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Selma Burke

Selma Burke
December 31, 1900 – August 29, 1995
Notable: Sculptor
Nationality: American

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Show Notes

Selma Hortense Burke was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina the seventh of her parents’ ten children. Her mother, Mary Jackson, was a homemaker and teacher. Her father, Neal Burke, was an AME minister who also provided for the family by working on railroads and cruise ships.

As a small child, Burke spent time playing at a nearby riverbed. Those early days of squeezing the riverbed’s white clay through her fingers would be life-changing. Burke began using clay to create small objects and animals, an informal introduction to sculpture. To encourage Burke’s interest, her father provided her with items he collected from his travels as well as African artifacts that had been collected by an uncle who traveled as a missionary. Burke used these items as models for creating small sculptures.

For high school, Burke attended the Slater Normal and Industrial School (now Winston-Salem State University) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While Burke had an interest in sculpture, she followed her mother’s advice and pursued a career in nursing for more stability. In 1924, she completed the registered nursing program at St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Burke relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she spent several years working as a nurse. While in Philadelphia, Burke received training in assisting in operating rooms at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. In 1928, Burke married her childhood friend, Durant Woodward, but was tragically widowed when he died from blood poisoning less than a year after their wedding.

In the late 1920s, Burke moved to New York City where she had accepted a private nursing position caring for the Otis Elevator Company heiress, Amelia Waring. Waring supported Burke’s artistry and used her connections to raise Burke’s profile in New York’s art scene. Following Waring’s death, Burke left nursing to pursue being a sculptor full-time.

When Burke moved to Harlem, her arrival coincided with the. She regularly rubbed shoulders with artists, writers, and intellectuals of the day who would become legends. During this time Burke had a tumultuous relationship (and possibly short-lived marriage) with Claude McKay. Volatile, McKay would destroy Burke’s sculptures that he deemed unworthy.

Burke met and befriended fellow sculptor Augusta Savage who became a mentor. At the time, the Harlem Community Art Center and the Harlem Artists Guild were epicenters of the Harlem Renaissance. Savage encouraged Burke to respectively teach at and become a member of these organizations to further immerse herself in the art scene.

To further her art education and refine her skills, Burke studied at Sarah Lawrence College where she also posed as a figure model to help cover her expenses. Burke visited Austria to study ceramics and France to study sculpture. While in France she spent time in Paris studying under Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol. Burke returned to America after witnessing the rise of Nazism.

Back in New York City, Burke opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in 1940. 1941 would be very significant for Burke as she earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University and a New York City gallery hosted her first solo exhibit. When America officially entered WWII later in 1941, Burke was one of the first Black women to enlist in the U.S. Navy. She was assigned to drive a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she suffered a back injury.

While recovering from her back injury, Burke heard about a national contest for the commission of a bronze relief portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt. Burke gathered photos of Roosevelt from newspapers but felt they lacked the necessary detail and energy needed to produce her art. She requested an in-person sitting with the president which Roosevelt granted. The pair met for four hours over two days where Burke sketched the president.

Unfortunately, Roosevelt died in April 1945 before the plaque was completed. The plaque was unveiled on September 24, 1945, by President Harry S. Truman. It’s believed that Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t initially like the portrait as it portrayed Roosevelt as a younger man rather than his older appearance at the time of his death. Burke explained this depiction as intended to portray Roosevelt as the public had known him over the years rather than just the final years of his life.

The bronze portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt would become Burke’s most famous sculpture. It has special significance as it’s believed to have been the model for the 1946 US dime which was newly commissioned to include Roosevelt’s portrait. Unfortunately, as is common practice for many Black artists, Burke was not credited for the design as it was officially solely attributed to U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock. It’s commonly accepted that Sinnock based the dime’s design on Burke’s portrait. Burke would continue to condemn the plagiarism and lack of credit for her work until her death.

Burke established the Selma Burke Art School in New York City in 1946. She also taught at various schools across the northeast. In 1949, Burke moved to an artists’ colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania, with her new husband, architect, Herman Kobbe. Unfortunately, Kobbe passed away in 1955, once again leaving Burke a widow. Burke remained in Pennsylvania and created the Selma Burke Art Center which operated in Pittsburgh from 1968-1981. The Center became a resource for the community, introducing inner-city kids to art, especially Black art.

In recognition of her contributions to the community, the governor of Pennsylvania designated July 20, 1975, as Selma Burke Day. President Jimmy Carter presented Burke with a Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement award in 1979. She also received honorary doctorates from Livingstone College in 1970 and Spelman College in 1988.

Burke saw herself as a sculptor of the people, creating art that would connect with a variety of people, including those who were not well-versed in art history or theory. Her works often used metals such as brass or bronze and rocks such as alabaster or limestone. Her most well-known pieces include figures and busts of Black American icons as well as regular people and moments from life.

Selma Burke died from cancer on August 29, 1995, at the age of 94. Her papers are located at Spelman College while her works are still on display at various parks, colleges, galleries, and museums.

Sources

  1. Brandman, Mariana. 2021. “Selma Burke Biography.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/selma-burke.
  2. Lobanovich, Sofiya. 2023. “Selma Burke.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. December 27, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Selma-Burke.
  3. Mack, Felicia. 2023. “Selma Hortense Burke (1900 -1995).” BlackPast.Org. March 16, 2023. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/burke-selma-hortense-1900-1995/.
  4. Sosower, Deborah. 2021. “Black History Month Artist Spotlight: Selma Burke.” Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. February 14, 2021. https://www.arrowmont.org/black-history-month-artist-spotlight-selma-burke/.

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