The woman known as Sybil — a famous psychiatric patient alleged to have multiple personalities, although that claim has been contested — died in 1998 in her home on Lexington’s Henry Clay Boulevard.
But her artwork has traveled extensively since then.
Shirley Ardell Mason, who was known as Sybil, lived in Lexington for more than 20 years. She painted. She ran an arts business out of her home. She visited with her psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur, who had a practice in Lexington.
A sale of paintings and ephemera by Mason, including family letters, was conducted recently by Everything But the House, an online auction and estate dispersal business.
For work that is not particularly distinguished, Mason’s art has had a fascinating journey.
After Mason’s death, Midway antiques dealers Mark Boultinghouse and Ron Hall acquired more than 40 of her paintings from her estate. The New Yorker wrote about them in 1999, when they were up for auction in New York.
Thirty of the paintings were bought by an unidentified female collector from Leawood, Kansas, who paid between $1,000 and $3,500 for each of them. Rod Lich, an Indiana artist, brokered the deal.
That artwork is not, however, the Mason pieces that were sold in the recent online auction. Those had belonged to former Lexington businessman Jim Ballard, who ran a frame shop in Chevy Chase.
He picked up Mason’s art at a Lexington auction shortly after her death. The items included selections featured in the 1973 best-selling book Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber and the 2007 TV remake, with Tammy Blanchard as Sybil and Jessica Lange as Wilbur. An earlier TV miniseries aired on NBC in 1976, with Sally Field as Sybil and Joanne Woodward as Wilbur.
Schreiber’s book sold six million copies worldwide.
They’re all different. There’s no style to this. You look at the one called ‘Hell,’ then you look at ‘New York in the Spring.’ There are no correlations. Two different people did them.
Jim Ballard, former Lexington businessman
Sybil Exposed, by Debbie Nathan, which was published in 2011, contended that the Sybil story was largely manufactured by a manipulative Wilbur and the suggestible Mason.
Ballard, however, emphatically believes in Mason’s multiple personalities. He says he sees them reflected in the art. The art he had is not the art that Mason sold, but rather the items she kept for herself.
And in terms of its tone and style, it’s broad in scope, from a view from a New York window, possibly Wilbur’s office; leafless trees; ballerinas; flowers in a vase.
“They’re all different,” Ballard said. “There’s no style to this. You look at the one called Hell, then you look at New York in the Spring. There are no correlations. Two different people did them.”
Ballard bought his Mason collection by the box, sight unseen. He said he sold it because, “I’m 85 years old, and what am I going to do with it? I’ve had it all over the United States. I’ve had it in California and New York and Washington, D.C. I’m just too old to be having art shows.”
One of Mason’s works, an untitled chalk-on-paper landscape, sold for $1,400. An acrylic on board of a harbor scene went for $875, and the aforementioned Ballerinas, chalk on paper, sold for $847. Perhaps the most compelling of the lot, the stark small watercolor on paper called Hell, featuring three leafless trees on a red island, sold for $802.
Ballard lives in Greenwood, Ind., with his wife, Carol Angel, a former Lexington political consultant.
But he isn’t totally out of the Sybil business. Ballard’s prints of works by Mason will remain for sale on the Internet at Hiddenpaintings.com.