Monday, February 10, 2003

'Sybil's' paintings give view of her multiple personalities

Art surfaced after death in Lexington

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - An exhibit of artworks by a world-famous psychiatric patient known simply as "Sybil" was on display over the weekend in the woman's former hometown, where she lived for two decades.

The subject of the 1970s book about a psychiatric patient with multiple personalities, Sybil was actually Shirley Ardell Mason, a Lexington artist.

Mason's identity as Sybil was closely guarded and was not revealed until her death at 75 in February 1998. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who had treated Mason for 11 years in New York, had been a professor of psychiatry at UK. Wilbur died in 1992.

Part of a special showing Saturday on Ridgeway Road, the 12 paintings that were available for viewing are part of a larger collection of nearly 100 paintings believed to be the only works created by Mason as her other personalities.

The works include two black and white paintings, an abstract object colored over with crayons and a print of a woodcarving signed "M."

The artwork also chronicles the journey of Mason's years in therapy, said Jim McDaniel, who sponsored the exhibit and plans to purchase the collection from the owner, James Ballard.

Mason was a commercial artist, painting and running an art business out of her home on Henry Clay Boulevard. But she didn't sell the work of her other personalities, McDaniel said.

Instead, the paintings were discovered hidden in a basement closet of Mason's house after her death. Mason signed only one of the paintings she did as one of her other selves.

The artwork was purchased at an estate sale by Ballard, Fayette County commissioner and owner of White House Gallery. Ballard also purchased Wilbur's notes about Mason's treatment.

The paintings were probably hidden away because they were too painful, McDaniel said. "But as painful as they might have been, she didn't destroy them."

The pieces of art Mason sold don't compare to the ones her other selves painted, McDaniel said. "These paintings reflect her inner work, her journey through psychotherapy."

McDaniel is working on a proposal to show the entire collection at the University of Kentucky in honor of psychiatrist Wilbur.

Cathy Strickland, a longtime customer of Ballard's, viewed the exhibit on Saturday.

She was drawn to the symmetry of the two black-and-white paintings.

"It's fabulous," she said. "Not only was she an incredible artist, but from the psyche point of view of her art, you can only interpret what she was feeling. It was too revealing."

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