Selma Burke (1900-1995)

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Selma Burke (1900-1995)

“Is there a black esthetic?” That was the question posed to Dr. Burke, by her contemporary, Dr. Margaret Burroughs. She replied, “There is a black esthetic in the sense that black folk are the true creative forces in America. So much of what is creative in western culture comes straight from us, black folk.” “Our contribution must ultimately be the rejection of racism. Art in Africa is not a thing apart, but a way of life. Africans created things of beauty which had meaning and significance to them.” 1 Burke was one of ten children born to Reverend Neal and Mary Elizabeth Colfield in Mooresville, North Carolina. “We had a creek with gray-white clay. My mother used the clay as a white wash, and my brother would give me pennies for squeezing the clay to make the wash. I noticed the imprint of the palm of my hand on the clay, and then I began to shape things.” 2 By the time she was 8, Selma was writing poetry and sculpting small figurines.

When she was old enough for college, Selma wanted to study art , and many years later, Dr. Burke remembered the conversation between her parents on the subject: her father said to her mother, “‘Mary, why can’t we have a child who can do that she wants? You got four lawyers, two preachers and a doctor—what do you want?’ And my mother said, ‘I don’t want her to be no heathen.’” 3 In fact, both parents were supportive of her vision. Her father, in addition to being a Methodist minister, worked as a chef on several sea lines. He collected fine art objects and artifacts from various cultures around the world—including Africa. Neal’s brothers, who had graduated from Hood Theological Seminary, traveled to Africa as missionaries, and the objects they had collected during their time there ultimately ended up back in the Burke home in Mooresville. Selma spoke of this early global art influence: “I have known African Art all of my life.” “At a time when this sculpture was

1 To Make a Painter Black, excerpt from an essay by Margaret Burroughs; The Black 70’s, Floyd B. Barbour, editor. 1970, Porter Sargent, Boston. 2 Direct quote from Burke, taken from a brochure to an exhibition, The Sculpture of Dr. Selma Burke, at The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, 1991, Austin, Texas. 3 Ibid Peace,1970; bronze with dark brown patina, 18 x 9 x 9 inches (without base), signed and numbered 2/2

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misunderstood and laughed at, my family had the attitude that these were beautiful objects.” 4Burke’s mother was an educator and her own mother was an amateur painter, so art and a liberal arts mentality were both normal and fostered for the entire family. That said, her mother thought it was still in her best interest to learn a practical skill, so Selma enrolled at the St. Agnes School of Nursing (Raleigh , NC) after high school. She graduated in 1924 as a registered nurse and moved to Philadelphia. She married Durant Woodward, a childhood friend, in 1928. Woodward worked as a mortician, but he died less than a year later of blood poisoning. The Great Depression hit that year, and employment was scarce for many Americans, but Burke was fortunate and found a job as a private nurse for an heiress to the Otis Elevator business. Part of her job description required that she attend events with her employer—activities like the opera and the symphony. These experiences, while not shared as an equal, were valuable to her level of awareness of how things worked in “high society”. Her employer died the following year, and Burke, who had already been left some money upon the death of her husband, now had

added to that a small inheritance. The money helped allow her to pursue her passion in art. In 1935, she moved to New York and began art classes and worked as a model at Sarah Lawrence College (Burke remarked years later, “I had a good figure”) 5. She met and was briefly married to Harlem Renaissance poet, Claude McKay (1890-1948), with whom she shared an apartment with in Hell’s Kitchen. The relationship was tumultuous and short-lived, but through McKay, she met Langston Hughes, Eugene O’ Neil, Sinclair Lewis, James Weldon, and many other important figures. She was awarded a Rosenwald Foundation Grant and a Boehler Foundation Fellowship, both in 1936, as well as a scholarship to Columbia University. Also in 1936, through her work with the W.P.A., her bust of Booker T. Washington, done for that program, was given to the Frederick Douglass High School in Manhattan. She traveled to Europe to study sculpture in Paris with Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). While in Paris, she met Henri Matisse, who praised her work. One of her significant

4 Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, Triumphant Determination: The Legacy of African American Women Artists, p. 66; catalog for the exhibition, Bearing Witness, Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, Spellman College, 1996. 5 Op cit, #2

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Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) Selma, Every time I See a Dime I Think of You, 2010 serigraph on BFK Rives paper 30 x 22 inches (sheet) signed, titled, dated, and numbered.

