Sylvia Shaw Judson was the second daughter of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw (1869-1926) and poet, Frances Wells Shaw (1872-1937). She was born in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in a home her father designed and built in Lake Forest, Illinois, which he called Ragdale. Judson would later move back to Ragdale with her family in 1942 and build a studio on the grounds.
With a strong interest in sculpture, Judson graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918. While there she studied under sculptor Albin Polasek. She then studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1921, Judson married Clay Judson. They had their first child, Alice, in 1922. Their second child, Clay Jr., was born in 1926.
Judson joined the Quaker Church in 1949, later creating a work depicting a Quaker martyr, "Monument to Mary Dyer," in 1958. Judson’s husband Clay died in 1960. She remarried in 1963 to Sidney Gatter Haskins. That same year, Judson traveled to Cairo, Egypt to teach sculpture classes at the American University there.
During her lifetime Judson published two books, "The Quiet Eye" (1954) and "For Gardens and Other Places: The Sculpture of Sylvia Shaw" (1967).
A great deal of Judson’s sculptures depict children or animals; today many reside in outdoor public spaces or private gardens. Notably, Judson's sculpture, "Little Gardener," is displayed in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden at the White House. Judson’s work has been exhibited at numerous locations including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Illinois State Museum, the Chicago Public Library, the Sculpture Center of New York, and Lake Forest College.
Judson has received a number of awards and honors during her lifetime. Her statue "Little Gardener" was awarded the Logan Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1929. She won another award from the Institute in 1947, the Clyde Carr Prize. In 1949 she received the Purchase Prize at the Philadelphia Museum's International Sculpture Show. In 1952, she was given an honorary Doctorate of Sculpture from Lake Forest College. Judson served as president of the Chicago Public School Art Society from 1948-1950 and the vice-president of the women’s board at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1953-1954.
Judson died in 1978. Her work has made a revival over the past 30 years due to the publication of the book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" in 1994 which depicts her statue, "Bird Girl" (1936) on its cover. The film adaptation of the book also featured this statue.