Laurel Burch: Joy Despite Pain


You might know American artist, designer, and businesswoman Laurel Burch from her jewel-colored designs: Burch’s bold, joyful renditions of “fantastic felines,” mythical animals, and imagined people have appeared on everything from mugs to enamel jewelry and tote bags. Born Laurel Anne Harte in California’s San Fernando Valley, Burch was a self-taught artist. At 14 years old, she left a chaotic home life with only a paper bag of clothing to her name; out in the world, she cleaned houses and cared for children in exchange for room and board. When she was 19, she married jazz musician Robert Burch; within a few years, she was divorced and Solo Mom to a son and daughter.

To support her kids, Burch began making jewelry at her kitchen table in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It was the 1960s, in the thick of the counterculture movement, but Burch’s focus was on survival and providing for her family. “For me, it wasn’t about putting flowers in my hair,” she told sfgate.com in 2000. “I was entrenched in trying to take care of my children when I had no skills, and trying to sell my work.” At first, she sold her jewelry on the street from tackle boxes; eventually, local stores began stocking her creations. According to Forbes, an Indian businessman, Shashi Singapuri, spiked an interest and took samples to China. The Chinese were interested enough in turn to invite her to visit in 1971. It was in China that Burch discovered the glassy beauty of cloisonné. Inspired, she created 12 paintings and had the designs translated into enamel earrings. The colorful jewelry was the beginning of her trademark look. By 1979, she had started Laurel Burch Inc., with full control as president and chief designer.

As a Solo Mom, Burch demonstrated to her kids the importance of recognizing one’s own creative worth. If homework time was sometimes hit or miss, and recognizable tenets of domesticity were turned on their head (frying pans were used for making jewelry, rather than breakfast), the kids learned to embrace their own creative passions. Her son, Jay, was publishing a magazine at age 12, and her daughter, Aarin, grew up to run her own film production company. And if dinner was from a box (Rice-A-Roni was part of the regular dinner rotation), it was routinely served in an atmosphere of color and creativity: the table was often set with candles and flowers. “The emphasis was on things of beauty more than what we couldn’t afford,” Jay told sfgate.com.

For her entire life, Burch suffered from osteopetrosis, a rare bone disease in which bones are abnormally dense and prone to fractures. When her daughter was born, she had to wear a brace to keep her pelvis from splintering. “I was scared to death, 18, on welfare,” Burch said. “[Aarin’s] father wasn’t there. We were alone. That’s how we came into the world together . . . [My daughter and I] knew from the beginning we’ve got to do this together.”

Burch’s take on a collaborative parent-child bond involved trust: no helicopter parent, she would tell her kids to be home before dark, then do what she needed to do, confident that they would follow through. Creativity was a constant. “She did not make it part of her responsibility to see if we did our homework . . . but she made art supplies available to us and always made sure we had a quiet space for that,” Jay remembered.

Before Burch’s death in 2007, the artist and her daughter began to collaborate on a film project documenting Burch’s life and art. The film drew mother and daughter even closer. “I’m realizing that she was always reaching inside to keep us together,” Aarin told sfgate.com. “As a daughter, I didn’t really see the vulnerable part.”

Though she lived in constant physical pain—during her lifetime, Burch suffered from approximately 100 bone fractures—the artist was determined to pass on a sense of joy. In 2000, Jay said of his mother: “She finds more ways to have fun and celebrate life and love and happiness.” And as Burch herself noted in a 30 Minutes feature, “I want to share things in the world that lift people. I think that’s what my jewelry and my art and all the things that I do is about. I want it to convey hopefulness and brightness and goodness.”


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