Selma Burke, poses with a bronze plaque of the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which she completed shortly after his death on April 12, 1945. Photo: Public Domain

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works from this period is Frau Keller, a found on the dime. The U.S. Treasury portrait of a German Jewish woman (1937). credits the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver, John She studied ceramics in Vienna, Austria Sinnock, but Sinnock admitted at the very with Weiner Werkstatte master ceramicist, least he consulted “other artist’s images” to Michael Powolny (1871-1954). The execute the design (although he denied he increasing threat posed by the Nazis in was influenced specifically by Burke’s image). Europe caused her to leave Europe in 1939 Reportedly, Ruth Wilson, a secretary at the and return to the United States. Recorder of Deeds office where Burke’s She also returned to Columbia University, plaque of Roosevelt hung, called Burke where in 1941, she was awarded a Master’s in 1945 to tell her that Sinnock had visited of Fine Art degree. During her time at the artwork and had made pencil sketches Columbia, she worked as an assistant to of it. Sinnock died in 1947, the year after sculptor, Oronzio Maldarelli (1892-1963). the dime was released, so the truth of the Maldarelli’s work was very influential on story remains inconclusive. The National Burke; he sculpted primarily heads and Archives and Records Administration of the torsos in a blend of classical and modernist Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, styles in stone, bronze, and ceramic. Burke confirms that the source of the image was recounted her thoughts of that time: “It is “the sculpture of FDR done by Selma Burke.” very inspirational to release a figure from a The Bush Administration acknowledged piece of stone or wood. Very often, I look at Selma Burke in 1990 as the inspiration for a piece of stone or wood for a year or longer. the image of President Roosevelt on the U.S. Sometimes I will have completed the piece dime. mentally before attacking the material.” 6 Burke then began teaching at the Harlem During WWII, she was of the opinion that Community Arts Center under the leadership artists should “get out of their studios”, so of Augusta Savage. Savage included Burke she drove a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. in the inaugural exhibition of the Salon of In 1943, she won a national competition to Contemporary Negro Art. Motivated by her create a portrait of President Franklin Delano own positive experiences creating art, Selma Roosevelt. She was provided with images was deeply committed to teaching it to of FDR, but found them unsatisfactory, so others. In 1940, while still attending classes she wrote to the President requesting a herself, she opened the Selma Burke School formal setting—which she was granted in of Sculpture in New York City, and in 1946 1944. The finished plaque, Four Freedoms, opened the Selma Burke School of Art, and she created was installed in 1945. There later in 1968, opened the Selma Burke Art is controversy about whether Burke’s Center in Pittsburgh, PA, which remained in rendering of the President is the image operation until 1981. 6

Op cit #4, p. 67

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Red Torso, 1935 carved African marble 22 x 6 x 7 inches (sculpture) 4-1/2 x 10 x 10 inches (base) 26-1/2 inches (total height) black laminated base (wood core) Exhibited: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Brooklyn Museum of Art, MacMillan Gallery (NYC) Sold: Black Art Auction, $35,000, July 5, 2022

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Resting Child, 1970 carved black marble 16 inches high identified on bottom with two labels from her estate, with an inventory #16, which is listed in a corresponding document, "Dr. Selma Burke Retrospective 1900-1995". Exhibited: Austin Museum of Art, Nov 17, 1996-Jan 5, 1997. Sold: Black Art Auction, December Fine Art Auction, 12/04/2021, $27,300

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Embrace, 1971 carved black marble 21 inches high signed Sold: Black Art Auction, December Fine Art Auction, 12/04/2021, $53,125

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In 1949, she married architect Herman Kobbe, and the couple moved to the artists’ colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Kobbe died in 1955, and Burke continued to live there until her death in 1995. Regina Holden Jennings comments on Burke’s influences and her subsequent leanings in style: “Her experiences as an African American woman and her intensive studies in France, Germany, and Austria in the late 1930s can be seen as critical determinants in Burke’s aesthetic development.” “Burke’s work has been described as neoclassical, and though her oeuvre encompasses mostly busts and torsos, her tendency was to interpret rather than replicate models. Her approach to sculpting the human form was to seek a kind of perfection and to imbue her figures with idealistic features, only simplifying them to give them strength.” 7

