Saturday, March 1, 2014

Selma Burke - Got a Dime?

If you've got a dime in your pocket then you are familiar with this women’s work as a sculptress. But there was a lot more to Selma Burke than just the plague of Franklin Roosevelt which she created in 1945 for another project.  (More about that dime later.) I first became acquainted with Ms. Burke’s contributions to the world of art and education when I entered the old Mooresville Town Library back in the late 1990’s. There was a plaque of her - a portrait on wood – which still hangs there today, right where the old and new libraries are joined together.

Ms. Burke (who shares the same last name as my paternal great-grand parents) was born in Mooresville, North Carolina on the last day of the year 1900. Her father was a farmer and church Minister, while her mother did everything else.

Young Selma was interested in art at a very early age, but her mother was a pragmatic woman and wanted her to learn something which would lead to secure employment. Accordingly, she became a Nurse, graduating from St, Agnes Training School in Raleigh in 1924. From there she moved to Harlem, which was still in the throes of the great Harlem Renaissance. What a change this must have been for a farm girl from Mooresville, North Carolina! It was while in New York that she began her first job as a Nurse.

The Harlem Arts Community Center was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, and it was there that Ms. Burke was able to meet with some of artists who would influence her to take that great leap; from the security of nursing to taking a chance on following her dreams. Cautiously, she kept the day job, and sculpted at night.

Her early work was good enough for her to attain 2 grants; The Rosenwald  in 1935, and the Boehler in 1936. She also received money from the Foundation Grants program in the late 1930’s which enabled her to study abroad. Places like Vienna and Paris were now not just a dream; they were her new reality. This period of her life and studies earned her a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 1941.

Contrary to what many believe the bust of Franklin Roosevelt was never a bust at all; rather it started out as a plague done while the President was still alive and in office. It was part of a project to honor the “Four Freedoms”, which was a cornerstone of FDR’s post war vision of guaranteeing peace and security foe the world.

The plague was completed in early 1945. On March 10th Eleanor Roosevelt visited Selma Burke in her studio to view the finished work. She echoed what many people have opined since the Roosevelt Dime was issued in 1946. She thought that Ms. Burke had portrayed him as “too young.” Ms. Burke told the First Lady, "I’ve not done it for today, but for tomorrow and tomorrow."  It measured 3.5’ by 2.5’ and was unveiled in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington. It still resides there today. Now the story gets a bit tricky.

John R. Sinnock was the Chief Engraver at the Bureau of Engraving. In 1946, the year after Roosevelt had died in office, he was asked to design a new dime to honor the fallen President. It’s obvious, in my opinion, that he merely lifted the profile from the original work by Ms. Burke, using it as the obverse on the new dime and placing his initials; JS; below the work. Even when confronted with the similarity in the design of the two depictions he vehemently denied it.

Ms. Burke paid it no mind at all, continuing to focus on teaching art to others. She established schools in New York and Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh school is fondly remembered as having contributed greatly to that cities cultural renaissance. The seeds first planted in Harlem were finally bearing fruit. She was also a Public School teacher there for 17 years.

She spent most of her final years at her studio in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. It was there, while working on a project to honor Rosa Parks that she died. It was August 29, 1995. Her biggest contribution is probably having devoted her life to furthering the education of others while instilling within them a love of art.

There is one quote from Ms. Burke which sums up her philosophy in a nutshell; “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?"

No comments:

Post a Comment