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Friday, September 1, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Selma Burke, 94, Black Sculptor Whose Profile Of Fdr Graces Dime

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA - Selma Hortense Burke, the sculptor who created the profile of FDR used on the dime, died Tuesday at a nursing home and hospice near Philadelphia. She was 94.

The profile was taken from a bronze plaque she had made for a new federal building in Washington. The plaque, unveiled by President Truman in 1945, was done from sketches made on butcher paper in a 45-minute session with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.

She later sculpted that image into the profile on the dime. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had to approve the work, complained that Miss Burke had made her husband look too young, Miss Burke recalled later. "I replied, `I've not done it for today, but for tomorrow and tomorrow.' "

The plaque, which she made after winning a nationwide competition, made Miss Burke's reputation. But FDR was just one of her many renowned subjects.

She did the bust of Duke Ellington at the Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee; portraits of Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington; the 8-foot bronze statue of Martin Luther King at Marshall Park, Charlotte, N.C.; and sculptures of abolitionist John Brown and President Calvin Coolidge.

"She was the grand dame of African-American artists," Nannette Acker-Clark, director of the Afro-American Museum in Philadelphia, said in 1993. "As a sculptor, her work has had an impact on African-American art in particular and American art in general."

"Dr. Burke was the most amazing person I've ever met," said Judith Langan, an artist in New Hope, Pa., where Miss Burke lived. "Her sculpture gave form to her philosophies - it had grace and substance and depth . . . Her accomplishments as a woman of color were monumental."

It was a monumental distance that Miss Burke traveled from her home in Mooresville, N.C., to Washington, New York and New Hope.

"I have been lucky," Miss Burke told the New York Post in 1945. "People have always appeared to help me at the right moments, but I believe that whoever you are, if you really have something to display, it will be recognized."

When she was 7, Miss Burke attended a one-room, blacks-only school with a roof so leaky that she had to use an umbrella to keep her books from getting wet.

Her early art training was earthy. It began when she was helping her brothers whitewash the family fireplace with clay dug from a riverbed.

"One day, I was mixing the clay and I saw the imprint of my hands," she recalled. "I found that I could make something . . . something that I alone had created."

She earned a doctorate in arts and letters at Livingstone College in 1970.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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