Burke, Selma Hortense
(b. 31 December 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina; d. 29 August 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania), sculptor noted for creating a relief plaque of President Franklin D. Roosevelt housed in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C.
Selma Burke was the seventh of ten children born to the African American Methodist minister Neal Burke, who died when she was twelve, and Mary Jackson Burke, an educator and homemaker. She became interested in the arts at a very early age. Interviews regularly mentioned her discovery that the clay she and her siblings used to whitewash the fireplace could be molded into shapes, and that it would accept and hold the impressions of objects such as coins.
Burke became even more interested in art by studying
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objects her father collected on his travels as a cruise-ship chef and also when he worked on the railroad. He encouraged her appreciation of art and her talent, and when the Burke household received trunks full of African carvings left to them by two missionary uncles, the artworks were given to Selma. Her mother considered them “graven images” and kept them in the attic, which is where Burke spent her time learning about African art.
Her mother, a practical woman, felt that Burke should pursue a more stable career and insisted that her daughter receive an education. Burke began her studies at the Slater Industrial and State Normal School and went on to graduate from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1924 and from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1928. Meanwhile she rekindled a relationship with a childhood friend, Durant Woodward, whom she married in 1928 and who died tragically of blood poisoning the following year.
In 1929 she began working as a private nurse for an Otis Elevator heiress, Mrs. Amelia Waring, in New York City. Burke was paid well enough so that by the time Mrs. Waring died, four years later, she had built up sufficient savings to avoid the hardships of the Great Depression. She decided to make art her life, so impressing a teacher at Columbia with some small clay figurines that she had crafted that she won a scholarship to the school. She also took classes at Sarah Lawrence College (where she also modeled) and immersing herself Page 67 | Top of Articlein the artistic awakening that would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. She met and later married the famed poet Claude McKay. In 1935 she won a $1,500 Julius Rosenwald Award and in 1936 a Boehler Foundation Award, which allowed her to study in Europe for a year. While abroad, Burke studied sculpture with Aristide Maillol and ceramics with Michael Powolney, and was critiqued by the painter Henri Matisse. She left Austria at the end of 1937. Initially returning to her studies, she founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in Greenwich Village in 1940. In 1942 she enlisted in the navy to help in the war effort by working in an airplane plant in New Jersey and driving a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The next year, Burke entered a competition sponsored by the Fine Arts Commission in Washington, D.C., to sculpt a relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Burke hurt her back and was recovering in the hospital when she found out she had been selected for the commission. She was instructed to base her work on photographs of the president. Unfortunately, all of the photographs she could find were full-frontal or three-quarter views, making it difficult to capture Roosevelt’s profile. This was not an acceptable way for her to achieve what she hoped “to be the best piece of sculpture I had ever done.” The White House granted her request for a sitting on 22 February 1944. She had a second sitting with the president and scheduled a third, which was forestalled by Roosevelt’s sudden death in April 1945. The finished plaque was installed in the Recorder of Deeds Building on 24 September 1945, presented by President Harry S. Truman and unveiled by Frederick Weaver, great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, the first African American to hold the office of Recorder of Deeds.
Controversy has always surrounded Burke’s portrait and it’s relationship to the image of Roosevelt that later appeared on the U.S. ten-cent coin on Roosevelt’s birthday (30 January) in 1946. John Sinnock, the chief engraver of the United States Mint at that time, was recognized as the designer of the coin—his initials appear on the face. But strong evidence suggests that he used Burke’s image as a model. Hers was the most recent and was considered the best likeness of the president at the time, and several documents in the Roosevelt archives mention Burke’s image as the basis for the portrait on the dime. In 1990, after years of controversy, the Bush administration recognized Burke as the artist of the profile on the coin. The rendering on the dime differs slightly from Burke’s plaque, with a lower forehead and adjustment of the hair (presumably to oblige Eleanor Roosevelt’s criticism that Burke made his forehead too high).
Burke’s second husband, Claude McKay, died in 1947, and on 30 September 1949 she married the architect Herman Kobbè, who died in 1955. They lived in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where she was very active in the art community. (Burke never had any children.) After Kobbe’s death, she moved to Pittsburgh, where she founded the Selma Burke Art Center (1968–1981), but she returned to New Hope for the final years of her life.
Prolific in stone and wood, Burke’s work is in many museum, university, and community collections. Along with making art, she was extremely involved in teaching art. She wanted children to have opportunities that had not been available to her as a child. The recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, she has had streets named after her, and both Pennsylvania and North Carolina have proclaimed a “Selma Burke Day” in her honor. She died of cancer in New Hope, and her ashes were scattered over the Delaware River.
Burke always worked in a representational manner, with her noncommissioned, personal works more emotive than her portrait busts. She created likenesses of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Brown, Booker T. Washington, Wendell Willkie, Charles Schwab, and Mary McLeod Bethune. In 1979 she earned one of the first Annual Women’s Caucus for Art Awards along with Alice Neel, Isabel Bishop, Louise Nevelson, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Burke’s personal papers were donated to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, with plans to be open to the public in 2001. There is no full-length biography. An interview with the artist, conducted by Robert J. Gangewere, appears in Carnegie Magazine 49, no. 1 (Jan. 1975). Burke receives attention in several reference books about women artists and African American women, notably Phoebe M. Harris, ed., Women Artists of Color: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook to Twentieth Century Artists in the Americas (1999); Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (1993); and Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women (1992). Obituaries are in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (30 Aug. 1995) and Philadelphia Inquirer and Seattle Times (both 1 Sept. 1995).
CYNTHIA L. CAMPBELL