Fallen Through The Cracks – Black Artists in History: Selma Burke
#FallenThroughTheCracks – Selma Hortense Burke was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina. She was a sculptor and a member of the Harlem Renaissance movement. She described herself as “a people’s sculptor” and created many pieces of public art, often portraits of prominent African-American figures. She worked in a wide variety of media including wood, brass, alabaster, and limestone as she examined human emotion and familial relationships in expressionistic form.
Burke traveled to Europe twice in the 1930s, first on a Rosenwald fellowship to study sculpture in Vienna in 1933-34 and in 1936 where she met Henri Matisse, who praised her work. Burke began teaching for the Harlem Community Arts Center under the leadership of sculptor Augusta Savage. She would go on to work for the Works Progress Administration on the New Deal Federal Art Project. In 1936, one of her works, a bust of Booker T. Washington was given to Frederick Douglass High School in Manhattan. Burke won a graduate school scholarship to Columbia University, where she would receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1941.
Burke’s best-known work is a portrait honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms. In 1943, she competed in a national contest to win a commission for the sculpture, created from sketches made during a 45-minute sitting with Roosevelt at the White House. Burke was a member of the first group of women – along with Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Isabel Bishop – to receive lifetime achievement awards from the Women’s Caucus for Art, in 1979.
Back in Mooresville, black children were banned from use of the public library. Burke donated a bust of a local doctor on the condition that the ban was removed. The town accepted. Selma Burke died at the age of 94 on August 29, 1995, in New Hope, Pennsylvania. (Text paraphrased from Wikipedia and Smithsonian).
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