Artist Selma Burke: a snapshot biography

Born in 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, Selma Burke began playing with riverbed clay near her home 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.

Black-and-white historical photograph of artist Selma Burke standing next to her sculpture of a bust of Booker T. Washington. She is dressed in a white coat and looks directly at the camera, with her work on a stand beside her. The sculpture is detailed, depicting Booker T. Washington in formal attire.
Selma Burke

But while Selma loved art, she was encouraged by her mother 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.

In New York City, however, 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., and some believe this portrait was used as the foundation for the Roosevelt Dime.

After many years of sculpting and teaching others the art, Selma passed away in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in 1995.


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Photograph is of Selma 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. / Lewis, Samella S. (2003). African American Art and Artists. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520239357 / Selma Burke – Wikipedia

To cite:

“Artist Selma Burke: a snapshot biography.” Historical Snapshots