Selma Burke: A Story of Overcoming Adversity And Becoming One of America’s Most Celebrated Sculptors

May 10, 2022 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Figure 1. Selma Burke in her studio. Black and white photographic print. 8 in x 10. Public Domain.

Selma Hortense Burke was a pioneering artist and activist whose work paved the way for a new generation of feminist artists. Burke, who considered herself to be “the people’s sculptor,” was the seventh child of ten, born in Moorseville, North Carolina in 1900. Her artistic career spanned more than six decades and encompassed a wide range of media, including painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Although she would become famous for her bas relief portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt , Burke’s early work focused primarily on the human form where she presented bold, accentuated, and sensual female forms which emphasized the softer side of Black feminity and the Black female body. Inspired by her relationship with her grandmother, and the closeness found between mother and child, her work often featured the universality of this dynamic The Virgin and Child typically represented within Catholic iconography. Her sculptures such as “Uplift” and “Mother and Child,” could be considered thematic cornerstones of her work, signifying her evolution surrounding this powerful dynamic– especially as it relates to Black women. Yet, in all of her works, she pulls you in with her deep sensitivity to the human form and a commitment to representing the beauty and complexity of the female experience.

The Passion of Selma Burke

Selma Burke’s life was full of challenges from the very beginning. Her father, an AME Church Minister, worked on the railroads to supplement their income. When Burke was twelve, her father passed away, leaving her family struggling to make ends meet. During this time, she discovered her love for sculpture, molding riverbed clay between her fingers and feeling the satisfaction of creating something beautiful.

Despite these early hardships, Burke was determined to follow her passion for art. Her mother, however, had other plans for her. She didn’t believe that art could provide a stable career and tried to discourage Burke from pursuing it. But Burke was determined and continued to explore her artistic talents in secret. 

“It was there in 1907 that I discovered me.”

Selma Burke

After attending Winston-Salem State University, Burke graduated from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh in 1924. She married a childhood friend, Durant Woodward, but their happiness was short-lived. Woodward died less than a year later, leaving Burke to pick up the pieces and start over.

With no other options, Burke moved to Harlem to work as a private nurse. Despite the challenges she faced, Burke remained committed to her art and began taking classes at Sarah Lawrence College. During this time, she became involved in the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement and formed a tumultuous relationship with the writer Claude McKay. McKay would destroy her clay models when he didn’t find them up to his standards, causing conflict and tension in their already complicated relationship. 

Photograph of students in a free art class at the Harlem Community Art Center,

 Figure 2. Photograph of students in a free art class at the Harlem Community Art Center, 290 Lenox Avenue, New York City, 1938.
Photograph shows a group of elementary to high-school aged children in a class sponsored by the Federal Art Project.

Burke persevered, however, and continued to work on her art. She began teaching at the Harlem Community Arts Center and later worked for the Works Progress Administration on the New Deal Federal Art Project. Her travels to Europe in the 1930s allowed her to study under acclaimed sculptors Aristide Maillol and Henri Matisse, but the rising Nazi threat in Germany also caused tension and fear.

During World War II, Burke left her studio behind and worked in a factory as a truck driver for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She believed that artists should contribute to the war effort, even if it meant leaving their art behind. Soon after completing her service to the war effort, she refocused her attention on her passions and enrolled in Columbia University, where she received her Master of Fine Arts degree. From there, Burke founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City.

Selma Burke. Identification on verso. Federal Art Project W.P.A.; Photographic Division, Jamaica, NY. 1938. Public Domain.

Despite facing numerous obstacles throughout her life, her achievements were many. She received several honorary doctorate degrees, including one from Livingston College and one from Spelman College. Her contributions to art and education were recognized by Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp, who declared July 29, 1975, Selma Burke Day.

The Wanting of Embrace: Burke’s Mother and Child

Figure 3. Selma Burke, Untitled (Woman and Child), ca. 1950, painted red oak. 3,456 × 5,184 (5.28 MB). Public Domain.

In Burke’s 1950s untitled sculpture Woman and Child she captures the essence of the human experience. Selma Burke’s work is characterized by a powerful interplay between safety and strength, set against nakedness and vulnerability. In her wood sculptures, Burke often utilizes red-painted oak to accentuate what could be interpreted as bruising and scars on her subjects. The figures she portrays are often lost in private moments, with their eyes cast downward as if in contemplation. One such painting depicts an anonymous woman providing a much-needed covering for a child, who reciprocates the embrace by throwing their arm over the woman’s shoulder in a gesture of effortless reciprocity. This exchange of comfort and protection is profoundly moving and elicits a sense of relief and release in the viewer.

Through her deft use of woman-child iconography, Burke conjures an image that is familiar and deeply rooted in her own personal history. Perhaps this embrace, and symbol of deep maternal committment, was one she sought to experience in her own life. Woman Child in particular, juxtaposes the quiet strength of stillness, while using the power of a nurturing embrace to convey a sense of resilience, determination, and protection—which is considered a hallmark of Black motherhood. Burke’s work often incorporates the wood of White Oak trees, due to its historical significance in Black American life. Throughout her work with this material she constantly rededicates her committment to the representations of perseverance defined by her ancestors and repurposes her pain into elegance and beauty.

“Art didn’t start black or white, it just started … There have been too many labels in this world: Negro, Colored, Black, African-American … Why do we label people with everything except Children of God?”

Selma Burke

Burke’s American Dream

In 1979, Burke became one of the first women to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, where she was honored alongside fellow trailblazers with Isabel BishopAlice NeelLouise Nevelson, and Georgia O’Keeffe. She received the award from President Jimmy Carter in a private ceremony in the Oval Office. Burke’s work hearkens to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ iconic poem, “I, Too,” which celebrates the indomitable spirit of African Americans and women in America. Her life was a testament to the power of perseverance, creativity, and a commitment to social justice. Despite facing numerous obstacles throughout her life, she remained steadfast in her pursuit of art and advocacy, and left an indelible mark on American culture.

Her papers and archive are held in the collection of Spelman College.