Selma Burke was born in Mooresville, NC, in 1900. When she was only five years old, she would walk along the river bank watching over her parent’s herd of dairy cows. Often, instead of watching the cows, she would kneel on the bank and mold tiny little figures out of the slippery red clay. So began the career of one of the greatest sculptors of our time.
Selma attended Winston Salem University and the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses because her mother though she should have a marketable vocation. But after moving to Harlem in New York City to work as a nurse, she became associated with the Harlem Renaissance and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a sculptor. She studied art in New York, Paris, and Vienna and earned a Masters of Fine Art from Columbia University, a Ph.D. from Livingston College in North Carolina, and many honorary doctorates.
Almost every American is familiar with her work for she was chosen to sculpt the head of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt honoring the Four Freedoms. Completed in 1944, the 3.5-by-2.5-foot plaque was unveiled in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, DC, where it still hangs today. The plaque served as John R. Sinnock’s inspiration for his obverse design on the Roosevelt dime.
In 1947 she bought a small house in Solebury where she lived for 40 years. One summer five of her students from Solebury School rebuilt a barn on her property to give her more room to work.
Selma was committed to teaching art to others, and to that end she established the Selma Burke Art School in New York City and the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, PA. She founded the annual Bucks County Sculpture Show in 1977, which continues to this day. In 1991 she donated a sculpture entitled Peace to the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce to honor her friend Barbara Howard.
Over her long life she was honored with many prestigious awards, including:
- Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts, Women’s Caucus for Art, 1979
- Buck’s County Council on the Arts Citation, 1979
- Pearl S. Buck Foundation Woman’s Award for professional distinction and devotion to humanity, 1987
- The Essence Magazine Award, 1989
- Candace Award for extraordinary achievement by a Black woman, 1993
At the age of 80, in 1980, Selma produced her last monumental work, a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. The statue stands in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Dr. Selma Burke passed away in 1995.