A new exhibit in the mezzanine gallery of Vanderbilt University Hospital features paintings by Shirley Ardell Mason, known to the world as "Sybil," the most famous multiple personality in psychiatric history.
The Hidden Paintings, The Secret Life of Sybil Revealed, includes the only known examples of works by some of her alternate personalities, and will be on display in the mezzanine gallery located in the Vanderbilt Hospital until April 30, in advance of an international tour, said Donna Glassford, director of Cultural Enrichment.
The paintings tell the tortured story of Mason's struggle with severe dissociative identity disorder (previously described as "multiple personality disorder") brought on by horrific childhood physical and mental abuse by her mother. Mason's story was told in the 1973 bestselling book Sybil, and later recounted in the Emmy Awardiwinning movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward. A remake of the movie is in production and scheduled to air on CBS in 2005.
The paintings were discovered in a hidden closet in the basement of Mason's house after her death in 1998. The house, located on Henry Clay Boulevard in Lexington, was her home for the last 25 years of her life. She had moved to Lexington in 1973, presumably to be closer to her psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur, M.D., who had received a faculty appointment at the University of Kentucky.
The paintings are the work of Mason and several of her alternate selves and were executed from 1944, 10 years prior to the start of Mason's psychotherapy with Wilbur in New York, to approximately 1965 when her therapy was completed.
Works by the alternate selves are unsigned; she apparently did not recognize these paintings as her own. Mason, who experienced periods of what she described as "lost time," was not made aware of the presence of separate identities until 1956, two years into her therapy with Wilbur.
"[The paintings are] a dramatic display of varying artistic styles," Glassford said. The collection is unified in the appearance of repeated imagery and themes, such as isolation and of a dark world closing in around the artist. Hope and inspiration are also found in the works painted in the final years of Mason's therapy.
"The importance of this collection is expressed in Mason's understanding of the powerful therapeutic value of art," Glassford said.
Mason, who graduated from Mankato State University in Minnesota in 1952, did post-graduate art study at Columbia University in New York while undergoing psychotherapy with Wilbur. Before moving to Lexington in 1973, Mason taught art therapy at Falkirk Institute in New York and at Rio Grande College in Ohio.
For more information, contact the Department of Cultural Enrichment at 936-1234.