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Laurel Burch

San Francisco, California

Life

The number of moving stories about the giving, receiving and sharing of Laurel Burch art are a reflection not only of the woman herself, but of all the collectors who are drawn by her spirit as well as her art. Many of them know and have been deeply touched by her life story. At the age of 14, Laurel Burch left her tumultuous home life in Southern California with nothing more than a paper bag of clothing and the rare bone disease, osteopetrosis, with which she was born. Cooking, cleaning, and babysitting for her room and board, she embarked on a search for some stable ground to support her fragile body. Homes changed as often as the years, and at the age of 19, she migrated north, with hair straight to her waist, skirts to her ankles, and a baby daughter on her back. With no job, no money, and no dreams, Laurel Burch reached the Golden Gate of San Francisco.

It was 1965 and the Haight-Ashbury district of the city was filled with strange and colorful people. You could be yourself, do your own thing, and wear flowers in your hair. Lost souls found a home, and Laurel was among them.
Part of Laurel’s search for connectedness was evidenced in the jewelry she began to make for herself and wear – old coins, bones, and beads arranged into earrings and necklaces. Wearing them gave her a sense of belonging, if only to an exotic world of her own making. Fascinated by her otherworldly adornments, people on the street began to ask her where she got them, and this artistic validation gave Laurel the sense of self-worth she had long been missing. Her creations became bridges to friendships and patrons.

Still challenged by the frequency of broken bones caused by her illness, at the age of 23, Laurel gave birth to her second child. Passion and perseverance eventually prevailed, and by the 1970’s, a small business blossomed. Hiring friends, neighbors, and people off the street, Laurel created original pieces of jewelry and taught others how to duplicate them. She sold her designs to shopkeepers up and down the coast of California and came back home when her boxes and baskets were empty.

In 1972, she was invited to the People’s Republic of China where she explored the possibility of manufacturing her jewelry designs in cloisonné. For Laurel, the day the artisans unveiled the first twelve pairs of her earrings was an epiphany. The idea that these little treasures from her personal world could be translated so beautifully, and that she could now share the images in her head with so many more people, felt tremendously exciting and seemed like another door opening in her life. Her designs started appearing in Vogue and Bazaar. Soon, she branched out from jewelry to handbags, ceramics and apparel. Always wanting to keep a balance between the manufactured pieces and original hand-crafted works, Laurel continued to produce one-of-a-kind art objects in her studio, and began making trips to Bali, where she worked with traditional woodcarvers to create masks and statues from her fantastical designs.

By the mid-1980’s, the former flower child was the CEO of a multi-million dollar business. Forbes ran a profile of her. Every Macy’s store in the country had an entire Laurel Burch section. The Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco named her “Entrepreneur of the Year.”

Laurel Burch was always incredibly prolific. Even during her long periods of convalescence, when she was forced to paint from a bed or wheelchair, she seldom put her brushes down. The Laurel Burch design archive holds many thousands of images. Chronicle Books published a coffee table book of her cat designs alone. The sheer variety of her work is a great attraction to her collectors.

Laurel performed hundreds of speaking engagements around the country. For obvious reasons, the subject of healing was always close to her heart, and many of her talks dealt with the use of art and creativity in the curative process. “Being physically vulnerable is, in a lot of ways, a tremendous advantage in terms of human wisdom. My bone disease was my gift,” she said. Laurel always lent her talents to a long list of charitable causes, designing book covers, posters, and murals around the issues that were of special concern to her. She received numerous awards, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from the United Nations, and the Living Legacy Award from the Women’s International Center, an award given to “women of excellence who are benefiting mankind.”

“My paintings are the most intimate portrayals of all that is precious to me, and my greatest joy is to offer them in forms that enhance and brighten the everyday lives of my collectors and kindred spirits around the world.”

– Laurel Burch
1945-2007

Decades later, the universe of Laurel Burch continues to bring enjoyment to friends, collectors, and kindred spirits around the world, creating a sense that however distant we are in time and location, and however distinct our experiences, we are all from the same tribe.