Winnetka Public Schools’ Art Treasures: “Bird Girl” and WPA Mural

Gazette Article by: Becky Hurley and Susan Whitcomb

Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2010Sometime in the 1950s, Lake Forest sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson donated the original plaster model of one of her sculptures to Crow Island School. It sat in the corner of the art room watching children create masterpieces for more than 40 years. A bronze cast of the statue was featured on the cover of a retrospective of Judson’s work in 1967 and identified as “Bird Girl.” But this was not the book cover that would make “Bird Girl” famous. It was the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—a portrait of Savannah, Georgia and some of its eccentric residents—that made “Bird Girl” a household image. Sylvia Shaw Judson had six casts of “Bird Girl” produced by a foundry in the 1930s and one of them was placed in a family plot in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery.

After seeing the book, Crow Island art teacher Betty Carbol called Alice Judson Hayes (daughter of Sylvia Shaw Judson) to let her know that Crow Island possessed the plaster model of “Bird Girl.” Hayes was thrilled since the original foundry mold had been destroyed long ago and Hayes wanted a “Bird Girl” for Ragdale—her childhood home and now an artists’ retreat in Lake Forest. Hayes used the Crow Island model to have a bronze produced for display at Ragdale, along with two plaster casts, one of which now sits in the corner of the art room at Crow Island School (the school’s original model was probably destroyed in the process).

Hidden away in offices at Skokie School is a once-controversial Depression-era mural. Painted in 1934 by WPA artist Raymond Breinen, on what was once the two-story wall of the Skokie School library, the 40 x 10 foot mural depicts industrial and agricultural workers of various races with the caption “Give us the Unity of an and we shall build a New World.” It was not popular. The school board felt it was “communistic in character” and “sinister” and wanted it painted over.

Superintendent Carleton Washburne pleaded that it be saved, writing that he “shudder[ed] at the idea of ruthlessly destroying [Breinen’s] work because we don’t want a rumpus.” Washburne won and a false wall was built to cover the mural, but in 1954 renovations divided the library’s upper area into offices and much of the mural was painted over. Today, parts of the mural peek out from behind cabinets—glimpses of a challenging era.

The Winnetka Public Schools hold other unique pieces, including a 1930s fountain at Greeley School designed and built by artists employed by the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, and a small bronze sculpture at Hubbard Woods School by a former Hubbard Woods student—Max Cora—called “The Sky’s the Limit.”


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