades of coffee and cigarettes, reciting poetry. At just under half an hour, the compact disc featured two dozen original Kearsley poems that were by turns fantastic, mischievous, and soul-baring. Some of the verses seemed dimly familiar to her friends—she never wrote any of them down, and recited them to only her most trusted intimates on rare, choice occasions—but others were new. Like Goucher’s retrospective show, the recording is a key artifact of Kearsley’s furtive career, capturing yet another hidden talent of an artist who was almost pathologically mysterious. And it started as a Christmas gift that came too late.
“I was coming back to the East Coast last Christmas, visiting with some friends, and I had actually planned to look Sally up, since we had not kept in touch,” says Ardai Baharmast, one of Kearsley’s friends, now a broadcast systems designer in Seattle. “I knew I had this recording that I had recorded a long time ago, and I wanted to give it to her when I met with her. And then I discovered that she had died.”
Baharmast had made the recording 10 years earlier, when he had Kearsley over to the sound studio he ran in the basement of his West Baltimore home. “I’d heard her poems,” he says. “She had recited one or two to me before in her living room, and I just thought they were beautiful. At the time it was not unusual for me to occasionally find something inspiring and then invite the person to record it. And so in Sally’s case, I said, ‘If you ever want to record these I would be honored to do that, to engineer that session for you.’ To my surprise, she agreed.”
On an early spring day in 1993, Kearsley paid a visit to Baharmast’s studio and recited all 24 poems by rote. “She had all of them memorized,” he recalls. “I think she had a list in front of her, but she knew them by heart.” For a decade, the recording languished until Baharmast dug it up, transferred it to CD, and headed to Baltimore for the holidays.
Shocked at learning of Kearsley’s death, he turned the disc over to the woman who had introduced them some 10 years earlier, painter Ruth Pettus, who was “stunned” by what she heard, Baharmast says: “Once Ruth learned about it, she thought of a number of close friends who would really enjoy these.” By spring, 10 more copies were circulating in Kearsley’s old salon circle.
Now, Kearsley’s companions are taking on the bittersweet charge of getting to know her all over again through her poetry. “It all struck me as new,” says Rick Cleaver, a sculptor and close friend, of the recording. “It was new, but it was very familiar. It was very much Sally.”
For him, the verses are reminders of those rare times when Kearsley would decide to recite a poem, unannounced, presenting it like a small gift. “It would just come up,” Cleaver recalls with a slight laugh. “I’d be talking about trees, and she’d just spontaneously start to recite poetry. Or sometimes something would come to mind, and she would cite a 19th-century poem. And I don’t know that much about poetry, so I wasn’t able to distinguish one from the other. Hers sounded very different, though.”
For sure, Kearsley’s verses bear lots of homage to the poets of the early 1800s, particularly the Romantics: the near-solipsistic soul searching, the hallucinogenic imagery, the economy of meter and line. Her “The Gentleman,” the 21st poem on the disc, reads like a tribute to William Blake, a mash note to a divine and somewhat fearsome beast-man: “He was a tiger yellow as a yolk,” it goes at one point. “On every dawn he paced the highest air and gently fanned himself. And when he did, the whole air shook.” Her “Hell’s Bells,” meanwhile, can bring to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in the ominous kind of testimony it gives: “I’ve heard Hell’s bells, loud, long, enormous swells. I’ve heard them. I’ve heard those knells. Broke my soul on those echoes.”
But they are Kearsley before they are anyone else, and her friends hear in the words her particular kind of genius. They recognize her compassion in pieces like “Victorian Cameo” (“My caller is a toad, masking himself in human flesh and bone,” it begins, “and though I don’t tell anyone it’s so, yet I am thrilled to know someone who knows the touch of loss and water lily leaves”). In “A Group of Diners,” a long and giddily lush depiction of dinner guests feasting, they find the delight she took in the well-placed, antic image.
“For one thing, just the mastery of language is clearly the work of somebody for whom language was a very vibrant and living dimension,” Baharmast says, “and who’s not a naif in it. But also there is in all of them certainly a quality of—one could say mysticism. One could identify clearly a spiritual dimension in them that articulated, I think, her passion and her longing and I think her deep caring.
“There’s one about the frog, about her caller the toad, and she’s afraid to look at him directly because she doesn’t want him to see a toad in her eyes, the reflection of himself when he looks, peering at her from behind the tea leaves and so on. It’s an extremely tender view of the other, just a very beautiful concern and a great deal of love.
“And another one about the group of diners is just a masterpiece. There’s a long line near the end about the trillings and something in the trees, and then it lands with ‘the slipping of the salmon and the heaving humping undulating seas.’ She just constructed these absolutely gorgeous lines of beautiful meters, imagery, and cadences.”
Cleaver, as an artist, finds resemblance between Kearsley’s words and her paintings, which pursued spiritual themes with zeal: death and rebirth, persecution and martyrdom, mercy and forgiveness.
“I’m not a writer myself, but I know that Sally’s paintings were poetic, lyrical,” he says. “And the mythology. I’m interested in the spiritual and so was Sally, and her poetry was a lot about that, like her paintings were. They’re very intuitive.”
In the end, Sally Kearsley’s colleagues are drawing their own conclusions about this latest discovery from their late friend, each taking from her poems a unique mixture of old memories and new discoveries.
“Just on the level of language alone, I think they’re a real treat,” Baharmast says. “But also the heart of what is being conveyed—when you crack the meaning of the words on a literal level—something else comes that is her spirit’s conveyance to the audience, and that is just lovely. It creates a kind of intimacy that, certainly for me, allowed me to learn something about this very private person that felt very inclusive and intimate. I think I could’ve known her for many more years and not had any idea about some of her insights that were clearly made accessible through these poems.”
For Cleaver, however, that intimacy is almost too much to bear. He has not yet heard the recording in full, unable to bring himself to listen to his late friend’s voice for more than a few minutes at a time. “Oh, it’s hard,” he says, like a moan. “Really hard. I can’t take very much of it. I can’t finish listening to it. There’s still grief. It just swells up.”
Still, he says he tries to think of the recording as a final gift, one last revelation that might make the woman and her work a bit less mysterious and a bit better understood.
“It makes her legacy more rich. I think it helps me understand the paintings a little better. It forces the poetry of the painting—it connects,” Cleaver says. “It’s a miracle that this even exists.”
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