Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

A Troubled Woman's Art Comes into Focus

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

A Troubled Woman's Art Comes into Focus

Article excerpt

When Nancy Preston befriended her art teacher at Rio Grande College in Ohio back in 1970, she had no idea that the teacher had a sensational life story.

It wasn't until a book about the teacher's life was published that Preston knew who Shirley Mason was: "Sybil," the subject of a New York Times best-selling book about a woman whose childhood abuse resulted in the division of her personality into 16 separate individuals.

To Preston, Mason's story was one of unbearable pain and sadness, and at Mason's request, she never divulged Sybil's true identity, choosing instead to keep her as a friend.

Their friendship is the subject of Preston's book, "After Sybil ... From the Letters of Shirley Mason." The cover of the book is a reproduction of one of Mason's paintings, "Doves," which shows two doves flying close together, one hovering protectively over the other.

That painting is among a large collection of artwork by Mason on exhibit and for sale at the Commodity Exchange in Sarasota.

The "Hidden Paintings" span the period from 1944 to 1965, and evidently were done by various personalities. Mason kept the work stored in the back of a closet in her home in Kentucky; they were discovered only after her death in 1998.

Mason earned her master's degree in art from Columbia University and taught art in various places in the Midwest.

The paintings were purchased as a lot by Jim Ballard, now of Sarasota, who at the time owned a picture framing business in Lexington. He knew the connection between Shirley Mason and Sybil, and thought at least he'd be able to sell some of the works. Out of the original 103 pieces, about a quarter were sold before Ballard decided to keep them together as a lot, with the hope that a mental health institution might buy them.

Many of the works are unsigned, or have the name of one of Mason's personalities attached on a bit of paper or tape where a signature might be. …

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