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Bird Girl is a sculpture made in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson in Lake Forest, Illinois. It achieved fame when it was featured on the cover of the 1994 novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It was sculpted at Ragdale, the summer home of her family.
Bird Girl is cast in bronze and stands 50 inches tall (127 cm). She is the image of a young girl wearing a simple dress and a sad or contemplative expression, with her head tilted to the left. She stands straight, her elbows propped against her waist as she holds up two bowls out from her sides. The bowls are often described by viewers as "bird feeders".
Only four statues were made from the original plaster cast. The first went to the Massachusetts garden. The second was sent to Washington, D.C., and is now located in Reading, Pennsylvania. The third was purchased by a family in Lake Forest and has never relocated. The fourth and most famous statue was bought by a family in Savannah, Georgia, who named it Little Wendy and set it up at her family's plot in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. 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 the suggestion of Berendt, 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, giving the photo a moonlit feel and accentuating the halo around the statue's head.
The cover image was an immediate hit, and author Berendt called it "one of the strongest book covers I've ever seen." Published in 1994, the book became a bestseller, and soon people began flocking 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 and later lent to the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah for public display.
In 1995, Judson's daughter Alice Judson Hayes (aka Alice Ryerson Hayes) had a fifth bronze statue created from a mold. That statue was given to Ragdale, an artists' retreat 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 a museum in Savannah. Hayes holds the copyright for the Bird Girl, and has actively defended it by filing lawsuits against unauthorized reproductions, especially full-sized replicas. She destroyed the mold that was used to cast the 1995 replica, 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 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1997, directed by Clint Eastwood. 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. After the film was completed the replica was sent to the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago, Illinois.
Photographer Leigh sued Warner Bros. in November 1997 for copyright infringement 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 movie's sequences with the statue were not infringement, but an appeals court found that the photographs used for promotional purposes, such as posters, bore significant similarities and remanded the matter back to the lower court. Warner Bros. 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 whose pieces have been on display in such prestigious locations as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the White House, and the Massachusetts State House. Jack Leigh died of colon cancer on May 19, 2004, and is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery, where he took his most famous photograph.