PhD from Livingstone College at the age of 70, and received eight honorary degrees from institutions such as the University of North Carolina and Moore College of Art. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art honored her in 1976, President Jimmy Carter honored her and Georgia O’ Keefe in 1979, The Pearl Buck Foundation presented her with its Woman’s Award in 1978, and in 1993, she was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. A nine-foot statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. she completed while in her eighties is on display in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Father used to say, “Now in order to really get ahead, you have to do your job and then some. It’s the then some that gets your salary raised. It’s the then some that’s gonna get you where you need to go or where you want to go.” —Selma Burke

Dr Selma Burke earned countless honors, awards, and achievements throughout her life; she was awarded a 1989 ESSENCE It’s the then some that defines Dr. Selma Award. Honorees are chosen by the Hortense Burke’s art and life. s editors of ESSENCE for demonstrating that with faith, hard work and a focus on achieving goals, success can be reached and obstacles overcome. She earned her 7 Regina Holden Jennings, St James Guide to African American Art, p. 82

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Installation views from the Austin Museum of Art, Selma Burke, Selected Sculpture, 1996. 12 •


Two Centuries of Afro American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976 Rainbow Sign Gallery, Berkeley, CA, 1972 Howard University, Washington DC 1967 The City College of New York, 1967 Carlen Galleries, Philadelphia, 1945 Julian Levy Galleries, NYC, 1945 Clark Atlanta University, 1945 Modernage Gallery, NYC, 1945 American Negro Exposition (1940, Chicago) New York Public Library, NYC, 1967 McMillen Inc. Galleries, NYC, 1941 Delaware Museum High Museum Virginia Union University, Richmond, VA Allentown Museum Rodman House, Doylestown, PA Scaife Museum, Pittsburgh La Galerie, Paris Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC Mercer Tile Museum, Doylestown, PA Minneapolis Museum Brooklyn Museum The Metropolitan Museum of Art Whitney Museum of American Art MoMA Dallas Museum


Atlanta University, ATL Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, FL Gulf Oil Co, Pittsburgh, PA Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, NC Livingstone College Library, Salisbury, NC Mooresville Public Library Museum of Modern Art, Miami, FL National Archives, Washington DC United States Armory, NYC Winston-Salem State University, NC Barnett-Aden Gallery, Wash DC Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Library), NYC DuSable Museum Trenton Museum (NJ) Newark Museum Afro-American Museum, CA

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3 Generations of African American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox, “Quest for Freedom, Identity and Beauty: New Negro Artists Prophet, Savage and Burke”. Leslie King-Hammond, Catalog and essay accompanying the exhibition at the AfroAmerican Historical and Cultural Museum, 1996, p 30-31. Creating Their Own Image, The History of African American Women Artists, Lisa Farrington, 2005.

In Search of Missing Masters: The Lewis Tanner Moore Collection of African American Art, Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia Hidden Heritage, Afro-American Art, 1800-1950 , David Driskell (Bellevue Museum), 1985. Gumbo Ya Ya, Anthology of Contemporary African-American Women Artists, Leslie King-Hammond, 1995.

Forever Free, Art by African-American Women 1862-1980, edited by Arna Alexander Bontemps, 1980.

Two Centuries of Black American Art, David D. Driskell, LACMA, 1976.

A Century of African American Art, The Paul R. Jones Collection, edited by Amalia K. Amaki.

Harlem Renaissance, Art of Black America, Studio Museum in Harlem, Mary Schmidt Campbell, 1987.

The Black 70’s, Floyd B. Barbour, editor. 1970.

The Evolution of Afro-American Artists: 1800-1950, Carroll Greene, Jr. , The City University of New York/Harlem Cultural Council, 1967.

Bearing Witness, Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists,1996. The Sculpture of Dr. Selma Burke, at The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, 1991, Austin, Texas. (Exhibition brochure)

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Front Cover Photo: Peter A. Juley & Son, Repository: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC,, WorldCat Collection: Peter A. Juley & Son Collection Accession number: J0100404

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