There are so many pleasing, artistic designs around the world that tend to capture many’s attention. The American dime is one such example, carefully portrayed and detailed. However, the workmanship behind the design seems to have been forgotten.
Selma Burke and the American dime story is not the first one that involves another party stealing credit at others’ expense. Right from childhood, Selma demonstrated her love for art. It is quite sad that she succumbed without receiving proper recognition for her design. Meanwhile, with the changing times, authors, artists, poets are accredited for their works.
Who is Selma Burke?
Selma Burke was the woman behind the artistry of the Roosevelt image on the U.S. Dime. She was born on December 31st, 1900, in a small town in America. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Burke, had ten children, out of which she was the seventh born. Her dad worked at the railway service while her mother was a housewife.
At a tender age, Selma developed an interest in artistic skills. She would often draw or carve objects out of used paper and cardboard. Since her family was not well off, she and her siblings attended a poorly segregated school. Selma spent most of her free time playing with clay and carving objects.
Nevertheless, her parents were not pleased with her newfound passion. During those days, arts was not a profession for African Americans. Neither was it a profession that put food on the table. Meanwhile, her maternal grandmother, who was also a painter, encouraged the young girl to pursue her dreams.
Since Selma was smart in school, her grades were outstanding. And that, of course, prompted her parents to take a profession in nursing in the future. She went to Winston Salem University, where she met William Arial. Later, William became Selma’s patron. William would often coach Selma and support her during hard times, especially when her community criticized her.
Due to her parents’ constant pressure, Selma decided to enroll in the St. Agnes School of Nursing. In 1924, she graduated from the nursing institution and a year later moved to Philadephia in search of a job. She used part of the money she received working as a nurse to further her art skills.
Selma was married to her long-term friend, Durant Woodward. Unfortunately, their marriage only lasted eleven months after Woodward succumbed due to blood poisoning. His demise troubled Selma for some time before being able to move on. Later, Selma got a private nursing job in New York, which she quickly accepted.
While in New York, Selma would go to work and partly pursue arts. When her employer learned of her love for art, he encouraged her to pursue it. When Selma’s employer passed away, she decides to take a modeling job to sustain her livelihood. During the same period, Selma met with Claude Mckay, a member of the Harlem Renaissance.
Since both she and Claude had a liking for arts, they grew fond of each other, boomed, and were in a relationship. They dated for some time before parting ways. It is alleged that Selma divorced him because he was abusive.
During World War II, Selma continued with her work. She would produce several outstanding sculptures, out of which some would be taken to many gallery shows. During most of the exhibitions, she made money.
In 1946, Selma founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture and the Burke Art Centre in Pittsburg. She encouraged young African American youths to take up courses in arts and sculpture. The schools were inspired by the discouragements she underwent growing up as a young African American. She succeeded in encouraging many young artists to nature their dreams.
Through Burke’s art school, many black Americans came together and got opportunities to learn about art. Selma’s widespread popularity has also been of great help to the black children in Moorseville. That’s because, initially, none of the black children could access the public library. However, Selma helped uplift the ban when she donated a local doctor’s bust on the condition that the ban is removed.
In 1949, Selma tied knots with an architect, Herman Kobbe, and they moved to an artists colony in the state of Pennsylvania. However, Kobbe succumbed in 1955, and Burke continued to live in Pennsylvania until she met with her maker. Sources report that Selma died at the age of 95 in 1995.
The Art Competition
In 1943, Selma took part in a national art competition and won. The competition, which the Fine Arts Commission sponsored in Washington, D.C, aimed to create a profile portrait for the then American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Enthusiastic about her victory, Selma wrote a letter to the President; she looked forward to meeting him in person. Luckily, her letter earned her an invitation to the white house, where she was asked to resketch the portrait.
She took 45 minutes, producing various designs of the portrait. One of the sketches was a 3.4 by a 2.5-foot plague of President Roosevelt. The plague symbolized freedom from fear, want, etc. To date, the plague still hangs at the Recorder Deeds Building, where President Truman revealed it. Many African American communities celebrated Selma for her extraordinary skill. However, not much was said about her work because of the surging race and segregation during those days.
John R. Sinnock Steals Selma’s Design
In 1946, controversies arose when the chief engraver of the American Mint, John R.Sinnock, redesigned the Roosevelt dime with his initials at the back. Many were alarmed that the dime was a replica of the original version, only that it had a few changes. Black communities did not hesitate to condemn the unauthorized behavior, especially since Selma didn’t even receive proper art recognition. The new Roosevelt dime looked exactly like the original one, except for the hair and some minor details.
Sinnock never even did the honors of stating that Selma was the artist behind the original piece. Nevertheless, a lot has changed with time. To date, the National Archives and the Record Administration of the Roosevelt Library in New York have come out to acknowledge that the dime was the original work of Selma Burke.
During Burke’s lifetime, she received several honorary doctorate degrees. She was also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. In 1970 and 1988, the Livingston College and the Spelman college awarded her. Alternatively, the Pennsylvania governor declared on July 29th, 1975, Selma Burke day to recognize the artists’ contributions to art and education. Her papers and archive are in the collection of Spelman College.
Together with Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keefe, and Isabel Bishop, Burke was the first group of women to receive lifetime achievement awards from the Women’s Caucus for Art. In 1979, Selma was gifted an award by the then President, Jimmy Carter, in a private ceremony in the Oval Office. Besides, she also received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1983 and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation Women’s Award in 1987.
Mrs. Burke is a great reminder of the talents African Americans possessed at the time when the Europeans looked down on them. Her determination and commitment towards her dream show that anything is possible. Hence we learn that needless of the situation, we should never compromise our dreams. Selma came from a humble background, yet that did not stop her from working hard. She survived the challenges that came her way and eventually succeeded. Her strength is portrayed in her greatest achievements.
Because she was extremely smart in class, she managed to take on a prestigious course, nursing. She managed to graduate and even qualified for a job in a private hospital. Also, we get to know that despite her parents discouraging her from taking arts, she did not compromise her dream and pursued it in the future.
Through her craftsmanship, she got to interact with President Roosevelt and even got the honors of crafting him. She presented a great profile portrait of the President, leading to her widespread popularity and love. Because of her fame and growth, she had the opportunity to help black children in her community, encouraging them to join art and work hard. As a result, many African American children joined her art school and started learning how to craft.
Today, many black Americans have come up and are in pursuit of the once white-dominated careers. They are even participating in leadership positions that initially used to be occupied by whites only. The likes of Barrack Obama, former two-term U.S. president, is an exceptional example. His victory brought more hope to the blacks living in the diaspora, making them believe that anything was possible.
Many Sculpturing institutions have come up with time in memory of Selma. And many children have learned how to craft. Some of the amazing works exhibited in showrooms are works of current generations that have evolved from Selma’s craftsmanship.
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