Ms. Selma Burke was a skilled sculptor who played an active role in the Harlem Renaissance. Best known for her portrayal of individuals who have left their own mark in history, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King jr., Burke’s talent and eagerness to give back to her communities carry her name as not only an artist, but a true humanitarian.
Selma Burke discovered artistic inspiration at a young age and pursued it until her final years. She had many vocations, traveled, and made a significant contribution to both the art world and the country over the course of her lengthy life. Selma Burke led a full existence that was devoted to pursuing her interests, and she continuously gave back to others along the way.
In this article, we’ll dive into the long and full life led by Selma Burke to better understand who this woman was and why we should know her name.
Inspired at a Young Age
Selma Hortense Burke was born in Mooresville, North Carolina on December 31, 1900. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister and was the seventh of ten children. She loved spending time outdoors playing games and exploring, once explaining in an interview with the New York Post that she was first inspired to sculpt after playing with soft river clay and realizing how she could create with it.
Burke's family was a prominent source of her inspiration. Her father would travel to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean making extra money by working on cruise ships, while her uncle traveled doing missionary work. She used trinkets that they brought back as models for her sculptures, particularly the collection of African artifacts that her uncle had brought the family from his travels.
Education was also held to high regard in the Burke family. She stated in a 1990 interview that her maternal grandfather had been owned by the famous Stonewall Jackson, and that he had “Exchanged his chains for an education”. At the age of 75, Burke’s mother, Mary Burke, even chose to pursue higher education and enrolled at Winston-Salem State University.
Selma Burke believed that art was for everyone, and as she developed her art, Burke adopted a Deweyan philosophy. Derived from the philosophy of John Dewey, she followed “the art of living”, a popular phrase of the time that led her to approach art from the perspective that it should be accessible to the masses.
Although her father was supportive of her creative interests, Burke's mother urged her to make a more practical career choice. She decided to follow a path towards nursing by enrolling in what is today known as the Winston-Salem State University, from which she graduated in 1922. She continued nursing training at the Saint Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated as a registered nurse two years later.
Burke spent several more years training further in Philadelphia, around which time she also married her childhood friend Durant Woodward. Sadly, Woodward died soon after, and in the late 1920's, Burke moved again, this time to New York City.
Becoming A Part of the Harlem Renaissance
New York City was in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance, a time of flourishing African American art alongside a push for inclusion and diversity in the art community. It was there that she began a relationship with Claude McKay, a well-known Harlem Renaissance writer who brought her into the world of art in New York City.
At the same time, Burke worked as a private nurse for Amelia Waring, who was an heiress to the Otis Elevator empire and a prominent member of society. Through her connections, Waring assisted Burke in gaining further exposure to the New York arts and culture scenes.
Burke began studying art at Sarah Lawrence College, taking on modeling jobs to help fund her education. Through her studies, she earned the Rosenwald Fellowship, which further led her across the sea. She traveled to Paris and Vienna, where she studied under prominent artists like Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol. However, this was shortly before the onset of World War II, and the looming rise of the Nazi party brought Burke back to the US.
By 1940, Burke had opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where local teachers and creatives taught Black youth on a variety of artistic expressions that spanned from painting to dance.
She also taught art to youth through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, as well as at the Harlem Community Arts Center under influential sculptor Augusta Savage. She was always learning, teaching, and creating, and in 1941 she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University.
A New York gallery hosted Burke’s first solo art show before war made it to the US, but when it did, she put her passion on hold to help her country. Selma Burke joined the US Navy as one of the first African American women to enlist, though she returned home after injuring her back on duty.
Shortly after returning home, Burke won a nationwide contest to commission a bronze relief portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The true artist that she was, Burke requested a face-to-face sitting with the President in order to draw him, rather than basing her sculpture on provided pictures. However, her final piece would be of a younger FDR, portraying him as he was in the prime of his presidency.
Burke went on to sculpt several other influential figures and made a prominent name for herself within the art world. She remarried in 1949, this time to the architect Herman Kobbe, with whom she moved to an artists’ colony in Pennsylvania. Burke began teaching at various institutions across New England, including Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, the A.W. Mellon Foundation in New York, and Harvard University in Boston.
