movBird Girl is a sculpture made in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson in Lake Forest, Illinois.
It was sculpted at Ragdale, her family’s summer home, and achieved fame when it was featured on the cover of the 1994 non-fiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Originally exhibited as Girl with Bowls at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938, it was also exhibited as Fountain Figure, Standing Figure, and Peasant Girl. A 1967 book by Judson first referred to it as Bird Girl.
The bronze Bird Girl stands 50 inches (130 cm) tall.
She is the image of a young girl wearing a simple dress and a sad or contemplative expression “…that stands solid and quietly, a strong and simple form”, “… a serene spirit that offers us in this troubled age the tranquility we find too seldom”. A family in Massachusetts commissioned it as a garden sculpture. A slight, eight-year-old model named Lorraine Greenman (now Lorraine Ganz) posed for the piece.
She stands straight with her head tilted toward her left shoulder, her elbows propped against her waist as she holds up two bowls out from her sides. “Bird Girl’s pose does not actually symbolize the weighing of good and evil, rather, the bowls in her upturned hands were intended to hold food or water for birds. Her design functions as a fountain.”
The inscription on the pedestal reads: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. II Corinthians 5:8”
First sculpted in clay, the statue was cast six times, once in lead and five times in bronze, between 1937 and 1940 according to records from the Roman Bronze Works in New York City, but later correspondence from the sculptor mentioned only four casts. Four original bronze casts exist: one went to Massachusetts in the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods, IL; one went to a Washington, DC, garden and then to Reading, PA; another in Lake Forest, IL and the fourth went to Savannah.
The most famous version was bought by a Savannah family who named it Little Wendy and set it up at the family’s plot in Bonaventure Cemetery with the inscribed pedestal. It now resides at the Telfair Academy. Judson donated the original plaster model to the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois.
The Bonaventure Cemetery statue sat virtually unnoticed until 1993, when Random House hired Savannah photographer Jack Leigh to shoot an image for the cover of John Berendt’s new book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At Berendt’s suggestion, Leigh searched the Bonaventure Cemetery for a suitable subject. He found the sculpture next to a grave on the Trosdal family plot, at the end of his second day of searching, and had to make the shot quickly as dusk approached. He reportedly spent ten hours in the darkroom adjusting the lighting. This gave the photo a moonlit feel and accentuating the halo around the statue’s head.
The cover image, titled “Midnight, Bonaventure Cemetery”, stunned the book community. Berendt called it “one of the strongest book covers I’ve ever seen”. The book, published in 1994, became an all time bestseller. Soon people flocked to Bonaventure Cemetery to see the sculpture. Due to concern about the amount of traffic at the grave site, the Trosdal family had it removed from the cemetery. They later lent it to the Telfair Museums in Savannah, for public display in their Telfair Academy. In December 2014, the Telfair Academy moved the statue to the Telfair Museums’ nearby Jepson Center for the Arts. As of April 2019, she is in a special exhibit at the Telfair Academy.
In 1995, Judson’s daughter Alice Judson Hayes (aka Alice Ryerson Hayes) had an additional bronze statue created from a mold and gave it to the Ragdale Foundation, an artist residency program in Lake Forest. Later, an authorized fiberglass replica was made from the original plaster model for use by Macy’s in their display windows; it was later moved to Jack Leigh’s studio and then to the Savannah History Museum.
Hayes holds the copyright for the Bird Girl and has actively defended it by filing lawsuits against unauthorized reproductions. She destroyed the mold, although the original plaster model still exists. Hayes has licensed smaller-scale replicas, which have sold well. She died on October 13, 2006, passing on the copyright to her daughter, painter Francie Shaw.
Warner Bros. produced a film adaptation of Berendt’s book in 1997, directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. After purchasing the rights to use the sculpture’s likeness from Hayes, the studio created a fiberglass replica. The movie incorporated shots of the Bird Girl sculpture on its posters and in the film itself.
Photographer Leigh sued Warner Bros. in November 1997 for copyright infringement. They sued over their shots of the Bird Girl replica in the cemetery, which were similar to Leigh’s original cover photograph. The lower court ruled that the Warner sequences with the statue were not infringement. An appeals court found that the photographs used for promotional purposes bore significant similarities. The court remanded the matter back to the lower court. Warner and Leigh then settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Sylvia Shaw Judson died in 1978. Although she did not see her Bird Girl sculpture achieve fame, she was already a renowned sculptor. Her pieces have been on display in such prestigious locations as:
- the White House
- the Massachusetts State House
- the Philadelphia Museum of Art
- and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Jack Leigh died of colon cancer on May 19, 2004. He is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery, where he took his most famous photograph.