Selma Burke

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Selma Burke
Selma-Burke-WPA-1935.jpg
Burke with her portrait bust of
Booker T. Washington, c. 1935
Born Selma Hortense Burke
(1900-12-31)December 31, 1900
Mooresville, North Carolina, United States
Died August 29, 1995(1995-08-29) (aged 94)
Nationality American
Education Columbia University
Known for Sculpture

Selma Hortense Burke (December 31, 1900 – August 29, 1995) was an American sculptor and a member of the Harlem Renaissance movement.[1] Burke is best known for a bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt which inspired the profile found on the obverse of the dime.[2] She described herself as "a people's sculptor" and created many pieces of public art, often portraits of prominent African-American figures like Duke Ellington, Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington.[3][4]

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Selma Burke was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, the seventh of 10 children of Neil and Mary Colfield Burke.[5] 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.[3][6] 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." [7] 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.[8]

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.[9] She later moved to Harlem to work as a private nurse.[10][11]

Harlem Renaissance and education[edit]

After moving to New York City, in 1935 Burke 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.[12] 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.[6] One of her WPA works, a bust of Booker T. Washington, was given to Frederick Douglass High School in Manhattan in 1936.[13]

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.[6] 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.[4]

Burke returned to the United States and enrolled at Columbia University, where she would receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1941.[14]

Teaching and later life[edit]

In 1940 Burke founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City.[10] She was committed to teaching art. She opened the Selma Burke Art School in New York City in 1946, and later opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[2][15] Open from 1968 to 1981, the center "was an original art center that played an integral role in the Pittsburgh art community," offering courses ranging from studio workshops to puppetry classes.[16]

In 1949 Burke married architect Herman Kobbe, and moved with him to an artists' colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania.[6] Kobbe died in 1955, and Burke continued to live in Pennsylvania until her death in 1995, at the age of 94.[9]

Sculpture[edit]

Selma Burke in her studio.

Selma Burke sculpted portraits of famous African-American figures as well as lesser-known subjects. She also explored human emotion and family relationships in more expressionistic works.[9] While she admired the abstract modernists, her work was more concerned with rendering the symbolic human form in ways both dignified and symbolic.[4] She worked in a wide variety of media including wood, brass, alabaster, and limestone.[17]

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.[18] 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.[3]

Burke was among the artists featured at The National Urban League's inaugural exhibition at Gallery 62 in 1978.[19] She had solo exhibitions at Princeton University and the Carnegie Museum, among other venues. Her work is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.[6]

Portrait of F.D.R[edit]

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.[2] 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.[16] It is widely accepted that John R. Sinnock's obverse design on the Roosevelt dime was adapted from Burke's plaque.[3][4][9][20] Sinnock later denied that Burke's portrait was an influence.[21][22]

Honors[edit]

Burke is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.[23] She received several honorary doctorate degrees during her lifetime, including one awarded by Livingston College in 1970 and one from Spelman College in 1988 .[3][10][24] Milton Shapp, then-governor of Pennsylvania, declared July 29, 1975, Selma Burke Day in recognition of the artist's contributions to art and education.[25] Her papers and archive are in the collection of Spelman College.[9]

