Selma Burke: A People’s Sculptor

Selma Burke was an artist, a talented sculptor who beautifully shaped clay into busts of Mary McLeod Bethune, President Franklin Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington. The next time you look at a dime, think of Selma Burke, as her bust of Roosevelt was the basis for his image on the US dime. Often the contributions of Black women are forgotten, let’s honor the significance of Burke’s impact.

Born December 31, 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina, Burke was one of ten children. The National Women’s History Museum notes Burke’s father encouraged her art, while her mother urged Burke toward a more sensible career in nursing. She graduated from Saint Agnes Training School for Nurses in 1924 as a registered nurse.

Burke worked for heiress Amelia Waring as her nurse in New York. During that time she was immersed with the art of the Harlem Renaissance. This experience supported Burke in returning her attention to sculpture. She then attended Sarah Lawrence College, while working to pay for classes. Burke earned the opportunity to travel abroad, where she learned from Henri Matisse in Paris.

When America began fighting in World War II, Burke joined the Navy, as one of the first Black women to enlist. She was tasked with driving a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she suffered injury to her back. While she healed, Burke entered and won a contest for a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt, whom at her request would later participate in a sitting with her for a sketch in 1944.

Burke referred to herself as “A People’s Sculptor” she championed arts education with the Selma Burke Arts Center in Pittsburg. She taught art to kids and inspired them to touch sculptures in order to connect with the work. Burke was awarded a Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, and in 1988 received an honorary doctorate from Spelman College. Burke died in 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania leaving the world a legacy of art.

Read more about Selma Burke from Mariana Brandman’s work with the National Women’s History Museum.

Selma Burke: 1900 – 1995

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