Black History Fun Fact Friday – Selma Burke

Welcome back to Black History Fun Facts where I am still not finished with my original article (lol), but I got you covered.

Now, we are familiar with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and many of the writers and musicians of The Harlem Renaissance Movement. What we are not always familiar with are the painters, photographers, and sculptors. That is why when I find someone great, I like to highlight them.

Before we go on, take a moment and dig into your purse, wallet or coin jar (or coin purse….I know some of ya’ll still have them!) Wherever you keep your change, pick out a dime.

In the 1920s, Selma Burke became one of the African American women of the Harlem Renaissance through her relationship with the writer Claude McKay. The two shared a Manhattan apartment but McKay was mean, destroying her work when he didn’t like it, and the relationship was a strange one. Nonetheless, it was through Claude that Burke got introduced to the Harlem community. She studied under another black woman sculptor of the movement, Augusta Savage.

J0100403_1b
Selma Burke in her studio, Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0100403.

An educator, Burke later taught at the Harlem Community Art Center and founded the Selma Burke Art School in New York City and the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh. (This makes her one of my heroes since I do want to start my own school one day.) Burke is most famous for her 1944 sculpture of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was the model for his image on the dime, though she never received credit for it. Only now are people starting to recognize that she was the inspiration behind the image.

Burke’s sculpting of the image came about as part of a contest, where she wrote the White House stating that she could not sculpt the image from a photo alone. The White House responded and granted her a sitting with the president. The credit for the plaque was given to U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock but it was Burke who created the original design. Burke also sculpted Booker T. Washington and later, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Burke made sculpture by shaping white clay from her parents’ farm as a child. After being educated at what is now Winston-Salem State University and trained as a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital Nursing School in Raleigh, Burke moved to New York City to work as a private nurse.

“Selma Burke was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, the seventh of 10 children of Neil and Mary 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 the first encounter with sculpture, saying “It was there in 1907 that I discovered me.” – Wikipedia

After completing a Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University in 1941, Burke began to teach art, first at the Harlem Community Art Center and later at schools she founded in New York and Pittsburgh.

Burke’s last monumental work, a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Marshall Park in Charlotte, was completed in 1980. Selma Burke died in 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

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