Kobbe passed away in 1955, and Burke remained in Pennsylvania for the rest of her life. In 1968 she opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, once again teaching art to underprivileged youth in the community. She lived for a long 94 years and created late into her life, finally passing away from cancer in 1995.
The People’s Sculptor
Selma Burke was a seasoned artist who dabbled in watercolor, oil, and acrylics, though her primary passion since childhood was sculpting. Burke considered herself a “people’s sculptor” and made art that didn’t require an art education to be understood.
She worked with materials like brass, bronze, wood, and limestone, focusing primarily on faces and bodies. As an accomplished artist, Burke also sculpted several prominent names throughout her career, and her statues can still be viewed today.
One of Burke’s earliest reliefs was completed while studying in Europe. Her piece named Frau Keller is a depiction of a Jewish woman, which she created in response to the Nazi threat.
Upon returning to the US, Burke embarked on creating her nationally recognized portrayal of President Roosevelt. When the bronze sculpture was first revealed after the President’s passing in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt famously claimed that Burke had made her husband look too young in her depiction. However, Burke stood by her work, proclaiming:
“I’ve not done it for today, but for tomorrow and tomorrow. Five hundred years from now America and all the world will want to look at our President, not as he was for the few months before he died, but as we saw him for the time he was with us – Strong, so full of life.”
This intention behind the depiction shone through as it has become the artist’s best-known piece. Although the credit was given to the United States Mint Chief Engraver at the time, John Sinnock, it is largely accepted that Burke’s portrayal of the President was what Roosevelt’s depiction on the dime was directly modeled after.
Selma Burke later sculpted many other well-known historical figures, including many prominent African American icons. Her sculptural depictions include:
- A. Philip Randolph
- Booker T. Washington
- Duke Ellington
- John Brown
- Mary McLeod Bethune
- Pearl S. Buck
Her final sculpture was a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which can still be found at Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Burke also created many other sculptures of women, men, children, and families, often focusing on just the head or torso. Following an African tradition, she chose her materials based on their symbolic value, and sometimes spent years sculpting it mentally before physically beginning the process.
She worked with the natural curves and character of the materials to allow the sculptures to emerge. When instructing her students, Burke would teach them to touch the pieces to better understand and sculpt them. This can particularly bee seen in wood sculptures such as Woman Holding Sheaf of Wheat, where the natural notches of the Red Oak helped Burke shape her sculpture.
Today, many of Burke’s works can be found in schools and galleries across the US, including the following:
- Winston-Salem University
- Spelman College
- Atlanta University
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- The Whitney Museum of American Art
- The Philadelphia Museum of Art
- The James A. Michener Museum of Art
Burke believed that art was neither black nor white, and that humans should simply be understood as “Children of God” rather than by color. She strongly believed in the idea of unity, and she often brought this idea forward in her art.
Achievements and Recognitions
There is no shortage to Ms. Selma Burke’s list of achievements, and her efforts and contributions were rightfully recognized. Regardless of where she was in geography or life, Burke always focused on giving back to others, and her efforts to bring art to underprivileged youth continues to be recognized today.
One of the first major recognitions came locally from the governor of Pennsylvania Milton Shapp. On July 29, 1975, Governor Shapp declared the day Selma Burke Day, in honor of her contributions within the community, as well as to art and education as a whole.
In 1979, Burke was part of the first group of women to be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art. The award was presented to Burke by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, alongside several other accomplished women that included Isabel Bishop, Georgia O’Keefe, Alice Neel, and Louise Nevelson.
Selma Burke was highly educated, earning three honorary doctorate degrees throughout her life. She also started two schools throughout her lifetime, and she landed solo shows at venues like Princeton University and Carnegie Museum.
In 1983, Burke received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and in 1987 she was given the Pearl S. Buck Foundation Woman’s Award.
Selma Burke was a highly accomplished sculptor whose accomplishments were undeniable, even at a time when Black women had few opportunities for recognition. She dedicated her life to art and education, and her work can be found in many prestigious galleries and museums across the US. Selma Burke believed in the power of art to bring people together, and her work continues to be recognized and celebrated today.