Burke, Selma 1900–1995
Selma Burke 1900–1995
In her 70-year career, Selma Burke was many things: teacher, administrator, model, nurse, even truck driver. Her work as a sculptor, however, led to her most memorable achievement of being the first black sculptor to design a United States coin. Burke’s interest in sculpting arose from her weekly Saturday whitewashing chores with a wash made of local clay. She discovered to her delight, that it could be molded into various whimsical shapes. Burke once recalled in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, “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 born December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, the seventh of ten children born to Neal Burke and Mary Jackson Burke Cofield. Burke’s artistic interest was in part fostered by her grandmother who had been an artist, but also by her father, who, in addition to being a railroad brakeman and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion minister, was a chef aboard several oceangoing ships. He acquired numerous artifacts throughout his travels to the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and Europe. Two of her paternal uncles collected carvings and other religious artifacts while performing missionary work in Africa. When they died in 1913, Selma’s family received their effects, and the African artwork became part of Selma’s world.
Mary Burke’s grandfather, Samuel S. Jackson, had been owned by Stonewall Jackson. According to Burke in a 1990 interview with editor from Notable Black American Women, he “exchanged his chains for an education” by earning his degree from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Mary’s grandmother also probably received an education since she was reportedly owned by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mary Burke, who wanted all of her children to be professionally trained, entered college herself at Winston-Salem State University at the age of 75. Education was of the utmost importance to the entire Burke family, and Selma felt intensely proud of all her family members who completed college. Selma’s mother decided that her daughter should become
At a Glance…
Born Selma Hortense Burke, December 31,1900, in Mooresville, NC; daughter of Neal Burke and Mary (Jackson) Burke Cofield; married Durant Woodward, c. 1925; widowed, c. 1926; married Claude McKay twice; divorced McKay twice; married Herman Kobbe, 1949; widowed, early 1950s; died August 29, 1995, in New Hope, PA. Education: Winston-Salem Univ., B.A., c. 1922; St. Augustine Coll., R.N., 1924; Columbia Univ., M.F.A., 1941; Livingston Coll., Ph.D. 1970.
Career: Sculptor; A. W. Mellon Foundation Carnegie Institute, consultant, 1967-76; Sidwell School, Haver-ford Coll., Livingston Coll., Swathmore Coll., instructor in art and sculpture, 1963-76; Friends School, St. George’s School, Forrest House, NYC, instructor in art and sculpture, 1930-49; Selma Burke School of Sculpture, NY, founder, 1940; Selma Burke Art Center Pittsburgh, founder, 1968.
Member: PA Council on Arts, 1965-75; Natl. Conf. on Artists, 1972; life member, NAACP; life member, League of Women Voters.
Selected awards: Honorary degrees from the James Teamer School of Religion, Wake Forest Univ., Spelman Coll., Johnson C. Smith Univ.; honorary doctorate, Livingston Coll., 1955; Univ. of NC, Chapel Hill, 1977, Moore Coll. of Art, 1979; Winston-Salem State Univ., 1979; Julius Rosenwald Award, 1935; Boelher Foundation Award, 1936; fellowship, Yaddo Foundation, 1955; Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts, Women’s Caucus for Art, 1979; Buck’s County Council on the Arts Citation, 1979; Pearl S. Buck Foundation Woman’s Award for professional distinction and devotion to humanity, 1987; the Essence Magazine Award, 1989; Candace Award for extraordinary achievement by black woman, 1993.
a nurse instead of an artist, because Selma could never make a living at that.
Burke attended the Nannie Burroughs School for Girls in Washington, D.C., until she was 14-years-old. At this time, William-Arial, a white educator and superintendent of schools, befriended and tutored her despite criticism from whites in their segregated community. In addition to encouraging her to pursue the arts, Arial became her first patron. Burke then attended Slater Normal and Industrial School in Winston-Salem, some 50 miles from home. After graduation from the St. Agnes School of Nursing at St. Augustine College in Raleigh, North Carolina, Burke became a registered nurse in 1924.
