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.
The paintings, some watercolor, some colored pencil or crayon, display several themes. Rarely abstract, several are of bare-branched trees reaching toward the sky. Dancers are featured in some, although they sometimes are lacking hands, feet or mouths. Ships sail across troubled waters.
"If you follow her painting, you can follow her path to wellness," said Preston, recently visiting Sarasota.
Mason's story became even more widely known in 1976 when Sally Field and Joanne Woodward starred in a TV movie version, later remade in 2007 with Jessica Lange and Tammy Blanchard.
Her story has remained controversial, with questions surrounding the diagnosis of her illness as dissociative identity disorder by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur. Mason spent more than a decade in therapy with Wilbur and in 1965 the two declared Mason's 16 personalities merged into one.
But the veracity of the diagnosis has been questioned. In 2011, Debbie Nathan wrote "Sybil Exposed," in which she maintains that Mason made up the personalities in order to continue her therapeutic relationship with Wilbur, on whom she had a crush, and that co-author Flora Rheta Schreiber also was involved in keeping the story going.
Preston discounts those accounts. She and Mason maintained a friendship despite geographic separations for nearly 30 years, until Mason's death in 1998.
"I'm very protective of Shirley as well," she said.
The paintings are priced at an average of $5,000 apiece.
Mason would not sign pieces that she believed had been done by other personalities, said Ballard, which accounts for the added-on signatures.
"The fact that it's done by one of the other selves makes it more valuable," he said.