Selma Burke, Renowned for FDR Portrait on the Dime

Burke in her studio. Image from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.On December 31, 1900, renowned sculptor Selma Burke was born in Mooresville.

Fascinated by African ritual objects and other sculptural pieces, Burke made sculpture by shaping white clay from her parents’ farm as a child. After being educated at what is now Winston-Salem State University and trained as a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital Nursing School in Raleigh, Burke moved to New York City to work as a private nurse.

Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance movement emerging around her, Burke began to focus on art. In 1938, she studied with Aristide Maillol and Henri Matisse in Europe after earning both Rosenwald and Boehler Foundation Fellowships.

After completing an M.F.A. at Columbia University in 1941, Burke began to teach art, first at the Harlem Community Art Center and later at schools she founded in New York and Pittsburgh.

The plaque of FDR by Burke on which the dime is based.

Burke’s most famous work, a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that now graces the dime, came about from a competition to sculpt the president for the Recorder of Deeds Office in Washington, D.C. After feeling like she couldn’t capture the likeness of Roosevelt from photographs, Burke wrote the White House and, to her surprise, was granted a sitting with the president.

Eleanor Roosevelt later visited Burke’s studio to view the finished plaque. Though officially credited to U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock, scholars believe that Sinnock borrowed Burke’s original design.

Burke’s last monumental work, a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. that graces Marshall Park in Charlotte, was completed in 1980.

She died in New Hope, Pa. in 1995.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts, nature and culture, visit DNCR online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.