Jan. 17, 1976: Sculptor Selma Burke
Selma Burke, one of the 20th century’s most prolific artists and sculptors, went to the White House in 1943 to draw President Franklin Roosevelt. The semi-classical image she created showed the nation’s leader with his head held high, prominent cheekbones and a taut jaw.
The likeness was intended for a new Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, D.C. but was later adopted for the dime. First, however, all of the Roosevelts had to approve it.
Eleanor Roosevelt dropped by Burke’s New York studio on Jan. 10, 1945. While Mrs. Roosevelt liked the drawing, she felt the artist had made her husband look too young. But Ms. Burke replied that she wanted the presidential profile to be timeless.
Born into poverty in Mooresville, North Carolina, Ms. Burke dug her fingers into riverbank clay as child. She was one of 10 children born to an Episcopal minister and a mother who did clerical work and lived to be 103. The family moved to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.
Ms. Burke arrived in Harlem for that neighborhood’s famous cultural renaissance during the 1920s. She earned her living as a nurse but continued to study art during the Depression.
She married Claude McKay, a poet and one of the older Harlem Renaissance figures. The couple’s social circle included the witty Dorothy Parker, novelist Sinclair Lewis, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, poet Langston Hughes, singer Ethel Waters and artist Max Eastman.
The couple had a stormy marriage and later divorced.
In the 1930s, Ms. Burke traveled to Europe, where, along with photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, she studied drawing with Henri Matisse in Paris.
After World War II broke out, Ms. Burke joined the U.S. Navy, driving a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. While on the job, she injured three discs in her back and was hospitalized. Doctors told her she would not walk again.
Regardless, she entered the nationwide competition to draw President Roosevelt and won.
Her other work included likenesses of Booker T. Washington, abolitionist John Brown and President Calvin Coolidge. Her sculpture also can be seen at Hill House in the city’s Hill District.
Ms. Burke taught art in Pittsburgh for 17 years and operated her Selma Burke Art Center in East Liberty from 1972 to 1981.
In 1979, Ms. Burke was 78 when she was honored for her contributions to visual arts at the White House by President Jimmy Carter. He praised her as a “shining beacon” for aspiring artists.
Ms. Burke retired to New Hope, Pa., where she died at age 94 in 1995.
— Marylynne Pitz