Artist Selma Burke: a snapshot biography

Portrait of artist Selma Burke

Selma Burke began playing with clay around the age of seven. And with that experience, she discovered a love of making sculptures. “It was there in 1907 that I discovered me,” she said, looking back.

While Selma loved art, her mother encouraged her to pursue a financially stable career. So Selma studied nursing and took a job as a private nurse in New York City in the late 1920s.

But in New York City, Selma found much inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance scene. She found a community of artists and began making art a more significant part of life.

To improve her skills, Selma began taking art classes at Sarah Lawrence College. She then traveled to Europe for training and projects. In 1941, Selma earned an MFA from Columbia. And the year prior, while still a student herself, she opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture.

Selma dedicated herself to teaching and making art. She would go on to create sculptures of numerous famous figures, including Duke Ellington and Martin Luther King Jr. However, her most famous work was a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That portrait hangs today at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C.

“Artist Selma Burke: a snapshot biography” sources: Photograph of Selma Burke is with her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington, taken circa 1935 / Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project; Pinchos Horn, photographer / Smithsonian Archives of American Art / Wikimedia Commons / Brandman, Mariana. “Selma Burke.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/selma-burke / Lewis, Samella S. (2003). African American Art and Artists. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520239357 / Selma Burke Wikipedia