Born this day in 1900: Selma Burke (1900–1995), sculptor
Burke was born in Moorseville, North Carolina. Her father encouraged her early interest in art, but her mother encouraged her to become a nurse. Burke graduated from the Slater Industrial and State Normal School (later Winston-Salem State University) and then earned an RN from the Saint Agnes Training School for Nurses in 1924.
Beginning in the late 1920s Burke worked as a private nurse to Amelia Waring, a wealthy heiress. This relationship gave Burke access to New York society and arts culture. After Waring’s death, Burke abandoned her nursing career for a career in art. She was awarded scholarships that allowed her to study both at home and abroad. She studied at Sarah Lawrence College, in Europe, and at Columbia University, where she earned a MA of fine arts in 1941. She also had her fist solo exhibition that same year.
|Bronze plaque of FDR|
In 1943 she won a competition to create a profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The relief she created formed the basis for the Roosevelt dime, making her the first African American sculptor to design a U.S. coin. She made portraits of other prominent Americans as well, including such figures as Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington. She completed more than 20 commissioned works in bronze and wood, and her work appeared in more than 25 shows. Her last monumental work was a sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. that stands in Charlotte’s Marshall Park, completed when Burke was 80 years old. Burke’s work was recognized nationwide. She was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees during her lifetime.
|The artist at work.|
Her dedication to art including the teaching of art. In the 1940s she was a Works Progress Administration art instructor and taught art at the Harlem Community Art Center under the sculptor August Savage. She went on to teach at many institutions, including Swarthmore College, Livingston College, the A. W. Mellon Foundation, and Harvard University. She also founded two art schools. In 1940 she founded the Selma Burke school of Sculpture in New York. In 1968 she established the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh. Burke especially enjoyed bringing children into the art world and for 17 years taught art in Pittsburgh public schools. In her later years she returned to school as a student, as well, earning a PhD from Livingstone College in 1970.