“One of the most notable sculptors of the twentieth century” according to the National Women’s History Museum, the celebrated artist, educator, and self-described “people’s sculptor” Selma Hortense Burke lived and worked at 88 East 10th Street from 1944 until at least 1949, according to New York City directories. While here, Burke completed “The Four Freedoms,” a 2 ½ by 3 ½ foot relief plaque commemorating President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was used as a model for his image on the U.S. dime coin. Burke is celebrated for her lifelong commitment to the art of sculpture and to art education; for her highly regarded portrayals of towering African American figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, and Mary McLeod Bethune; for her significance in the Harlem Renaissance; for her unabashed drawing upon African models for her art; and for achieving success as a Black woman sculptor at a time when few female or Black artists, and even fewer Black female artists, were able to achieve any success or recognition in the United States.
Burke was born in Mooresville, North Carolina on December 31, 1900. She was surrounded by sculptural objects growing up, which had come from her father’s and uncles’ travels in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. As reported in Lisa E. Farrington’s book Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists, in 1970 Burke stated: “I have known African art all of my life…At a time when this sculpture was misunderstood and laughed at, my family had the attitude that these were beautiful objects.”
After obtaining a degree as a registered nurse, Burke moved to New York City in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. She then received a Boehler Foundation Fellowship in the 1930s, which allowed her to study in Europe with sculptor Aristide Maillol and painter Henri Matisse. Upon her return to New York City, Burke taught sculpture at the Work Progress Administration-sponsored Harlem Community Art Center, one of the most influential art centers to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, she met and started a relationship with the renowned Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay. Burke then received a scholarship to study art at Columbia University, from which she graduated in 1941.
Shortly thereafter, Burke joined a competition to create a profile portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1943, her portrait won, and Burke was commissioned to produce a relief plaque of the President. Burke had two sittings to sketch the President in person, and completed the plaque while living at 88 East 10th Street. In March 1945, as Burke remained at 88 East 10th Street, Eleanor Roosevelt visited her studio to approve the final design. When the First Lady commented on President Roosevelt’s youthful appearance, Farrington cites that Burke responded: “I have not done it for today, but for tomorrow and tomorrow. Five hundred years from now America and all the world will want to look at our president, not as he was for the few months before he died, but as we saw him for most of the time he was with us — strong, so full of life.”
The plaque was dedicated following Roosevelt’s death, on September 24, 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. “The Four Freedoms” was unveiled by Frederick Weaver, Frederick Douglass’ grandson, and President Harry S. Truman spoke at the event. While U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock is credited with Roosevelt’s image on the U.S. dime coin, Burke’s relief plaque is widely accepted as the model and original version. Throughout her life, Burke herself insisted that her design was plagiarized on the dime coin. Significantly, Burke also established the Selma Burke School of Sculpture while living at 88 East 10th Street in 1946, as recorded in an article published that year in Headlines and Pictures (Chicago, Illinois). At this time, the school was located at 67 West 3rd Street (demolished).
After marrying architect Herman Kobbe In 1949, Burke moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and opened the Selma Burke Art Center, which operated from 1968 until 1981, in Pittsburgh. While here, Burke also worked for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Throughout these years, Burke completed a number of sculptural projects, including Mother and Child (1968) and Big Mama (1972), which focused on the experience of Black women. Some of her other well-known pieces include Torso (1937), Temptation (c. 1938), Untitled (Woman and Child) (c. 1950, now found in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum), Despair (1951), Fallen Angel (1958), and Together (1975, now found in the collection of the Hill House Association). Her final monumental work, an eight-foot tall sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., which stands in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina, was dedicated in 1980. Over the course of her career Burke also completed portraits of Booker T. Washington, Duke Ellington, Mary McLeod Bethune (now found in the collection of the Woodmere Art Museum), and other renowned Black figures. Her work is now found in the collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among other museums and institutions.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter awarded Burke the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement award. She also received an Essence Magazine award, and a number of honorary doctorates. Furthermore, Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp created Selma Burke Day on July 20, 1975. After a long and profoundly significant career, Burke passed away on August 29, 1995 at the age of 94.
Selma Hortense Burke’s presence at 88 East 10th Street only adds to and multiplies that extraordinary legacy of this building and the surrounding area. Following Burke’s time here, this building went on to become the home and studio of artist Willem de Kooning. At that time, it was both the center of the Tenth Street artist enclave that defined mid-twentieth century American art, and the place where de Kooning would complete some of his most important work. And 88 East 10th Street is just one of many sites we have identified as part of the rich women’s history, African American history, and artists’ history of the neighborhood south of Union Square.
Check out our South of Union Square Women’s History Tour, African American History Tour, and Artists’ Tour to learn more about the extraordinary people and places we have documented in this historic neighborhood. Here you will find a labor organization with a pioneering birth control clinic at 80 Fifth Avenue, a trailblazing women’s peace organization at 70 Fifth Avenue, the New York City Woman Suffrage League at 10 East 14th Street, and much more.
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