Profile: Selma Burke (1900-1995)

Selma Hortense Burke was an American sculptor and a member of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Burke is best known for a bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that inspired the profile found on the obverse of the dime. 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. In 1979, she was awarded the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award.


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. 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.

Harlem Renaissance and education

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. 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. One of her WPA works, a bust of Booker T. Washington, was given to Frederick Douglass High School in Manhattan in 1936.

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. 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. With the onset of World War II, Burke chose to work in a factory as a truck driver for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was her opinion that, during the war, “artists should get out of their studios.”

Burke returned to the United States and won a scholarship for Columbia University, where she would receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1941.

Teaching and later life

In 1940 Burke founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City. She was committed to teaching art. She opened the Selma Burke Art School in New York Cityin 1946, and later opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 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.

Burke used her art to make opportunities to bring people together. In Moorseville, black children were banned from use of the public library. With her rising fame, Burke chose to donate a bust of a local doctor on the condition that the ban be removed. The town accepted.

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


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. While she admired the abstract modernists, her work was more concerned with rendering the symbolic human form in ways both dignified and symbolic. She worked in a wide variety of media including wood, brass, alabaster, and limestone.

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. 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.

Portrait of F.D.R

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. Burke herself “wrote to Roosevelt to request a live sitting, to which the president generously agreed, scheduling the first of two sittings on February 22, 1944.” The President passed before the third such appointment could be met. Mrs. Roosevelt objected to how young Burke chose to present Roosevelt as, but she responded by saying, “This profile is not for today, but for tomorrow and all time.” When asked about her experience sketching the president, “she said he wiggled too much when she began to sketch him that day. She told him to sit still and he did.”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. It is widely accepted that John R. Sinnock’sobverse design on the Roosevelt dime was adapted from Burke’s plaque.  Sinnock later denied that Burke’s portrait was an influence.

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