The following year, Burke moved to Philadelphia to begin her career as a nurse and enrolled in the Women’s Medical College to further her education by learning operating room techniques. At the same time, however, she financed her artistic pursuits with her nursing income. Burke also rekindled a romance with a longtime childhood friend, Durant Woodward, then a mortician, who tragically died of blood poisoning only 11 months after their wedding. Burke, a woman of great determination, continued with her studies until 1929 when the president of the school recommended her for a private nursing position with the dowager heiress of the Otis Elevator Company in Cooperstown, New York.
Burke’s four year position with the ailing heiress led her back to art. Her employer encouraged her to continue her artistic pursuits. Amid the Great Depression when her colleagues and peers were hungry and homeless, Burke remained unscathed, saving her money and becoming accustomed to the cultural life of New York City, where she frequented Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. After the heiress’s death in 1935, Burke moved to New York and immersed herself in the city’s burgeoning artistic movement. In order to hone her skills as a sculptor and to help pay her bills, she took a job modeling at Sarah Lawrence College.
Soon after her arrival in New York, Burke met Claude McKay, a poet, writer, and major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Along with Max Eastman, McKay also co-edited the avant-garde literary and political magazine the Liberator Through him Burke made the acquaintance of many other notables, including poet Langston Hughes, singer/actress Ethel Waters, poet and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, playwright Eugene O’Neill, and Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis. Although Burke and McKay’s relationship was turbulent at best, the couple soon married.
Burke immersed herself in work. She soon received an art scholarship to Columbia University and $ 1,500 from the Julius Rosenwald Award for a paper she had written on sculpting materials. As her reputation grew, she also won the Boehler Foundation Award in 1936. As most artists did during that era, Burke journeyed to Europe in 1938 and traveled throughout France, Austria, and Germany. In Vienna, she studied ceramics with Polvoney, and in Paris studied the human figure with neoclassical sculptor Aristide Maillol.
Burke returned to New York confident in her talent as a sculptor, and dedicated herself to obtaining a degree in her first love—art. Unfortunately, Burke’s marriage to Claude McKay became more unstable. They divorced, reconciled, and again divorced. Burke’s dedication to her art carried her through the episodes of turmoil in her personal life, and she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 1941. In November of the same year, Burke mounted her first exhibit with classical compositions at the Mc-Millen Galleries in New York.
When World War II erupted, Burke joined the navy and drove a truck in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, because, as she said in the New Pittsburgh Courier “I felt that during the war artists should get out of their studios.” Unfortunately, however, she injured her back and needed to be hospitalized. During her stay at the hospital in 1943, she heard of and entered a national competition to create a profile portrait of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sponsored by the Fine Arts Commission in Washington, D.C. Burke was awarded the commission from a field of 11 other competitors—three of whom were black.
Burke originally had planned on creating the profile from photographs, but, unable to find an appropriate picture in newspapers or in library records, she wrote to the president requesting a sitting. President Roosevelt granted an appointment on February 22, 1944. Burke arrived at the White House with only some charcoal and a roll of brown butcher’s paper and quickly produced several sketches. Burke once remarked on the encounter in the New York Times that she had been “so imbued with the greatness of the man that my first seven studies of him were so idealized they were not good.”
The finished bronze plaque listed four freedoms above Roosevelt’s face: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship, and freedom of speech. It was then installed at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. Prior to its installation, however, Eleanor Roosevelt and the members of the Fine Arts Commission were sought for approval. Burke remembered vividly Eleanor Roosevelt’s criticism that the image looked too young. According to the New York Times, Burke responded, “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 on our president, not as he was the last few months before he died, but as we saw him for most of the time he was with us—strong, so full of life, and with that wonderful look of going forward.” On September 24, 1945, six months after President Roosevelt’s death, Burke’s portrait finally received a public viewing.
