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Dr. Selma Burke was a world-renowned sculptor and painter whose bust of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appears on the dime. One of ten children of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister in rural North Carolina, Burke first learned to sculpt while molding clay from a nearby river. Encouraged by her mother to pursue a practical career, Burke trained as a certified nurse. While working as a nurse in New York, she became involved in the Harlem Renaissance and served as a sculptor's model, all the while preparing to become an artist. In 1941, she received an M.F.A. at Columbia University and later studied art in Europe. Primarily a sculptor, Burke crafted figures of rugged beauty from wood, bronze, or stone, hewn in a style of almost classical realism. She sculpted several celebrities, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pearl S. Buck. The bronze statue of Buck, Uplift, was dedicated at the Pearl S. Buck House in 1991. She also painted in watercolor, oil, and acrylics. A committed educator, the bearer of two earned and eight honorary doctorates, Burke established two art schools while teaching at Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges. She also taught at the Solebury School and several other institutions.
Selma Burke. Photograph by Jack Rosen. James A. Michener Art Museum. Purchased with funds provided by Anne & Joseph Gardocki.
Education and Training
R.N., St. Agnes School of Nursing, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1924
Studied at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1928
Studied art history, sculpture, and painting, Columbia University, New York, New York, 1931-1939
Studied in Europe, 1938
M.F.A. and Ed.D., Columbia University, New York, New York, 1941
Ph.D., Livingstone College, Arts and Letters, Salisbury, North Carolina, 1970
Teachers and Influences
Burke studied the figure in Paris, France with Aristide Maillol in 1938 and with Henri Matisse.
Connection to Bucks County
Selma Burke lived in Bucks County from 1947 until her death in 1995. She resided in an old farm house in Solebury Township, near New Hope. Burke initially moved to New Hope to find "a place where there is a stream and where there is a small house, because I am God's worst housekeeper and I don't want a house that I'll have to keep instead of doing my sculpture."
Selma Burke was actively involved in the Bucks County community. She served on the steering committee for the Bucks County Art Alliance in 1977, founding the Bucks County Sculpture Show during that same year. In 1979, the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce named Burke Ambassador of Bucks County.
Major Solo Exhibitions
The Sculpture of Dr. Selma Burke, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1990-1991
Major Group Exhibitions
Two-hundred years of Black Artists in America, High Museum, Atlanta, GA, 1977
Sculpture Show, Bucks County Art Center, Rodman House, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1984
Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1987
An Evolving Legacy: Twenty Years of Collecting at the James A. Michener Art Museum, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2009-2010
Bust of Duke Ellington, Wisconsin Performing Arts Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1976
Pearl S. Buck House, Hilltown, Pennsylvania, 1991
Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., Marshall Park, Charlotte, North Carolina
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Armory, New York, New York
Teaching and Professional Appointments
Founder, Selma Burke School of Sculpture, New York, New York, 1942
Robert McClelan's New Hope School of Art, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 1951
Art Department Head, Solebury School, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 1967
Founder, Selma Burke Art Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1968
Sculptor-Coordinator, Division of Education, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1967-1976
She taught at many schools, including Livingstone College and Swarthmore College.