On the Trail of the Bird Girl
- Arts in Savannah
by Harry DeLorme, Senior Curator of Education
It’s been 25 years since Sylvia Shaw Judson’s bronze sculpture Bird Girl first appeared in Jack Leigh’s iconic cover photograph for John Berendt’s best-selling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. When he took the image at Bonaventure Cemetery in 1993, even Leigh didn’t know the name of the artist of this work that would spawn a devotional following still going strong in 2019. Both Bird Girl and Bonaventure have fascinating histories that visitors can experience in the new exhibition Before Midnight: Bonaventure and the Bird Girl at the Telfair Academy.
Although Bird Girl will forever be associated with Bonaventure because of Midnight, it was not originally intended for a cemetery. The location wasn’t a complete stretch, however. Bonaventure was created as a garden cemetery, and Bird Girl was originally designed as a garden sculpture. In 1846, Peter Wiltberger purchased Bonaventure, which had been established as a plantation in the 1760s, to develop as a public cemetery at a time when the rural or garden cemetery movement was emerging in the United States. With its beautiful setting overlooking the Wilmington River and avenues of live oaks, Bonaventure represented a new type of graveyard that also functioned as a public park. Following the Civil War, Savannahians increasingly bought lots at Bonaventure, adding funerary monuments by makers in Savannah, the northeast, and Italy. Among these monument makers, German-born John Walz stands apart. He created 77 monuments for Bonaventure between 1880 and 1922, including his poignant sculpture of 6-year-old Gracie Watson. Walz also connects to Telfair Museums, having worked in the Vienna studio where the museum’s first director, Carl Brandt, commissioned five sculptures for the entrance of the museum. Walz oversaw the installation of these works in 1884 and started his business in Savannah afterward. His plaster portrait of Brandt can be seen in the current exhibition.
Walz’s status as Bonaventure’s sculptor was later overshadowed by the fame of Bird Girl, likely Bonaventure’s first major sculpture created by a woman. Chicago-born Sylvia Shaw Judson (1897–1978) studied in Chicago, New York, and Paris, and was receiving commissions and exhibiting in museums by the late 1930s. In 1936, Bird Girl was originally sculpted in clay and was cast six times, once in lead and five times in bronze. The sculpture was intended for use in gardens or as a fountain. Exhibited as Fountain Figure at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938, the sculpture was not called Bird Girl until its publication in a 1967 book about Judson’s work. Although Bird Girl’s path to Savannah is a mystery, Sandra Underwood provides an excellent history and clues in her book The “Bird Girl,” the Story of a Sculpture by Sylvia Shaw Judson. When Savannahian Lucy Boyd Trosdal was seeking a sculpture for her family’s plot at Bonaventure, a landscape architect may have recommended Judson’s work, which was available through New York galleries at the time.
Installed at Bonaventure circa 1940, Bird Girl remained there half a century before achieving stardom on the cover of Midnight. Commissioned to make a photograph for the book’s jacket, Leigh famously obtained permission to stay after hours at Bonaventure. On the second evening, as the light faded, he photographed Bird Girl, whose symmetrical pose and outstretched bowls make her appear as if she holds the scales of justice. Leigh’s initial photo negative did not suggest the drama and mystery of the final photograph. That magic happened in the darkroom as Leigh used the techniques of dodging and burning to craft the sole image that he sent to Random House. After the book’s success, Bonaventure and the Trosdal lot were inundated with tourists, and Bird Girl was removed from the cemetery. Since 1997, she has been on loan to Telfair Museums — initially placed on view at the Telfair Academy, then the Jepson Center, and now back at the Academy as the centerpiece of her own exhibition. A small riot erupts when she is off view for even a few minutes, so museum staff members time her movements carefully. Fans follow Bird Girl wherever she goes, and in the current exhibition a photo mural allows them to picture her once again in her setting at Bonaventure.