Laurel Burch, Artist, Dies at 61
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: September 20, 2007
Laurel Burch, who as a 61-year-old single mother found metal in junkyards to hammer into jewelry to support her two children, and went on to win distinction as a fanciful designer and success as a savvy businesswoman, died on Sept. 13 at her home in Novato, Calif. She was 61.
Rick Sara, her husband, said yesterday that the cause was complications of osteopetrosis, a painful bone disease she had her entire life, suffering more than 100 bone fractures as a result.
Ms. Burch translated her visions of “fantastic felines,” mythical animals, colorful blossoms, butterflies, moons, hearts and imagined people, among myriad other imaginings, into colorful enamel jewelry, paintings, T-shirts, scarves, ceramics and tote bags, which were sold by thousands of stores. Forbes magazine in 1985 said she had created a niche between high-volume, low-price costume jewelry and high-priced designer lines like Paloma Picasso’s for Tiffany.
She told Women’s Wear Daily in 1986 that she wanted to become “one of the design influences in the world.” She also loved being the chief executive of the company named after her and paid close attention to the details of how department stores marketed her products.
But her passion was art, and even as she churned out hundreds of products, her husband said that 90 percent of her designs derived from her original paintings.
A woman who lived in pain, she said her goal was to pass on her joy. Ms. Burch described herself this way on her Web site:
“I live within the vivid colors of my imagination ... soaring with rainbow feathered birds, racing the desert winds on horseback, wrapped in ancient tribal jewels, dancing with mythical tigers in steamy jungles.”
Laurel Anne Harte was born in the San Fernando Valley of California on Dec. 31, 1945. She grew up in a broken home; her father married three times, her mother twice. She said in an interview with The Marin Independent Journal in 1995 that as a girl she felt emotionally unstable and untalented. She found some measure of peace in playing the guitar, dancing and drawing.
She left home at 14 with only a paper bag of clothing, and she cleaned houses and cared for children in exchange for room and board. She dropped out of high school and became a vagabond, “going around singing and playing the guitar,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1986. Her husband said that she never took an art class.
She married a jazz musician, Robert Burch, when she was 19 and was the divorced mother of a son and daughter by the time she was 20. When she was pregnant with her second child, her son Jay, she was arrested for stealing a piece of meat from a supermarket, The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2000; someone had told her she should be eating more protein.
In addition to receiving welfare payments, she supported the children by making jewelry at her kitchen table in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and selling it on the street from tackle boxes. Some local stores began stocking her creations, and Forbes reported that an Indian businessman, Shashi Singapuri, took samples to China. The Chinese were intrigued enough to invite her to China in 1971.
There she discovered cloisonné, a kind of enamel work, which has sectioned-off brightly colored areas of enamel that form a larger pattern. She made a dozen paintings and had the designs made into earrings. Mr. Singapuri put up some money, and manufacturing began. The brightly colorful jewelry was the beginning of her signature look, with cloisonné patterns showing up in many other media, including fabric.
She went on to work on cast metals and wood and to include spinoff products on paper, porcelain and fabric.
She pointedly ignored fashion trends, saying her goal was a look that appealed to shy people as well as bold, eccentric ones. As countless kitchen shelves attest, thousands upon thousands of cat lovers treasure her feline coffee mugs.
After splitting with Mr. Singapuri, she started Laurel Burch Inc. in 1979, with full control as president and chief designer. By the mid-1990s she found herself devoting 80 percent of her time and energy to business matters. In order to return to art, she licensed her designs to a dozen companies that make and distribute them around the world.
Her second marriage, to Jack Holton, ended in divorce. In addition to her current husband, she is survived by her daughter, Aarin; her son, Jay; and two granddaughters.
In Ms. Burch’s last years her bone disease worsened. She learned to paint left-handed after breaking her right arm in 2005. Still, she told The Independent Journal that if she had to choose between good health and her artistic gifts, she would choose her art — “in a second, in a heartbeat.”
In her last artworks she sometimes included words. One quoted an American Indian proverb: “The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.”