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 Selma Hortense Burke  (1900 - 1995)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/North Carolina      Known for: modernist nude figure sculpture, portraits, teaching

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Selma Burke, for whom the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City and the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh are named, was a distinguished black-woman sculptor. She sculpted in brass, stone and wood, and her best subjects are nudes and historical figures. Selma Burke's most famous accomplishment is the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the dime coin that is used today. She was also an influential teacher and moving force in the development of black art in America. Her work is reminiscent of Aristide Maillol, with whom she studied.

Selma H. Burke was born in 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina. She was one of ten children born to Neal Burke, a Methodist Minister, and Mary Jackson Burke, an educator and homemaker. Selma became interested in art when she discovered that by modeling clay taken from the river bed near her parents' farm house she could make all kinds of figures and artistic objects. Her desire and interest in the arts took root immediately.

Even though Selma Burke wanted to become an artist, she was persuaded by her parents to enter the field of nursing. She continued her education at Slater Industrial and State Normal School, now Winston-Salem State University. Burke then went on to St. Agnes School of Nursing, Raleigh; and Women's Medical College, Philadelphia, where she received her R.N. diploma in 1924.

In 1924, she moved to New York City, and began nursing. Upon the tragic death of her first husband, Durant Woodward in 1929, Burke took a job as a private nurse for the heiress of the Otis Elevator Company, a job with which she stayed for four years.

The Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, and the stock market crash came in 1929, but Selma Burke had discovered the richness of New York and a new opportunity in seeking out her life long goal in becoming an artist. She worked her way through New York's Art Student's League and took art courses at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. By 1935, she had met her second husband, the noted poet, writer, and author, Claude McKay. This relationship helped her to broaden her horizons and knowledge of the arts and literature encompassing Europe and Africa.

She studied under Cornaham in New York City, and in 1936, won a Boehler Foundation Fellowship, which helped her to travel in Europe. While there, she studied ceramics under Michael Powolny in Vienna, sculpture under Aristide Maillol, and painting with Henri Matisse, the painter and her mentor, as well as with Oronzio Maldarelli in Paris.

Selma Burke came back to the United States and worked under Roosevelt's arts program with the WPA. She taught for a while at the Harlem Art Center in New York City and was an later an instructor of art and sculpture at many college and universities. Selma Burke did a short stint in the navy during World War II, but she was injured and thus returned to her art endeavors. She ended her marriage to Claude McKay by 1940 and in 1949 married Herman Kobbe, an architect, a marriage that ended in divorce.

She continued her studies at Columbia University completing the masters program with the help of a scholarship and a Julius Rosenwald Award in 1941. Later, at the age of 70, this remarkable woman also completed a Doctorate in Arts and Letters at Livingstone College, Salisbury, North Carolina.

In 1943, she won an international competition and was chosen to design a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After some unsuccessful sketches from photographs, Selma Burke asked Roosevelt if he would sit in person. Roosevelt did sit for Ms. Burke on February 22, 1944. The completed work became a 3'6" by 2'6" bronze plaque with a profile of Roosevelt that included the inscription of the Four Freedoms: Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom of Speech. President Harry S.Truman unveiled the plaque on September 24, 1945 as it was installed in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. (F.D.R. died on April 12, 1945, before the plaque was installed).

The same head of President Roosevelt appears on the plaque as on the Roosevelt Dime. The coin, however, bears the initials of the engraver, John Sinnock, and Burke and many others believe that John Sinnock based his design for the dime on her plaque. Selma Burke to this day has not received proper credit for her artwork.

Selma Burke believed in passing on what she had learned as a skilled visual artist. From 1940 up until the late 1970's, she taught art and sculpture at Livingston, Swarthmore, and Haverford Colleges. In 1940, she became the founder of the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City, and, later in 1968, she established the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The A.W. Mellon Foundation selected Ms. Burke as a hired consultant from 1967-1976. Her works of art have been exhibited in numerous museums around the world. Among her many honors is the Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts presented by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. In 1989, she was among the Essence Awards honorees for the Arts.

One of her last shows was at the Malcolm Brown Galley in Shaker Heights, NY. Fifteen of her stone and bronze sculptures were on view, among them, her plaster 'Falling Angel'. Other of her notable pieces include: 'Jim' (plaster), 'Peace' (plaster), 'Martin Luther King' (bronze statue). Additional works are Amazonian Temptation (1938), Edith Barome, Mary McLeod Bethune, Bowed Down (1969), Boy's Head (n.d.), Compassion, Deborah (n.d.), Falling Angel, Grief (n.d.), Mary Holiday (n.d.), Jim (1939), Lafayette (1938), Light and Shadow (n.d.), Morrhua Lusca (n.d.), Mother and Child (1968), Mother and Two Children (1972), Negro Woman (n.d.), Peace (1972), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1944), Safe (1972), Salome (n.d.), Seated Nude, Sleeping Swan, Stone (n.d.), Study in Cedar Wood (n.d.), Temptation (1938), Torso in Limestone (1937), Victory (n.d.), Booker Washington (1970), The Widow (1970), and Woman on the Beach. She created several reliefs including Col. William Hayward and the 369th Regiment.

The noted art historian James A. Porter (1905-1970) stated "There is an idealistic intent in her sculpture", a quality that was evoked in her pieces 'Lafayette' (1938) and 'Salome' (n.d.) which were exhibited in the McMillan Galleries in New York in 1941."

Selma Burke died in 1995 at age 94 in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

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Black American Artists

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