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, in 1979.[26] She received the award from President Jimmy Carter in a private ceremony in the Oval Office.[27][28] She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1983 and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation Women's Award in 1987.[29][30]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Burke, Selma - Oxford Reference". doi:10.1093/acref/9780195373219.001.0001/acref-9780195373219-e-220. 
  2. ^ a b c "Selma Burke; Sculptor, 94". The New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Wallace, Andy (September 1, 1995). "Selma Burke, 94, Black Sculptor Whose Profile Of Fdr Graces Dime". Seattle Times. Retrieved March 4, 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c d Heller, Jules; Heller, Nancy G. (2013-12-19). North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary. Routledge. ISBN 9781135638825. 
  5. ^ Julian, Beatrice (December 1983). "Selma Burke, Dream Shaper". Ebony Jr.: 9 – via Google Books. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Kort, Carol; Sonneborn, Liz (2014-05-14). A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438107912. 
  7. ^ Lewis, Samella S. (2003). African American Art and Artists. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520239357. 
  8. ^ Kirschke, Amy (2014). Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. p. 119. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Ware, Susan (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674014886. 
  10. ^ a b c Mack, Felicia. "Burke, Selma Hortense (1900-1995)". BlackPast. Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  11. ^ Santandrea, Lisa (January 1, 2001). "Nurses Making a Difference". The American Journal of Nursing. 101 (2): 86–87. JSTOR 3522121. 
  12. ^ Cooper, Wayne F. (February 1996). Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. LSU Press. ISBN 9780807167298. 
  13. ^ Carr, Eleanor (January 1, 1972). "New York Sculpture during the Federal Project". Art Journal. 31 (4): 397–403. doi:10.2307/775543. JSTOR 775543. 
  14. ^ Lewis, David Levering (January 1, 1984). "Parallels and Divergences: Assimilationist Strategies of Afro-American and Jewish Elites from 1910 to the Early 1930s". The Journal of American History. 71 (3): 543–564. doi:10.2307/1887471. JSTOR 1887471. 
  15. ^ Stahl, Joan. "Selma Burke". Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  16. ^ a b Verderame, Lori. "The Sculptural Legacy Of Selma Burke, 1900-1995". Archived from the original on March 20, 2012. Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  17. ^ Gay, Vernon (1983). Discovering Pittsburgh's Sculpture. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 9780822934677. 
  18. ^ "SIRIS - Smithsonian Institution Research Information System". siris-artinventories.si.edu. Retrieved March 12, 2017. 
  19. ^ Hajosy, Dolores (January 1, 1985). "Gallery 62: An Outlet... A Bridge". Black American Literature Forum. 19 (1): 22–23. doi:10.2307/2904467. JSTOR 2904467. 
  20. ^ Meschutt, David (January 1, 1986). "Portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt". American Art Journal. 18 (4): 3–50. doi:10.2307/1594463. JSTOR 1594463. 
  21. ^ Yanchunas, Dom. "The Roosevelt Dime at 60." COINage Magazine, February 2006.
  22. ^ "John R. Sinnock, Coin Designer". The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine: 261. March 15, 1946. 
  23. ^ "Dr. Selma Burke: A Gifted Artist with Many Accomplishments with". African American Registry. Archived from the original on June 6, 2012. Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  24. ^ "COLLECTION HIGHLIGHTS - Spelman College Museum of Fine Art". Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Retrieved 2017-10-02. 
  25. ^ Gumbo Ya Ya: Anthology of Contemporary African-American Women Artists. New York: Midmarch Arts Press. 1995. p. 29. 
  26. ^ Porter, Nancy (January 1, 1979). "Surviving as Women Artists: Two Art History Sessions". Women's Studies Newsletter. 7 (3): 12–14. JSTOR 40042492. 
  27. ^ Halamka, Kathy A. (2007). "Report on the History of the Women's Caucus For Art" (PDF). Cambridge Scholars Press. 
  28. ^ "Reports on the 67th Annual College Art Association Meeting". Art Journal. 38 (4): 283–285. January 1, 1979. doi:10.1080/00043249.1979.10793519. JSTOR 776380. 
  29. ^ "Candace Award Recipients 1982–1990, page 1". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003. 
  30. ^ Lewis, Samella S. (2003). African American Art and Artists. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520239357. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Jones, Frederick N.; Burke, Selma (2007). Out of the miry clay : artistic creativity and spirituality in the making of Selma Burke's art : a study of history, theory/theology, methodology and impact. Columbus, Ga. : Brentwood Christian Press. 
  • Farrington, Lisa E. (2011). Creating their own image : the history of African-American women artists. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. 

External links[edit]