Visual Arts

Exhibit gives Lexington its first real look at artwork by 'Sybil'

For almost a quarter of a century, a simple home on Henry Clay Boulevard secretly housed a celebrity, unbeknownst to Lexingtonians.

Even friends and neighbors did not know the true identity of Shirley Mason until she died in 1998, when it was revealed that Mason was not just the quiet, pleasant lady next door who sold art out of her home and enjoyed gardening and prayer.

She was Sybil Dorsett, the subject of a 1973 book by Flora Rheta Schreiber and a 1976 TV movie, starring Sally Field, about Mason's struggle with dissociative identity disorder.

Suffering cruel physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, Mason coped by developing 16 distinct personalities, all which were successfully integrated after working with psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur for more than a decade.

After Wilbur moved to Lexington to join the psychiatry faculty at the University of Kentucky, a healthy, integrated Mason followed, living the remainder of her days in peace.

While the mystique of Sybil's Lexington connection has since been thoroughly covered by local media, few people have had the chance to see the visual evidence of Mason's secret identity until now.

Nearly a hundred works of art, all produced by Mason's pre- integration personalities, were found hidden in the basement of her home after her death.

Jim Ballard of Lexington ran a framing shop in Chevy Chase at the time. He was attending an auction when the paintings came up for sale.

"This art came up for bid, and there were I guess over a hundred people out there," Ballard recalls. "About four or five of us bid on it, and I ended up buying it sight unseen.

"Come to find out, after I started looking, I found one picture in the collection that was in the book. It had tape over the name and tape on the back, so I put some water on it and peeled it off, and it had her name, Shirley Mason, and on the back it said Aquatic Forms #1. They got the wrong name in the book."

Ballard's collection, including selections featured in the 1973 book and the 2007 TV remake starring Tammy Blanchard as Sybil and Jessica Lange as Wilbur, are now on public display in Lexington for the first time at the Headley-Whitney Museum.

The exhibit features 30 works created during the years Mason was living 16 lives, including those of two men and a 3-year-old, and offers a fascinating insight into the psyche of someone with dissociative identity disorder.

Mason's personalities employed a wild variety of styles and media that reveal her inner turmoil.

"They're all over the map and they're all done very well," Headley-Whitney curator Amy Gundrum Greene says. "They're all done physically by one person, but they're all distinct styles."

Three-year-old personality Ruthie, for instance, worked in crayon and chalk. Others employed sophisticated oil painting techniques, charcoal, colored pencil and watercolor.

"Some are very realistic, some are very abstract, some are a little impressionistic," Greene says.

Since buying the artwork, Ballard has become something of an expert on Mason's life and hopes that showing her work will raise awareness of the plight of those with dissociative identity disorder.

"I say this from a layman's perspective because I have no medical training whatsoever, but I want the people I've met who've put her down as crazy and as something that's odd in this world to know that dissociative identity disorder is a problem that people have just like any other problem," he says. "There is nothing bad associated with it; it is a God-given way to cope with extreme trauma.

"She was a wonderful, caring person. Everyone that knew her loved her. This was something that she did in order to disassociate herself from a trauma that I cannot even imagine a child going through."

Ballard will continue his crusade in July, when he will lend the entire collection for an exhibit at the annual conference of the American Association of Art Therapy in Washington, D.C.