Selma’s cousin Lillian Bredell-Williams was kind enough to create this profile for a true American Master that you may have never heard of! And she created an image that you may have in your pocket right now! Read on….
Selma Hortense Burke, An African American Sculptor, Illustrator, Painter, and Educator:
One of ten children, born to a Methodist Minister, Neal and his wife, Mary Jackson Burke, December 31, 1900.
At an early age, Selma developed her love for sculpting by molding soft clay on the riverbanks into small figures.
Her formal education was received from Winston-Salem University in North Carolina. She graduated in 1924, as a Registered Nurse from the St. Agnes Training School for nurses in Raleigh, North Carolina and the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, Pa. Relocating to New York City, New York shortly afterward, Selma worked as a private nurse and began focusing on her artistic creations.
Briefly married to Jamaican writer and poet, Claude McKay, Selma associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
Working with the Works Progress Administration and the Harlem Artist’s Guild, she taught art appreciation and education to New York youth. During the 1930’s, Selma traveled across Europe, studying under French Sculptor, Aristide Maillol and Michael Povolney of Vienna, Austria. As her works became known, fellowships ensued.
Receiving a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation in 1935 and the Boehler Foundation in 1936, made these opportunities possible. Selma’s work was interrupted by World War l l.
Returning to the United States in 1940, she opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City, while attending Columbia University. She served as a sculptor’s model as well, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts Degree.
In 1942 Selma joined the U.S. Navy, making her one of the first African American women to enroll. While in the Navy, Selma was commissioned to do a bronze relief portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1943 she won the Fine Arts Commission Prize for the District of Columbia. The portrait Selma created was adapted by the U.S. Mint in 1945 and is currently the image on the United States dimes, which we carry in our pockets.
Selma’s work was supported by friend, Margo Einstein, daughter of Dr. Albert Einstein.
In 1947, working with the Bucks County, Pa. Chamber of Commerce, the Bucks County Sculpture Show was created. In 1949, Selma made her home in the area, exhibiting works at the Philadelphia, Pa.’s Pyramid Club.
She established schools of art while teaching at Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges. In 1968, the Selma Burke Art Center was founded in Pittsburgh, Pa. July 20, 1975 was adopted as Selma Burke Day by former Governor Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania.
In 1977, the Bucks County Sculpture Show was founded, sponsored by the Lomax family of Chalfont, Pa.
In 1979, Selma was recognized by President Jimmy Carter for her contributions to African American History.
In 1987, she was awarded the Pearl S. Buck Foundation’s Woman’s Award, for professional distinction and devotion to family and humanity.
Some of Selma Burke’s most notable works of sculpture include:
Temptation: in 1938, Bronze: of notable Bucks County author, Pearl S. Buck in 1949,
Despair: in 1951, Fallen Angel: in 1958, Mother and Child: in 1968, and Together: in 1975.
Some of these works are on display at the Vision Center in Bensalem, Bucks County, Pa.
A nine-foot statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which Selma completed while in her 80’s, is on display in Marshall Park, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her works are defined as Classic Realism, in wood, stone, and bronze.
Selma received numerous awards and three honorary Doctorate Degrees in her lifetime. She lived in an old farmhouse near New Hope, Pa., where she sculpted until her death in 1995, at the age of 94 years.
Throughout her many accomplishments, this dear lady was legally blind. Many of her works are displayed at the Winston-Salem University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They serve to remind viewers of a great legacy to art history. This gifted woman was my inspiration. My She-ro, my Cousin, Dr. Selma Hortense Burke.
Joyfully submitted by, Lillian Bredell-Williams
Retired Nurse, part-time Nursing Arts Instructor, Ordained Minister, Artist and dabbling Writer:
Thanks for the article, we must always be reminded. I knew of Hortense Burke as a young women, we must remember with pride to keep those stories alive; where ever we live in this world Janice McLeod