Sylvia Shaw Judson was the daughter of Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw and poet and writer Frances Wells Shaw. She was raised at Ragdale, the summer home built by Shaw. Plans for working as a nurse during World War I were replaced by an art education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later, study in Paris and Florence. Alice Hayes, Judson's daughter, told the Savannah News-Press that Shaw, who had taught young Sylvia to draw and sculpt, presented her with a large chest (5' long and 2' deep) filled with oil-based clay at the completion of her Art Institute training. This clay became the material for all her subsequent sculpture, and was continually re-used. Only 3–4 copies of a piece would be made and then the mold was destroyed.
Judson specialized in sculptures of children and animals. Franz Schulze, in his introduction to the artist's book For Gardens and Other Places, states,"Judson's treatment of favorite themes... is consistently tender, honest and serene." Ira J. Bach quotes Judson as saying that"art should be 'authentic experience, simple, homely, fresh and vivid as the parables.'" In viewing Judson's sculptures, the Lake Forest College exhibition catalog emphasizes their"right relationship with the surrounding space and a harmonizing adjustment to the environment."
Judson's monumental sculpture of Mary Dyer, Quaker martyr, is installed in front of the State House in Boston; Jacqueline Kennedy purchased The Little Gardener for the White House Rose Garden. One of the two copies of Bird Girl, in Savannah's Bonaventure Cemetery, gained notoriety in connection with the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (the sculpture is printed on the book cover).
Distinguished sculptress and Lake Forest native Sylvia Shaw Judson (1897–1978) was the daughter of prominent Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw and poet and writer Frances Wells Shaw. She was raised at Ragdale in Lake Forest, the summer home built by Shaw for his family, which is now a well-known artist’s retreat. The tree that figures so prominently in the sculpture was selected by Judson from the Ragdale property, and was specially treated to last as long as the bronze children settled comfortably upon its branches.
Judson received her formal art education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with additional study under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris. Judson is known particularly for her endearing interpretation of children and animals in various media. Franz Schulze, in his introduction to the artist’s book For Gardens and Other Places, states: "The comely simplicity of her concepts is matched by the directness and clarity of the forms with which she graces them. She is utterly without guile. Her treatment of favorite themes … is consistently tender, honest and serene ..."
Her commissions included works for many private gardens as well as libraries, parks, zoos, and other public places throughout the United States. Her best known works include the sculpture of Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr, on the grounds of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston; The Little Gardner, acquired by Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House Rose Garden; and Bird Girl, of which one of two copies, located in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, gained notoriety in connection with the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (the sculpture is featured on the book’s cover). Locally, additional pieces of Judson’s work can be found at Ravinia, Chicago Botanic Garden, Lake Bluff Library, Highland Park Library, Lake Forest Hospital, and Ragdale.
The tree, selected from the Haskins' property at Ragdale, was treated"to last as long as the children." According to former Children's Librarian Mary Bollman, young library patrons have always interacted with the sculpture. A book was once placed in the hands of the sculpted girl.