Selma Burke And The Dime

By | May 2, 2022

test article image
Standing beside the plaque of President Roosevelt she executed is sculptress Selma Burke, as the plaque was put on view for the first time at the Modernage Art Gallery in New York in 1945. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

If you're still carrying filthy physical money around for some reason, you can see the initials of John Sinnock, the official engraver of President Roosevelt's image, on the dime. By some accounts, however, the profile of Roosevelt was sculpted not by Sinnock but a Harlem Renaissance master named Selma Burke who never got the credit she deserved.

Selma Burke

Born in North Carolina in 1900, Selma Burke demonstrated artistic talent at an early age when she used clay from a nearby riverbed to sculpt animals. She trained to be a registered nurse but never gave up her passion for art, fascinated especially by the African artifacts that her missionary uncles brought back from their travels. After a stint as a private nurse and the loss of her husband, Burke studied art at Sarah Lawrence College and then in Paris, but after the threat of World War II forced her to return to the United States, she earned a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University. By 1943, Burke was known as one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance movement in New York City, even opening the Selma Burke School of Sculpture.

test article image
Selma Burke taking part in the presentation ceremonies of her plaster portrait of Samuel Huntington at the commencement exercises at Samuel Huntington Junior High School, 1938. (Archives of American Art/Wikimedia Commons)

Burke And Roosevelt

That year, she won an art competition hosted by the Commission of Fine Arts and the honor of creating a sculpture of President Roosevelt to be hung in the new Recorder of Deeds Building in the nation's capital. At first, she used photographs of the president as reference, but after finding the materials too limiting, she wrote a request to the White House for a live modeling session. To her surprise, Roosevelt actually agreed, and she spent 45 minutes sketching the president while they discussed their childhoods. He found their session so pleasant that he invited her back the next day, and several months later, the First Lady visited Burke at home to see how the sculpture was going.