The source of Roosevelt’s image on the dime has recently received much attention. John R. Sinnock, the chief engraver at the U.S. Mint, has his initials on the profile. The dime’s head, however, is merely a mirror image of the plaque created by Selma Burke, with the exception of a few detail changes in the arrangement of Roosevelt’s hair. Moreover, the National Archives and Records Administration of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, stated that the dime portrait originated with the sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt done by Selma Burke.
Determined that young minds would not be discouraged by lack of training or by lack of creative outlets, Burke launched a new career by teaching her craft in numerous schools, workshops, studios, and her own home. Her work at the Harlem Art Center in New York City influenced numerous nationally-recognized African American artists, including Robert Blackburn, Jacob Lawrence, and Ernest Crichlow. Burke also taught at a federally-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) Program, the Friends Charter School in Pennsylvania, St. George’s School in New York, and Old Solebury School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, as well as Swarthmore College, Livingston College, the A. W. Mellon Foundation, and Harvard University. Students throughout the nation had the opportunity to hear Dr. Burke.
In October of 1949, Burke married Herman Kobbe, a famous architect and former candidate for lieutenant governor of New York. The couple soon moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, long considered an artist’s colony. Burke became active with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, appointed by, and serving under, three different governors. In fact, Governor Milton Schapp proclaimed June 20, 1975, to be Selma Burke Day in Pittsburgh in recognition of her contribution to the arts in Pennsylvania.
In the early 1950s Burke’s marriage to Herman Kobbe unfortunately ended with his death. Burke never felt the desire to have children in any of her unions. Feeling a strong sense of responsibility and the need to return something to her community, Burke opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, in order to answer the community’s demand for more artistic resources. In addition, she founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York where she adopted the theme, “a place to grow and a place to show.” Burke’s facility lived up to its motto by offering both day and night classes in drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture, television production, and puppetry, as well as hosting exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and films.
Burke operated the Selma Burke Art Center from 1968 until 1982. While working as a consultant to the A. W. Mellon Foundation in Pittsburgh, Burke continued as an arts administrator and also taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for 17 years. Shirley Start, a contemporary of Burke’s who taught at the Carnegie Institute, said of Burke in Black Artists of the New Generation “It was good to have a chance to talk with this woman of whom I have lectured to often. In many ways my contact with her has been for me a real education. Her graciousness and her grand manner mingle so well with a profound kind of humility.”
Before her retirement in the early 1980s, Dr. Burke’s work appeared in over 25 individual and group shows. She was commissioned to create over 20 bronze and wood sculptures, and she received eight honorary degrees. Her works can be found in numerous private and public collections; several historically-black colleges and universities; the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; and at the U.S. Armory in New York. This American artist, as she categorized herself, summed up her life’s work in Notable Black American Women: “I really live and move in the atmosphere I am creating.” Dr. Burke died of cancer August 29, 1995, at the age of 94 near her retirement home in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
African American Almanac, Sixth Edition, Gale Research, 1994.
Black Artists of the New Generation, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1977.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992. pp. 128-130.
Grand Rapids Magazine, February 11, 1995, p. 13.
New Pittsburgh Courier, September 2, 1995.
New York Times, July 25, 1945.
Time, September 11, 1995, p. 35.
An African American sculptor, Selma Burke (1900-1995) created the relief sculpture rendering of Franklin Delano Roosevelt which appears on the dime.
Selma Burke is an artist whose career has spanned more than sixty years. She was born in Mooresville, North Carolina, in 1900, and received her training as a sculptor at Columbia University in New York. She also studied with Maillol in Paris and in Vienna with Povoley. World War II interrupted her work in Europe and she returned to the United States to continue her artistic and humanitarian pursuits. She is best known for her relief sculpture rendering of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that was minted on the American dime.
Founder of the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she has taught many and supported numerous artists from the period of the Depression through the present day.
The Pearl S. Buck Foundation Woman's Award was given to her in 1987 for her professional distinction and devotion to family and humanity. Notable works include Falling Angel; Peace; and Jim.
Burke died of cancer August 29, 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
New York Times, September 2, 1995.
Washington Post, September 1, 1995. □