In recalling her childhood fascination with sculpture, Selma Burke remembered: “One day, I was mixing the clay and I saw the imprint of my hands. I found that I could make something . . . something that I alone had created.” From the riverbeds of North Carolina to the urban environments of New York and Philadelphia, Burke remained a life-long devotee to the three-dimensional form, both as an artist and art educator. Favoring materials of wood and limestone, Burke crafted her sculpture from the materials’ intrinsic shape, releasing the subject from its confinement.
Incorporating the wood’s whorls and knots into folds of fabric or suggestions of body parts, Burke masterfully leveraged the organic imperfections in Woman Holding Sheaf of Wheat. Created during the height of her career, the sculpture portrays a young woman standing in contrapposto, a stance that accentuates the sensuous curves of her body. Her slightly exaggerated hands, neck, and ear of wheat offer a stylistic interpretation of the human figure and nature’s bounty. The sculpture’s enigmatic, symmetrical face and pupil-less eyes mask any expression, allowing the figure to stand in for every woman and no woman in particular. Her stoicism and resolute composure offers a positive depiction of black womanhood—a sharp contrast to the negative stereotypes so prevalent in the period’s visual culture.
The artist’s best-known work can be found in most American pockets or coin purses: the dime. Burke designed a bronze profile portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was selected as the winning entry in a national competition. When she unveiled the sculpture to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1945, the First Lady declared that the artist had made her husband “too young.” Aware that the presidential image would be circulated in perpetuity, Burke replied: “I’ve not done it for today, but for tomorrow and tomorrow.” The United States Mint adapted her composition for the coin, but credited the work to John Sinnock, the mint’s former chief engraver. For the rest of her life, Burke would contest her unrecognized work.
Despite Burke’s early aptitude for art, her mother encouraged her to find a more financially stable and socially respectable career. Accordingly, the North Carolina native pursued nursing at St. Agnes School of Nursing in Raleigh and later accepted a position as a private attendant to a wealthy heiress in Philadelphia in 1929. Nursing enabled Burke to survive the Great Depression relatively unscathed and underwrote her artistic aspirations. As a first step in that quest, she relocated to New York City in 1935. Arriving at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Burke immersed herself in the vibrant arts community and diligently honed her artistic skills. These efforts were rewarded with a scholarship to attend Columbia University; subsequent awards from the prestigious Rosenwald and Boehler Foundations funded study abroad in Vienna and Paris. After obtaining an MFA from Columbia in 1941, Burke’s sculpture was included in significant exhibitions at important venues, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and several notable commercial galleries in New York.
While encouraged by this success, Burke’s truer ambition took a longer view, and she devoted her energies to making the arts more accessible to future generations, establishing eponymous art schools in New York and Pittsburgh. For Burke, art had the potential to transcend racial boundaries: “Art didn’t start black or white, it just started. . . . Why do we label people with everything except ‘children of God’?”