Selma Burke was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, the seventh of 10 children of Reverend Neil and Mary Elizabeth Colfield Burke. Her father was an AME Church Minister who worked on the railroads for additional income. As a child, she attended a one-room segregated schoolhouse, and often played with the riverbed clay found near her home. 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." Burke's interest in sculpture was encouraged by her maternal grandmother, a painter, although her mother thought she should pursue a more financially stable career.
Burke attended Winston-Salem State University before graduating in 1924 from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh. She married a childhood friend, Durant Woodward, in 1928, although the marriage ended with his death less than a year later. She later moved to Harlem (New York City) to work as a private nurse.
After moving to New York City in 1935, Burke began art classes at Sarah Lawrence. She also worked as a model in art classes to pay for that schooling. During this time, she also became involved with the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement through her relationship with the writer Claude McKay, with whom she shared an apartment in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. The relationship was brief and tumultuous – McKay would destroy her clay models when he did not find the work to be up to his standards – but it introduced Burke to an artistic community that would support her burgeoning career. Burke began teaching for the Harlem Community Arts Center under the leadership of sculptor Augusta Savage, and would go on to work for the Works Progress Administration on the New Deal 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.
Burke traveled to Europe twice in the 1930s, first on a Rosenwald fellowship to study sculpture in Vienna in 1933-34. She returned in 1936 to study in Paris with Aristide Maillol. While in Paris she met Henri Matisse, who praised her work. 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. With the onset of World War II, Burke chose to work in a factory as a truck driver for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was her opinion that, during the war, "artists should get out of their studios."
Burke returned to the United States and won a scholarship for Columbia University, where she would receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1941.
Selma Burke in her studio.
Burke's public sculpture pieces include a bust of Duke Ellington at the Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee, as well as works on display at the Hill House Center in Pittsburgh, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, Atlanta University, Spelman College, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Her last monumental work, created in 1980 when she was 80 years old, is a bronze statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Charlotte, N.C.
Selma Burke won a competition to create a relief sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943. JOHN W. MOSLEY PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, CHARLES L. BLOCKSON AFRO-AMERICAN COLLECTION, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES, PHILADELPHIA, PA
Burke's best-known work is a portrait honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms. She competed in a national contest to win a commission for the sculpture, created from sketches made during a 45-minute sitting with Roosevelt at the White House. Burke herself "wrote to Roosevelt to request a live sitting, to which the president generously agreed, scheduling the first of two sittings on February 22, 1944." The President passed before the third such appointment could be met. Mrs. Roosevelt objected to how young Burke chose to present Roosevelt as, but she responded by saying, "This profile is not for today, but for tomorrow and all time." When asked about her experience sketching the president, "she said he wiggled too much when she began to sketch him that day. She told him to sit still and he did." The 3.5-by-2.5-foot plaque was completed in 1944 and unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C., where it still hangs today. It is widely accepted that John R. Sinnock's obverse design on the Roosevelt dime was adapted from Burke's plaque. Sinnock later denied that Burke's portrait was an influence.
Obverse of U.S. Dime.
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Information taken from:
Wikipedia.com - "Selma Burke"
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