Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Selma Burke

1900-1995 / Sculptor

A gifted sculptor, Selma Burke was also a tireless educator, advocate, and role model for aspiring black artists.

Sculpting started as child's play for Burke. As a 7-year-old girl (and one of 10 children) digging in the dirt of her parents' farm in Mooresville, North Carolina, Burke squeezed some wet clay through her fingers one day—and grasped a lifelong obsession. "It was there in 1907," she later reflected, "that I discovered me."

Burke's parents encouraged her interest in art, but they also insisted that she master a more marketable profession. The unformed sculptor went along with that view, attending Slater Industrial and State Normal School in Winston-Salem, Saint Agnes School of Nursing in Raleigh, and Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. Armed with an R.N. degree, she moved to New York City in 1924 and found work as a nurse.

Yet Burke could not shake her fascination with molding raw materials into likenesses of the world. Every spare moment found her with a chunk of brass, stone, or wood in her hands, sculpting historical figures and nudes. As her work became known, fellowships ensued. A grant from the Rosenwald Foundation in 1935 and from the Boehler Foundation in 1936 freed her to study under famous sculptors Michael Povolny in Vienna and Aristide Maillol in Paris.

In 1941, Burke earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in New York City. As a teacher, she conveyed her passion for sculpture to up-and-coming artists for the next 40 years. She taught at the Harlem Community Art Center and founded the Selma Burke Art School in New York and the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh.

You may have a bit of Burke art in your pocket: Her 1945 bronze plaque of President Franklin D. Roosevelt served as the model for the relief profile that graces the U.S. dime.