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Selma Burke - Harlem Renaissance Sculptor

Selma Burke 

Dec. 31, 1900 - 1995

While Monet, Degas, and Matisse, among others, created an artistic revolution abroad, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the United States, too, was having its own, known as the Harlem Renaissance. Citizens fleeing a scarred, post-Reconstruction Era south in search of work and a new start, combined with the factory demands of a world at war, and the lack of immigrant labor to fulfill that demand, caused a flood of predominantly African American emigrants to flock to the New York neighborhood of Harlem. It was a group of talented, educated and skilled people who Harlem attracted. Much like their European artistic counterparts, the members of the Harlem Renaissance inspired each other in the fields of music, literature, and art. The Movement found its roots within the struggles of their ancestors and the beauty of their rich culture.

For sculptor, Selma Burke, it would be a circuitous route to Harlem. Born in Mooresville, North Carolina, December 31, 1900, Selma Burke had followed her mother's advice to find a suitable and stable career as a nurse, despite her interest in the arts. Having attended Winston-Salem University and then St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in 1924, Selma married and prepared for a life as a wife and nurse. Her husband, however, died within a year of their marriage, and needing to support herself, Selma migrated north to Harlem where she found work as a private nurse.

Upon her arrival in 1935, however, a whole new world awaited her, and she quickly left nursing for a life in the arts. Joining the Harlem Renaissance, she found a home, friends, and peers who supported and encouraged her work as a budding sculptor. Her education was rich, working under famed Harlem Renaissance sculptor, Augusta Savage, and studying abroad in both Vienna and Paris. It was in the latter that she met Henri Matisse, who praised Selma's work. From her time in Europe, Ms. Burke created one of her most significant pieces, Frau Keller, a German-Jew, in response to the growing Nazi threat she witnessed abroad.

Once home, she attended Columbia University where she attained an MFA in 1941. Just eight years later, she married architect, Herman Kobbe. The two moved to the artist community of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Though Herman passed away in 1955, Selma stayed in New Hope until her own passing in 1995 at the age of 94.

During her life, Selma created both full sculptures and busts in wood, brass, alabaster, and limestone. Her work captured the human emotions of the common person and portrayed family relationships. She also created busts of many famous people including Booker T. Washington, Duke Ellington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was her bas-relief of Franklin D. Roosevelt which was John R. Sinnock's inspiration for the image on the reverse of the dime.

Selma Burke is considered one of the leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work can be found in major cities around the country including Milwaukee, Pittsburg, New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Her contributions earned her a number of honorary doctorate degrees and made her a great inspiration for the generations of artists in her wake.

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