We know her work, but do we know the talented woman who created it?
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, North Carolina. 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 to work as a private nurse.
In 1935, Selma moved to New York City and became very in evolved in the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement. This interest in the Renaissance was sparked by her relationship with Claude McKay with whom she shared an apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. McKay was a tough task master though and that relationship was short lived. He would destroy her clay models when he did not find them to be up to his standards. He did however, introduce her to an artistic community that did support her career in the arts. She began teaching sculpture at Harlem Community Arts Center. Augusta Savage was her teacher and mentor. She accepted a position in the Works Progress Administration on the New Deal Federal Art Project. One of the works she produced during this time was the famous bust of Booker T. Washington. He was donated to the Frederick Douglass High School in Manhattan in 1936.
She traveled to Europe twice in the 1930’s. The first time was to study sculpture in Vienna on a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1933. In 1936 she traveled to Paris with Aristide Maillol, where she met Henri Matisse who offered high praise for her work. One of her most significant works emerging from this period was “Frau Keller” which is a portrait of a German -Jewish woman. This was her response to the threat of the rising the Nazi’s, which eventually led to Burke leaving Europe a in 1938.
Upon her return tot he States, she enrolled at Columbia University earning a Master of Fine Arts. In 1940 Selma founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City. She was completely committed to teaching art. In 1946 she established the Selma Burke Art School in New York City. Later, she opened The Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was an original art center that played an integral role in the Pittsburgh art community. Courses ranging from studio workshops to puppetry classes. The Center operated from 1968 to 1981.
Burke married the architect, Herman Kobbe, and they moved to an artists colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Kobbe died in 1955 but Burke continued her work in Pennsylvania until her death in 1955.
Perhaps Selma Burke’s best known work is a portrait honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To win the commission of Roosevelt, she competed in a national contest. She submitted a sketch that she had made during a 45 sitting with him at the White House. She wrote directly to the President to “request a live sitting, to which the president generously agreed, scheduling the first of two sittings on February 22, 1944. When she was asked about her experience sketching him, she said “he wiggled too much” when she began sketching. She asked him to please sit still, and he complied. The 3.5 by 2.5 plaque was completed that year and unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in September of 1945, at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. where it still hangs today.
Selma Burke is an honor member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She has been the recipient of several honorary doctorate degrees. Selma Burke Day is celebrated in Pennsylvania on July 29th each year in recognition of her huge contributions to art and education. Her papers are archived at Spelman College.
Selma was a member of the first group of women, along with Louise Nevelson, Alive Neel, Georgia O’Keefe, and Isabel Bishop, to receive lifetime achievement awards from the Women’s Caucus for Art, in 1979. President Jimmy Carter, in a private ceremony in the oval office in 1979, bestowed an award on her. She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1983. In 1987 she received the Pearl S. Buck Foundation Women’s Award.