Selma Burke

Growing up in North Carolina before training as a sculptor during the Harlem Renaissance, Selma Burke became a fierce advocate for Spelman's mission of educating and celebrating Black women, bequeathing her personal papers and several artworks to the College in 1995.

By Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

Born in North Carolina in 1900, Selma Hortense Burke was an accomplished artist, artist’s model, arts administrator, nurse, and teacher. As a child, Burke became fascinated with the clay and mud along the creek banks on her family's land. By the time she was nine, Burke began modeling objects out of clay and hiding them under the house for safekeeping.

Despite her mother's dismay at Burke's "perplexed mannerisms," her father encouraged her interest in sculpture. Burke's curiosity was further piqued by the objects her father and uncle brought back with them when they returned from working in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and South America.

After attending nursing school, Burke moved to New York in 1924. While working as a private nurse, she became involved in the Works Progress Administration and the Art Students League, meeting artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden and writers including Claude McKay and Countee Cullen. A bust of Booker T. Washington created by Burke as part of the WPA was given to Manhattan's Frederick Douglass High School in 1936. She also spent time studying in Europe: first in Vienna, then Paris.

Sadness (1970) by Selma BurkeSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

Burke Studies in Paris

The French sculptor Aristide Maillol, with whom Burke studied in Paris in the mid-1930s, greatly influenced her frequent examination of the nude. Her nude torsos often evoke powerful emotions, giving physical form to expressions of despair, love, passion, peace, and tension.

Burke also taught sculpture at the Harlem Community Art Center, which operated from 1937 to 1942 under the direction of the legendary sculptor Augusta Savage. As part of the New Deal Federal Art Project, the Harlem Community Art Center offered free instruction in fields including drawing, painting, photography, and sculpture to neighborhood residents, eventually leading to the formation of the Harlem Arts Alliance.

Sketch for the Roosevelt Dime (1943) by Selma BurkeSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

Burke, Roosevelt, and the Dime

In 1941, Burke entered a competition to design the profile of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that would appear on the dime. President Roosevelt sat for Burke for forty-five minutes, during which time she made several sketches of him on brown butcher paper.

According to some accounts, Burke said Roosevelt "wiggled too much" as she sketched him. She told him to sit still — and he did. Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, expressed uncertainty about depicting the president in profile, but Burke remained confident. "This profile is not for today," she said, "but for tomorrow and all time." She ultimately sculpted a plaque based on her sketches, which was unveiled in 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C., where it remains today.

It is widely acknowledged that U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock's design on the Roosevelt Dime is adapted from Burke's plaque. Despite this, Burke received no recognition from the United States government, and her initials do not appear on image on the dime. It wasn't until 1990, when Burke met with the Roosevelt family, that she finally received recognition for her work.

Mother and Child (1968) by Selma BurkeSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

Mother and Child

Burke’s grandmother, who was also an artist, influenced her lifelong explorations of the theme of the mother and child.

In Burke's sculptures, the bodies of the mother and child often merge together to represent their close physical and emotional bond.

Burke's Mother and Child (1968) was notably included in the landmark exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art organized by the late Dr. David C. Driskell at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of national bicentennial festivities in 1976. Widely considered the first-ever comprehensive survey of African American Art, the exhibition later traveled to Atlanta's High Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum.

Peace (1970) by Selma BurkeSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

Sculpting Stone, Wood, and Metal

Over the course of her career, Burke demonstrated remarkable versatility and skill by sculpting a range of materials including marble and other stone, wood, and metal.

Peace (1970) is made of cast bronze with a dark brown patina and mounted on a black marble base.

Captured in finely rendered details, the figure's placid expression distills the peaceful state Burke sought to convey.

Created amid the devastation of the Vietnam War and racial unrest throughout the United States, Peace shows a variation on the mother and child theme where the infant has been replaced by a dove symbolizing peace.

Peace (1970) by Selma BurkeSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

A Legacy of Black Women Sculptors

Burke's approach to sculpting the forms of Black women's faces and bodies bears the influence of her contemporary Augusta Savage and anticipates the more minimal sculptures later created by Elizabeth Catlett.

The dove's wings extend against the female figure's face, merging with her hair to provide the suggestion of angelic wings.

Peace (1970) by Selma BurkeSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

The lovingly sculpted hair on the back of Peace demonstrates the thoroughness and care with which Burke portrayed her subjects, especially Black women.

Selma Burke, Uplift (1993)Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

Uplifting Black Women

In October 1993, Burke's sculpture Uplift was unveiled on the campus of Spelman College as a tribute to Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the first Black woman to serve as president of Spelman College.

Drawing on Burke's signature theme of mother and child, Uplift shows a female figure holding a small child before her while another child wraps her arms the figure's waist. "The motivation is what Johnetta Cole is about," Burke told the Spelman Messenger, "and that is building a bigger, and uplifting a better, Spelman College."

Selma Burke working on a sculpture (1970)Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

Burke's Bequest to Spelman College

In 1995, Selma Burke bequeathed her personal papers and a significant collection of her works of art—including bronze, marble, and wood sculptures and plaster studies for her design for the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—to Spelman College.

Selma Burke at Spelman College (1993) by Harold RhynieSpelman College Museum of Fine Art

Upon receiving an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at Spelman College in 1988, Burke said: "I want to tell you it's very hard to be humble after hearing about women, Black women, today... Once upon a time I was humble, but I don't feel it anymore."

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