Black History Month Artist Spotlight: Selma Burke
February 14, 2021
“I shaped my destiny early with the clay of North Carolina rivers … I loved to make the whitewash for my mother and was excited at the imprints of the clay and the malleability of the material.”
Selma Hortense Burke was fascinated with sculpting by the time she was six years old. Born on December 31, 1900, in the Western North Carolina town of Mooresville, Selma was the seventh of Mary Jackson and Neal Burke’s 10 children. Her father was a Methodist minister who also worked on the railroads and cruise ships. As a child, Burke began sculpting small objects and animals with white clay from a nearby riverbed. She would later describe the feeling of squeezing the clay through her fingers as a first encounter with sculpture, saying “It was there in 1907 that I discovered me.”
“One day, I was mixing the clay and I saw the imprint of my hands,” she told the New York Post in 1945. “I found that I could make something… something that I alone had created.“
Encouraged by her father, Burke created sculptures modeled on objects collected from his ocean travels and African artifacts inherited from an uncle who had done missionary work abroad. Burke’s mother, on the other hand, urged her to follow a more practical career. Burke would go on to get a degree in nursing, graduating in 1924 from Saint Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh, North Carolina. She moved to New York City in the late 1920s to work as a private nurse, and gained exposure to the arts and culture scenes in New York. Burke began socializing with the artists and writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She would become one of the few one of the few African American women to achieve fame during the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Arts Community Center was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, and it was there that Burke was able to meet with some of artists, including mentor Augusta Savage, who would influence her to take that great leap; from the security of nursing to taking a chance on following her dreams. Cautiously, she kept the day job, and sculpted at night.
She created sculptures from materials such as brass, wood, marble and stone and her subjects ranged from persons, popularly known as well as pedestrian, and nudes. The subjects of her works were presented as dignified and represented the human spirit.
She studied art at Sarah Lawrence College, modeling to pay for her classes. Burke twice traveled to Europe to hone her technique, where she studied under artists such as Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol in Paris.
Matisse liked her work. “He told me to loosen up, stay free, and to be open and honest,” Burke said. “He said that I had a big talent and he wanted me to add size and volume in my drawings. He wanted me to open up as a person.”
One of her most significant works from this period is “Frau Keller” (1937), a portrait of a German-Jewish woman in response to the rising Nazi threat which would convince Burke to leave Europe later that year. Back in the States, Burke taught art to youth in New York City through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. One of her WPA works, a bust of Booker T. Washington, was given to Frederick Douglass High School in Manhattan in 1936.
In 1940, Burke opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture. The next year, Burke earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University (where she had received a scholarship) and held her first solo exhibit in a New York gallery.
When the United States entered WWII, Burke set aside her art to serve as one of the first Black women in the Navy. It was her opinion that, during the war, “artists should get out of their studios.” She drove a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She injured her back on the job and while recuperating, she learned of a nationwide contest for the commission of a bronze relief portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt. She won the competition, and the resultant plaque was to become her most famous work.
Burke scoured newspapers and clippings, but couldn’t feel confident that she could capture the President’s likeness. Burke wrote the White House and, to her surprise, was granted a sitting with the president.
“I called the president and told him that I had a Ford car and could drive to Washington to sketch him,” Burke said in an interview. “He gave me a 15-minute appointment on Feb. 22, 1944.
I was in such a hurry to get to Washington that I ran to a butcher store and asked them to give me a roll of white butcher’s paper, threw it in my bag and went.”
She ended up sketching the president for four hours over two days. FDR died in April 1945 and the bronze plaque was unveiled on Sept. 24, 1945, by his successor Harry S. Truman. The completed piece was a 3’.5” x 2’.5” bronze plaque featuring the side profile of President Roosevelt. On it, above the head of President Roosevelt, was engraved “The Four Freedoms”: freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom of worship. As a stipulation of competition, the final art piece had to be approved by members of the Fine Arts Commission and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. At first, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly did not like the portrait because it depicted her husband as a younger man. Burke responded that she intended the image to represent Roosevelt as Americans had long known him. She said,
“I have 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.”
Though officially credited to U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock, it is widely acknowledged that Sinnock plagiarized Burke’s original design for use on the newly-commissioned US dime in 1946, though he denied it. For the rest of her life, Burke held strong to her belief that she had been stolen from and discredited. In a 1994 interview Burke decried, “I am so mad at that man … this has happened to so many Black people … I have never stopped fighting this man and have never had anyone who cared enough to give me the credit … everybody knows I did it.”
In 1946 Burke started another school, the Selma Burke Art School, also situated in New York City. She taught in institutions across New England including Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, the A.W. Mellon Foundation in New York and Harvard University in Boston. Her work at the Harlem Art Center influenced many African-American artists, including Ernest Crichlow and Jacob Lawrence.
In 1949, Burke married architect Herman Kobbe the two moved to an artists’ colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Kobbe passed away in 1955, but Burke remained in Pennsylvania for the rest of her life. Determined to be an asset to her community, she created a source for the arts, especially Black arts, and opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh which operated from 1968-1981. She taught children about the vibrancy of sculpture and encouraged them to touch works of art in order to fully understand them. Pennsylvania Governor Milton Schapp proclaimed June 20, 1975, to be “Selma Burke Day” in Pittsburgh in recognition of her contribution to the arts in Pennsylvania.
She used her art to make opportunities to bring people together. In her childhood home of Moorseville, NC, Black children were banned from use of the public library. With her rising fame, Burke chose to donate a bust of a local doctor on the condition that the ban be removed. The town accepted.
Burke described herself as “a people’s sculptor” and intended for her art to speak to wide audiences, including those who lacked an arts education. Her work often focused on the human body and she used brass, bronze, alabaster, and limestone, among other materials. Her sculptures included figures and busts of prominent African Americans such as John Brown, Duke Ellington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and A. Philip Randolph.
“It is very inspiring to release a figure from a piece of stone or wood,” she once said. “Very often, I look at (the) stone or wood for a year or longer … I will have completed the piece mentally before attacking the material.”
Burke was a member of the first group of women – along with Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keefe, and Isabel Bishop – to receive lifetime achievement awards from the Women’s Caucus for Art. President Jimmy Carter recognized Burke for her contributions to African American art history with the award in 1979. Burke’s last monumental work, a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Marshall Park in Charlotte, was completed in 1980. Burke received honorary doctorates from Livingstone College in 1970 and Spelman College in 1988.
Selma Burke died in New Hope, Pennsylvania on August 29, 1995 at the age of 94. Her papers reside at Spelman College. And her works are located in many collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.
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