The Hidden Paintings
of Shirley A. Mason...  Sybil
  1941 - Dodge Center High School Graduation Photo 

Born in 1923  -  Dodge Center, Minnesota    /   Died in 1998  -  Lexington, Kentucky


Shirley A. Mason's life story, told under the pseudonym Sybil, garnered international interest and scrutiny in the 1973 national best seller book, "Sybil", written by Flora Schreiber in collaboration with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.  A made-for-TV movie by the same title was released in 1976, staring Sally Field as Sybil and Joanne Woodward as Dr. Wilbur.  The movie earned Sally Field an Emmy Award for outstanding achievement as an actress.


The story of Shirley Mason is one of a woman who triumphed over incredible odds.  Abused by her mother throughout her young life, Shirley's mind protected the innocent child by splitting into various dissociative states or “personalities” to absorb the experience and shield her from the disturbing memories.  In all, sixteen personalities were identified over the course of Shirley’s eleven year sojourn through psychotherapy with Dr. Wilbur.


Through the efforts of Dr. Wilbur, coupled with the self determination of this emotionally damaged young woman, all the selves integrated into one, allowing Shirley almost total recall of her life and feelings.  And although individual courage and an irresolute determination to get better were the foundation of her recovery, Shirley discovered along the way that creative expression provided an important healing dimension in her struggle to get well.

Shirley Ardell Mason was born January 25, 1923 in Dodge Center, Minnesota, and died February 26, 1998, in Lexington, Kentucky.  Shirley graduated from Dodge Center High School in 1941, and attended Mankato State Teachers College (now known as Minnesota State University, Mankato) in the 1940's, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in English and Art in 1949.

Shirley began undergoing psychotherapy in 1954 with Dr. Cornelia Wilbur who diagnosed her with Multiple Personality Disorder.  It was not until two years into her psychotherapy that Dr. Wilbur made Shirley aware of the autonomy and control the fifteen alternate selves had over her.

Shirley received a Master’s degree in Art Education from Columbia University's Teachers College in 1956 and later taught art at Rio Grande College in Ohio, before moving to Lexington, Kentucky in 1974.  

Shirley, became a highly regarded and commercially successful artist, signing only those works that she recognized as her own.  Other earlier works of art, presumably created by one or more of the alternative selves, were many times not signed or signed by others, providing the only tangible evidence of Shirley’s dissociative states, in which she created art but did not acknowledge the works as her own.


A cache of 103 paintings were found locked in a closet in the basement of Shirley Mason’s Lexington home, hidden for nearly a quarter century, until they were located shortly after her death in 1998.

These paintings, many of which were unsigned, span the years of 1943, eleven years before starting psychotherapy with Dr. Wilbur, to 1965, the year of her successful integration, and include examples of some of the artwork presumably created by the alternate selves. 

Shirley did not put her name on any piece of art that she didn’t recognize as her own.   It was a disturbing occurrence for her to enter her studio and find work on the easel of which she had no conscious memory.  This must have been an already frequent happening while she was a student at Mankato in the early 1940’s where she wrote numerous articles for the student paper concerning the use of pseudonyms and pen names.  In one article Shirley stated it was the "what" not the "who" that was important, and no artist should put their name on any work or creation that was not their own.  Other students may have thought this a curious topic to be so passionate about, but they didn’t know then what we know now about Ms. Mason’s surrealistic reality.  And in a final twist of irony, Shirley Mason, known to the world as Sybil... a pseudonym, is demonstrating that for these particular pieces, it is the "who", and not just the "what" that makes them important.


Trauma and Integration in Shirley Mason's Art

"...The sensory experience of Mason's art may mirror the relative presence and absence manifest from the inner/outer shifting moments of selfhood, as different aspects of her subjectivity inhabit conscious control.  Rather than visualize difference embedded in the visual forms and styles, as has often been noted, I ask the viewer to suspend such pronouncements.  Instead, reflect upon the freshness of the experience of Mason's art; it is palpable when one confronts, through immersion, the vastness of this project.  For this author the cohesiveness and integrative capacity, the traumatic experiences embedded in the art evoke certainly the stifling effects of splintering, but also much more, the congruent balance between difference, the potential self-acceptance, the healing action of and the promise of self reparation.

Another feeling from the work is a sense of urgency, of profound significance, struggling to be heard, seen and witnessed.  There is a hallucinatory feeling after travelling through her work, again signalling the complex contradictions - the scream of silence and stillness.  I increasingly found myself asking, where is Shirley Mason?  

Mason's art is a living testament to resilience, determination and artistic legacy, in the face of unspeakable trauma.  Vigilance pervades the work, searching for understanding, and the elusive comfort, amidst the sadness and poignancy of pain transcribed in every mark, in the affective traces of a hard-fought self-presence.  The disquiet posits on of the enduring threads that permeate Mason's art, giving the viewer access to a reception of the empathic sensory experience of her life..."

  - Geoffrey Thompson, American Art Therapy Association

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